Before January 14, 2011, al-Nahda was the main opposition group in Tunisia. No one, even its most severe critics, could question the fact that it was the most persecuted group in terms of the number of political prisoners, exiles, and disappearances. Its politics aside, al-Nahda did not shy away from challenging both the regime of Ben Ali and that of Bourguiba.
For these reasons, some people with whom I talked in Tunisia contended that the win should be seen as a token of recognition on the part of the Tunisian voters for al-Nahda’s struggles and sacrifices, not as a validation of its ideology. Be that as it may, that theory will be put to the test a year from now when the party competes again in parliamentarian and presidential elections. In order to understand al-Nahda’s background, we ought to examine the background and views of key figures who won seats in the constituency assembly.
Many commentators did not pay attention to Tunisia’s Nahda movement before the recent elections. So it is not surprising that when western journalists and political commentators began to notice it, their commentaries lacked context and depth. For example, some of those who noticed that 42 of the 49 women elected to the constituency assembly are members of the Islamist party have theorized that the inclusion of women is a ploy to allay fear that the movement would scale back women’s rights. That may be partly true. Those familiar with the history of the movement, however, know that women have always played a leading role. The presence of Souad Abderrahim on top al-Nahda’s list in Tunis 2 is a good reminder of the movement’s past and a telling indicator of its future.
Women like Abderrahim have played crucial role in the leadership of al-Nahda since its formative years when it was called the Islamic Trend Movement. Then, and in campuses around the country, many young women, sometimes unveiled and wearing leather jackets and jeans, would debate other students – especially those from the communist party – defending the views of the movement with enthusiasm and zeal. The movement’s embrace of women as leaders earned it many critics among conservative religious movements such as the Tahrir Party and the Salafi movements who reject all participation in democratic processes.
As a college student, Souad Abderrahim was more of a sympathizer than an activist. She graduated from the fac de pharmacie in Tunis in 1992 and was fairly active in the Union Générale Tunisienne des Etudiants (UGTE), which was controlled by Islamists. When she was officially invited to join al-Nahda party, she accepted without hesitation. She brought energy and flare to her new role as non-veiled woman leading a party suspected of espousing anti-women agenda. She contended that her presence is both reassurance and evidence.
During the last days of the campaign and addressing the doubts about her party’s commitment to social justice and women’s rights, Abderrahim declared that “Nahda has no problem with assigning women to powerful positions, and that women, [in the eyes of the movement], are the mothers, the sisters, the wives, and the daughters who stood by the party members and supported them while they were being tortured and imprisoned.”
She emphasized that “Nahda is very open, and by nominating an independent woman, the party is trying to reassure Tunisians that they are committed to preserving women’s rights and freedoms.” She added that women should not be afraid of al-Nahda. “The proof is that they nominated me as a head of a list,” she argued.
During the last days of the campaign for the constituency assembly, she appeared outside the party headquarters in the Montplaisir district and answered questions from the national and international press. She did so while embracing her public role as the face of a political movement that is committed to civil society. Wearing a blue suit, sunglasses and a smile for the cameras, one would not have guessed that she was a Tunisian politician running on a religious party’s list. She seemed at ease, talking to people, making media appearances and engaging the crowds at the last rally held at the Ben Arus stadium. Abderrahim confidently answered questions that ended up addressing the same issue: what role will women play if al-Nahda wins the elections? Her answers were invariably the same, “Our aim is the freedom of all women. The veil is a religious and a personal choice.”
“al-Nahda is a modern political party,” Abderrahim contended, “inspired by Islam’s best values that are then applied to everyday life. People should not fear us, because our party is ready to work for all Tunisians.” She recognized that she would likely have a major role to play in the future government, but played down expectations saying that it was too soon to be sure of any electoral victories. What is certain, she says, is that, “If the party considers me worthy, I will accept the position offered to me. If the coalition government asks me, and if political results allow it, then why not? Should this not happen, the results achieved in these days remain a historic moment for our country.”
Addressing skeptics, Souad Abderrahim provided context and reassurances, “Tunisia is emerging from a dictatorship, but now the people need to understand that our party wishes to represent everyone… We do not question the status of women and the role they played in the revolution. Tunisian women are well-educated, brilliant, well-read. I myself am committed, as a person and not just as a politician, to achieving the objectives of women, increasing their involvement in institutions, in political and economic life, and in public life in general.”
Now that her party secured a comfortable majority in the constituency assembly, she may be called upon once more to lead, perhaps as the president of this elected body in which her party hold a majority or as a diplomat representing the country abroad. Either way, Tunisia, because of the new political faces like Abderrahim’s, is on a new course, unparalleled and unprecedented in the Arab world. Her party is unable to govern on its own. Her party’s leaders must find reliable partners among the other lists that won significant number of seats and by doing so, a new era or pluralism and peaceful transfer of power might be ushered in. Importantly, the leaders of al-Nahda ought to remember the fact that more than 58% of the voters did not endorse it. Therefore, they ought to understand that they must govern by consensus and they must respect the dignity of all Tunisians, not just their supporters.