Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Islamism and Pluralism

by Isobel Coleman
December 13, 2011

Tunisia's new President Moncef Marzouki (left) shakes hands with interim President Fouad Mebazaa as he leaves the Carthage Palace in Tunis December 13, 2011 (Zoubeir Souissi/Courtesy Reuters).

Six weeks after Al Nahda swept elections for the national constituent assembly, a former human rights activist and leader of the liberal party, Congress for the Republic (CPR), Mancef Marzouki, was elected by the body as the interim president of Tunisia. The fourth president since Tunisia’s founding, Marzouki’s election is a remarkable step in the evolution of the uprising in Tunisia, though critics note that the power structure in the interim government will favor the prime minister, who will most certainly be a member of Al Nahda. Marzouki has 21 days to form a government, and then must turn to addressing the myriad challenges that Tunisia faces: rebuilding its tattered economy, finding jobs for its 800,000 unemployed citizens (over a quarter of whom have college degrees), and redefining the social contract by improving governance and curbing corruption. So far, Al Nahda, which will have a large hand in shaping Tunisia’s response to these challenges, has espoused pragmatism.

As I have written previously, Tunisia has always been an outlier in the region, but its preliminary successes through this transition are notable (90 percent of registered voters cast a ballot), and important for the trajectory of the uprisings in its North African neighbors. As Islamist parties are included in formal political life for the first time in Tunisia and Egypt, a competition between different ideas and visions of political Islam is unfolding. The outcome of this competition will determine the future of the relationship between states and their citizens in the region, and it is far from clear what vision will win out.

On the one hand, Ghannouchi, in his first visit to the United States in twenty years at the end of November, spoke about pluralism, women’s rights, and creating an environment conducive to international investment. He met discretely with the Israelis, during his visit as well. At a talk at CFR’s Washington, DC offices, Ghannouchi explained Al Nahda’s success at the polls, saying, “the message that [Al Nahda] sent to the people is that it does not interfere in their personal religiosity… because the state or the government has no business in people’s personal choices.” This emphasis on individual autonomy and pluralism is welcome; however, it will need to be followed through on with effective and responsible policies.

The other side of this conversation is best represented by the Salafist parties in Egypt, who won 20 percent of parliament seats in the first of three rounds of voting. In many cases, their fiercest competition came from Muslim Brotherhood candidates running with the Freedom and Justice Party, who the Salafists cast as both condescending and insincere. It should be noted that the Salafists (Al Nour is the largest party that falls under this loose affiliation of ultra-conservative leaders) faired much more poorly in runoff elections, in part, perhaps, because their extreme views gained greater media attention with their initial success. These views include calls for a total ban on alcohol consumption, restrictions on beach tourism, and the implementation of harsh punishments for criminals. Salafist leader, Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat, (who lost his bid for a seat in parliament), said that the novels of Egypt’s most revered writer, Noble Prize winning Naguib Mahfouz,  incited “prostitution and atheism.” On Saudi television today, the former deputy Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mahmoud Ashour, called these statements by Islamic extremists, “ignorant and lacking [in] responsibility.”

The most important aspect of the debate unfolding within Islamism will be over the protection of minority rights. Whether believers of all religions are free to practice their faiths, whether secularists are equally free to express their world view, and whether women’s rights are protected will define the difference between a moderate Islamism compatible with democracy and religious authoritarianism. Interestingly, Ghannouchi, urged the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to form a governing coalition in parliament with secular parties, rather than aligning with the Salafist movements. He warned that ignoring influential minorities, whether secular or Christian, is not a sustainable or responsible policy. Let’s hope that Islamists movements across the region follow Ghannouchi’s advice.

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