Ennahda, one of the most influential political parties in the Arab world and a major force in Tunisia’s emergence as a democracy, recently announced a historic transition. Ennahda has moved beyond its origins as an Islamist party and has fully embraced a new identity as a party of Muslim democrats. The organization, which I co-founded in the 1980s, is no longer both a political party and a social movement. It has ended all of its cultural and religious activities and now focuses only on politics.

Ennahda’s evolution mirrors Tunisia’s broader social and political trajectory. The party first emerged as an Islamist movement in response to repression at the hands of a secularist, authoritarian regime that denied citizens religious freedom and the rights of free expression and association. For decades, Tunisian dictators shut down all political dis­course in the country, forcing movements with political aims to operate exclusively as social and cultural organizations. But the revolution of 2010–11 brought an end to authoritarian rule and opened up space for open, free, and fair political competition.

Tunisia’s new constitution, which Ennahda members of parliament helped draft and which was ratified in 2014, enshrines democracy and protects political and religious freedoms. Under the new constitution, the rights of Tunisians to worship freely, express their convictions and beliefs, and embrace an Arab Muslim identity are guaranteed, and so Ennahda no longer needs to focus its energies on fighting for such protections. Therefore, the party no longer accepts the label of “Islamism”—a concept that has been disfigured in recent years by radical extremists—as a description of its approach. In this new democratic stage of Tunisian history, the question is no longer one of secularism versus religion: the state no longer imposes secularism through repression, and so there is no longer a need for Ennahda or any other actor to defend or protect religion as a core part of its political activity.

Of course, as Muslims, the values of Islam still guide our actions. However, we no longer consider the old ideological debates about the Islamization or secularization of society to be necessary or even relevant. Today, Tunisians are less concerned about the role of religion than about building a governance system that is democratic and inclusive and that meets their aspirations for a better life. As the junior partner in Tunisia’s coalition government, Ennahda aims to find solutions to matters of concern to all of the country’s citizens and residents.

Ennahda’s evolution is a result of 35 years of constant self-evaluation and more than two years of intense introspection and discussion at the grass-roots level. At an Ennahda Party congress held in May, more than 80 percent of the delegates voted in favor of this formal shift, which represents not so much a sea change as a ratification of long-held beliefs. Our values were already aligned with democratic ideals, and our core convictions have not changed. What has changed, rather, is the environment in which we operate. Tunisia is finally a democracy rather than a dictatorship; that means that Ennahda can finally be a political party focusing on its practical agenda and economic vision rather than a social movement fighting against repression and dictator­ship. As the entire Middle East grapples with instability and violence—often complicated by conflicts over the proper relationship between religion and politics—Ennahda’s evolution should serve as evidence that Islam is indeed compatible with democracy and that Islamic move­ments can play a vital, constructive role in fostering successful democratic transitions.


Abdelfattah Mourou and I established the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI), which later became Ennahda, in the 1970s. We were both graduates of Ez-Zitouna, the first Islamic university in the world, which was founded in 737 and has long fostered a vision of Islam as dynamic and responsive to the changing needs of society. Our approach was shaped by our contact with a variety of reformist Islamic thinkers. Early on, we were influenced by thinkers in Egypt and Syria linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the movement’s Egyptian founder, Hasan al-Banna, and Mustafa al-Sibai, the leader of its Syrian branch. But as the MTI developed, we increasingly drew inspiration from thinkers in the Maghreb region, such as the Algerian philosopher Malek Bennabi and Ez-Zitouna University’s own Mohamed Tahar Ben Achour, one of the fathers of the rationalistic approach to Koranic exegesis, which emphasizes the importance of maqasid al-sharia: the objectives, or ends, of Islamic law.

At the time, Tunisia was experiencing increasing social and political unrest due to widespread dissatisfaction with the authoritarian regime of President Habib Bourguiba and its crackdown on civil and political liberties, as well as with the slow pace of economic growth, the spread of corruption, and the persistence of social inequality. Discontent boiled over in a series of strikes between 1976 and 1978 that culminated in a general strike on January 26, 1978—a day that came to be known in Tunisia as Black Thursday, when the regime killed dozens of protesters, wounded hundreds more, and arrested more than 1,000 people on charges of sedition.

