Tunisia’s Minorities Should Not Fear Ennahda Victory ... For Now

Now that the victors of Tunisia’s October 23rd elections have been announced, the country’s Constituent Assembly (CA) has begun taking shape. With the blue ink still fading from Tunisian voters’ index fingers and eyes fixed on the composition of Tunisia’s first independent governing body, speculation is rife – especially since the moderate Islamist party Ennahda has secured approximately 40% of the Assembly’s seats. After decades of official secularism – imposed by Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba – understandably, the election of a clearly Islamist party has raised the alarm of national and international audiences, but the party thus far has taken appropriate steps to assuage these anxieties, and it appears that if Ennahda puts its words into action, such fears are for the moment unfounded.

Tunisia’s religious minorities are perhaps the individuals with the most to lose from the election of a party with Islamic tendencies and programs. Christians, Jews, and atheists currently comprise approximately 1% of Tunisia’s population. With isolated exceptions, they have enjoyed a harmonious existence with the country’s 99% Muslim population, yet treatment of these minorities under the new Constitution that the Assembly will write, as well as under the temporary government that it will appoint, remains uncertain.

In response to allegations of Ennahda’s inability to fulfill the perhaps paradoxical task of protecting minority rights while maintaining a truly Islamic character, party leaders denied neither the party’s Islamic leanings, nor Tunisia’s Islamic character. Instead, they asserted Ennahda’s ability to respect all religions and creeds, and emphasized the party’s compatibility with a democratic society. During a personal pre-elections interview with Rached Ghannouchi on October 19, the Ennahda party leader stated, “Until now, Tunisian society has not been a society of minorities; it is a Muslim society whose religious minorities are respected.”

Post-elections, the party continued to maintain this stance. On November 2, Ghannouchi met with Head of Tunisia’s Jewish community, Roger Bismuth, a meeting from which both individuals emerged “visibly satisfied.”  Moreover, following the meeting, Hamadi Jebali – Secretary General of Ennahda and the party’s proposed candidate for Tunisia’s future prime minister – seized the opportunity to emphasize the party’s “brotherhood with Tunisia’s Jewish and Christian communities.”

It is still too early in the game to determine whether these statements are mere political rhetoric or serious plans to be implemented. Yet, Ennahda’s attempts to uphold minority rights thus far – at least symbolically – is a positive sign. What's more, the party does not comprise a majority in the Assembly on its own; a combination of almost entirely secular parties constitute the remaining 59% of the Assembly, meaning that any plans proposed by Ennahda will not necessarily pass through the Assembly unopposed.

Moreover, as the country’s first democratically elected body, all members of the CA have high expectations to meet, and judging from the recent media hype and international speculation, it appears that no party will receive closer scrutiny than Ennahda. As the wave of protests that erupted after the revelation of election results proves, Tunisians will take to the streets if any of the party’s activities displease them. Tunisians did not overthrow one dictator for another, and Ennahda is no exception.

Ennahda or no Ennahda, Tunisia’s current political landscape is by no means final or non-negotiable. It is true that the current Assembly members will write the new Constitution, however, new elections will be held in a year, in which parties will be held accountable for their performance since these first elections, and Tunisians will have the opportunity to reevaluate their country’s path. If recent history has proven anything, it is that the country’s leaders are not as decisive as its inhabitants, and a power shift is certainly foreseeable if citizens are unsatisfied with their leaders’ performance.

Photo Credit: Emily Parker