A democracy award was given to the ruling Islāmic Ennahda Party in Tunisia’s National Assembly today by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), a Washington D.C. non-profit devoted to promoting democracy and democratic institutions in the Muslim world. The Ennahda Party leader, Mr. Sahbi Atig, received the prestigious award, the 2014 Muslim Democrat of the Year, for his party’s efforts in helping to build democratic institutions in Tunisia after the Jasmine Spring revolts that toppled the long-time President Ben-Ali in 2010.
The Jasmine Spring revolts in Tunisia that began in December of 2010 are widely regarded as the catalyst of the Arab Spring revolts that swept across North Africa and the Middle East in the ensuing months and years, and which eventually led to the civil war in Syria that is still raging today. The revolts originally sparked over joblessness and limited opportunities for young Tunisians but discontent soon spread to all levels of Tunisian society as the government brutally cracked down on protesters. After Ben-Ali was ousted in January of 2011, the unity government of Tunisia lifted the ban on the popular Islāmic Ennahda Party so it could take part in elections later in the year. In October of 2011, the once banned Ennahda Party captured a plurality 41 percent of the vote in national elections monitored by the international community.
A 2012 study by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University praised the efforts of the Ennahda Party in their commitment to key features of democratic reform, including the separation of powers, national participation in elections and office holding by politicians across political divides. At the same time, concerns were raised over the Ennahda Party’s policies on restricting free speech, women’s rights and religious liberty. The party has successfully navigated through a number of competing secular and extremist religious interests and has been able to build coalitions across political lines, a fact which was recognized at the democracy award ceremony.
The ruling Ennahda Party’s self-proclaimed status as moderate was tested in recent years by both secularists on the left and Islamists on the right, including the powerful extremist Salafist movement which advocates the rule of Sharia in Tunisia. In a victory for the secularists, in 2011, the Ennahda Party reaffirmed the country’s Republican foundation when calls were made by Salafists to make Sharia the national law. In a victory for Islamists, Ennahda passed a blasphemy law in 2012 that criminalized insults against Islam and representations of Allah and Muhammad. The Ennahda Party contained representatives from both sides of each debate and was still able to maintain cohesion despite political division.
Ennahda’s political cohesion was instrumental in the drafting of the Tunisian constitution which passed in January of this year. As a condition of the new constitution, Ennahda agreed to step down from power in order for the Tunisian National Assembly to form the new government out of national elections later in the year. Despite these victories for democracy in Tunisia, concerns still linger among women’s rights groups and free speech advocates about the country’s continued commitment to a secular society.
Of all the ruling parties that emerged after the revolts of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, Tunisia’s Ennahda Party seems to have been alone in its ability to move forward democratic processes even despite extremist Islamist opposition and political division. By giving the democracy award to such an instrumental ruling Islamic party in Tunisia, CSID hopes it will inspire other Muslim nations with similar democratic aspirations.
By Steve Killings