In light of a growing consensus about the need for democratic reforms, the MTI brought together Tunisians who opposed the Bourguiba regime and felt excluded from the political system, especially owing to the state’s repression of any expression of religiosity, whether in public or private. MTI members set up discussion groups, published journals, and organized students on university campuses.

In April 1981, the Bourguiba regime consented to the registration of other political parties. The MTI submitted a request to form a party committed to democracy, political pluralism, the peaceful sharing and alternation of power, free and fair elections as the sole source of political legitimacy, the protection of moderate religious scholar­ship, and the pro­motion of a form of modern­ization that would be in harmony with Tunisia’s values and cultural heritage. But the application was ignored by authorities.

Faced with rising calls for reform, the regime instead expanded its crackdown, arresting around 500 MTI members, myself included. Between 1981 and 1984, I was imprisoned along with many of my colleagues. Shortly after our release, many of us were rearrested, accused of inciting violence and “seeking to change the nature of the state.” Many Ennahda members were sentenced to life in prison after sham trials, as the regime deepened its descent into repression and despotism.

The rise to power of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who deposed Bourguiba in a 1987 coup d’état, seemed to signal a potential political opening. The following year, Ben Ali granted an amnesty to all political prisoners and announced the beginning of a new era of multiparty democracy. The MTI again applied for recognition as a poli­tical party, changing its name to Hizb Ennahda (the Renaissance Party). How­ever, the application was again ignored, and the hoped-for opening soon proved to be a mirage, as the Ben Ali regime reverted to the repressive tactics of the Bourguiba era. After the 1989 national elections, in which independent candidates linked to Ennahda won 13 percent of the overall vote and, according to some sources, as much as 30 percent in some major urban areas, the regime moved to crush the party. Tens of thousands of members were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, blacklisted from employment and educational opportunities, and subjected to police harassment. Many others, including me, were forced into exile.

For the next two decades, Tunisia languished under repression, and Ennahda struggled to survive as a banned underground movement. A turning point finally came in December 2010, when a young Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a local government office to protest the harassment he had suffered at the hands of officials. Bouazizi’s action captured the public imagination, and in less than a month, massive protests around the country had forced Ben Ali to flee and had sparked a series of revolts across the Arab world. Ennahda members participated in the protests alongside other Tunisians, but not under the party banner, partly to avoid giving the regime an excuse to paint the demonstrations as the work of an opposition group seeking to take power.

In the country’s first free and fair elections, in October 2011, Ennahda’s grass-roots networks and track record of opposing the dicta­torship helped it win the largest share of the vote, by a wide margin. Seeking a national unity government, Ennahda entered into a pio­neering coalition with two secular parties, setting an important precedent in contemporary Arab politics.

In Tunisia’s postrevolutionary era, when tensions have threatened to overwhelm the country’s fragile democratic structures, Ennahda has pushed for compromise and reconciliation rather than exclusion or revenge. During negotiations over a new constitution, Ennahda’s parliamentarians made a series of crucial concessions, consenting to a mixed presidential-parliamentary system (Ennahda had originally called for an exclusively parliamentary system) and agreeing that the constitution would not cite sharia as one of the sources of legislation. As a result of Ennahda’s willingness to compromise and work within the system, the new constitution enshrines democratic mechanisms, the rule of law, and a full range of religious, civil, political, social, economic, cultural, and environmental rights.

In 2013, violent Salafi extremists carried out a series of attacks and political assassinations, setting off a period of instability and protest. Seeking to tar Ennahda by falsely associating the party with these crimes, a number of parliamentarians suspended their participation in the drafting of the constitution. In response, Ennahda and its coalition partners sought to forge a compromise rather than force the document through in the midst of turmoil. To preserve the legitimacy of the process, the Ennahda-led government did something never before seen in the region: it willingly stepped down and handed over power to a neutral, technocratic government. Our priority was not to remain in control but to ensure that the National Constituent Assembly, the supreme representative body, could complete the work of drafting a constitution that would establish the political foundations of a democratic Tunisia.

The Ennahda-led government did something never before seen in the region: it willingly stepped down.

Following elections in 2014, Ennahda gracefully conceded its loss—even before the official results were announced—to Nidaa Tounes, a center-right party founded in 2012. Ever since, Ennahda has worked with Nidaa Tounes as the junior partner in a coalition government. Although the two parties do not see eye to eye on every issue, the coalition has held steady, and the combination of a well-constructed constitution and political cooperation has produced the right conditions for Ennahda to take the next step in its journey toward Muslim democracy.


At its tenth party congress, in May, Ennahda announced a series of changes that formalized its decision to focus exclusively on politics and to leave behind social, educational, cultural, and religious activities. In recent years, the party has gradually abandoned those pursuits, recognizing that they should be the purview of independent civil society organizations and not of the party or any entity related to it. The motion to enact this change stipulated, among other things, that the party’s cadres can no longer preach in mosques and cannot take leadership positions in civil society groups, such as religious or charitable associations.

Our objective is to separate the political and religious fields. We believe that no political party can or should claim to represent religion and that the religious sphere should be managed by independent and neutral institutions. Put simply, religion should be nonpartisan. We want the mosque to be a space for people to come together, not a site of division. Imams should not hold positions in any political party and should be trained as specialists in their field in order to gain the skills and credibility required of religious leaders; currently, only seven percent of Tunisian imams have undergone such training.

The party congress also approved a comprehensive strategy to overcome the major challenges Tunisia faces, focusing on consolidating constitutional procedures, pursuing transitional justice, reforming state institutions, enacting economic reforms to spur growth, creating a multidimensional approach to the fight against terrorism, and promoting good governance in religious institutions.

Ennahda is now best understood not as an Islamist movement but as a party of Muslim democrats. We seek to create solutions to the day-to-day problems that Tunisians face rather than preach about the hereafter. To be clear, the principles of Islam have always inspired Ennahda, and our values will continue to guide us. But it is no longer necessary for Ennahda (or any other party) to struggle for religious freedoms: under the new constitution, all Tunisians enjoy the same rights, whether they are believers, agnostics, or atheists. The separation of religion and politics will prevent officials from using faith-based appeals to manipulate the public. It will also restore the independence of religious institutions: religion will no longer be hostage to politics, as it was before the revolution, when the state interfered in and repressed religious activities.

This separation will also help better equip Tunisia to combat extremism. When religion was repressed and religious institutions forcefully closed and restricted for decades, Tunisian youth were left with no reference point for mainstream, moderate Islamic thought; many succumbed to distorted interpretations of Islam that they encountered on the Internet. Confronting violent extremism requires an understanding of the true teachings of Islam, which reject black-and-white views and allow for interpretations that accommodate the needs of modern life. The genuine separation of mosque and state and the effective governance of religious institutions will facilitate better religious education and reintroduce moderate Islamic thinking to Tunisia.


Tunisia has made significant political progress over the last five years. To consolidate these gains, the government must prioritize social and economic development. It must go beyond democratic institution building and carry out economic reforms that will meet the urgent need for jobs and growth. To this end, Ennahda has called for a comprehensive national economic dialogue and a participatory approach to reforms based on a vision of “compassionate capitalism”—an approach that balances the freedom of enterprise with the ideals of social justice and equal opportunity.

To boost growth, the government needs to pave the way for the resumption of production in several strategic sectors, such as the phosphate industry, which has slowed down since the revolution due to disagreements between labor unions and producers over pay and working conditions. Ennahda also strongly supports reforms to the banking sector that will make it easier for firms and individuals to get access to financing. These reforms will bring much of the informal economy into the mainstream. The party has also successfully pushed for increases in government assistance to small busi­nesses and farmers. In addition, the government must diversify Tunisia’s trading relations and increase Tunisia’s exports to neighboring countries by opening up new opportunities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and advancing the ongoing negotiations over a free-trade agreement with the EU.

Creating a culture of entrepreneurship is particularly critical for Tunisia’s success. Tunisians have grown accustomed to thinking of the state as the country’s main employer, and corruption under the former regime placed many barriers in the way of would-be entrepreneurs. Ennahda wants to encourage a shift away from this dependence, which has historically allowed the state to monopolize resources and distribute them in an opaque and clientelistic manner. Ennahda supports the government’s ongoing efforts to encourage entrepreneurship among the younger generations; the minister of vocational training and employ­ment, the Ennahda member Zied Ladhari, has introduced ambitious and much-needed reforms, launching a new program to train more than 600,000 unemployed Tunisians, renovating job-training centers, and creating a national authority for career guidance.

Ennahda also backs reforms that will make it easier to establish public-private partnerships and to start new businesses. The Ennahda-led government of 2011–14 introduced a new law governing such part­nerships, which has recently been adopted. And a new program proposed by Ladhari would promote new businesses by creating mentoring programs for start-ups and by supporting entrepreneurs through training, flexible funding systems, and a one-stop shop for administrative procedures, to reduce bureaucracy.

Economic development cannot progress, however, without significant changes in the educational system, which has become divorced from the realities of the labor market in Tunisia, where the overall unem­ployment rate currently hovers around 15 percent. Education must be a path to work, not a bridge to joblessness. Ennahda is pushing for reforms that will help educational institutions meet the needs of the market, including by focusing more on soft skills, providing a larger range of technical training schemes, and connecting students to opportunities and internships in the public and private sectors.

Consolidating Tunisia’s dramatic political transformation and making progress on economic development will also require social change, especially when it comes to the role of women in government and business. The participation and leadership of Tunisian women—in politics, the judiciary, and civil society—were crucial to the country’s democratic transition. Today, 60 percent of all Tunisian university graduates are female, yet women still face higher unemployment than men (21.5 percent compared with 12.7 percent in 2014). The country’s democratic development depends on removing the obstacles that women face in all fields, promoting equal participation, and protecting women’s rights. To that end, Ennahda supports mandating equal gender representation on all party lists in the local elections that will be held in March 2017. Ennahda members of parliament have also proposed stronger maternity-leave rights to protect women against discrimination and to give them greater career flexibility.

Overshadowing all these issues, of course, is the question of security. The challenge of keeping Tunisians safe in an unstable region is testing the resilience of the country’s new democratic system. The state must protect citizens while ensuring respect for individual rights and the rule of law. Ennahda has successfully pushed for amendments to counterterrorism laws that ensure suspects’ access to legal advice. We have also called for a compre­hensive national security strategy that addresses the complex causes of extremism. Smart counterterrorism avoids counterproductive reactions and will require a cultural shift on the part of Tunisia’s security institutions, toward respecting the supremacy of the law and protecting the freedoms of individuals, civil society groups, and the media. Newly enacted provisions to protect the rights of detainees, as well as the establishment of the National Anti-Torture Commission, represent a step in the right direction.

The only way to conclusively defeat extremist groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is to offer a hopeful alternative to millions of young Muslims around the world. In the Arab world, people have faced increasing social exclusion, fewer opportunities, and repression at the hands of autocrats. Their frustration has been exploited by extremist groups such as ISIS, which aim to sow chaos and disorder and impose their own form of tyranny on the region. By showing that Muslim democracy can respect individual rights, promote social and economic opportunities, and protect Arab Islamic values and identities, the successful con­solidation of democracy in Tunisia will serve as a rebuke to secular tyrants and violent extremists alike.

Ennahda’s recent transition will make that kind of success more likely. We hope it will also inspire more debate in the Muslim world about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, what it means to be an inclusive political party, and how to build democratic systems that promote pluralism and respect the right to difference. Of course, Tunisia’s political environment is different from that in the rest of the region. Other Arab countries, such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, are still suffering under dictatorship and military rule or remain mired in ethnic and sectarian conflicts. The more complicated a country’s internal situation, the higher the price of change will be and the longer it will take. But change is coming, whether as a result of civil war, peaceful revolution, or gradual reform. And when it comes, Tunisia—and Ennahda—will hopefully serve as a valuable model.