In Tunisia

Rory McCarthy

Campaigners for Tunisia’s largest Islamist movement, Ennahda, have tended to avoid the subject of religion in the run-up to Sunday’s election. Instead, they talk about the details of their manifesto: a promise of economic growth and a strong stand against terrorism, the need for a national unity government, increased state grants for students, longer maternity leave for women working in the public sector, even the chance for expatriate Tunisians to send home a second car from abroad at a much reduced tax rate.

They also try to rally voters to the revolutionary cause, telling them the gains of the 2011 uprising are in peril and need to be reinforced. Last week I accompanied Soufian, a 21-year-old Ennahda campaigner, who was canvassing in Sousse, a city 100 miles south of Tunis. ‘Are you with the parties of the former regime?’ he asked a man in a middle-class district. ‘Or are you with the parties of the revolution? At least say you’ll vote with the revolution.’ The man was unimpressed. At the last elections, nine months after the uprising, he had voted for Kamel Morjane, defence and then foreign minister under the Ben Ali regime. ‘I have no trust in any of the parties now,’ he said.

In poorer neighbourhoods, voters were more receptive to Ennahda. ‘They know we’re Islamists without us saying it,’ Sihem, a middle-aged female campaigner, explained. ‘We need to tell them that we’ll work together with other parties. Now the economy and security are our priorities.’

After emerging as a proselytising movement in the 1970s, with links to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda made its own way as an underground political party. It endorsed democracy and called for a civil, not Islamic, state. The experiment failed: after a strong showing as independents in an election in 1989, the movement was crushed. Thousands of its members were jailed or forced into exile.

Ennahda won the first elections after the uprising in 2011, partly by championing Tunisian identity as Arab-Islamic, rather than Western and modernist. Party leaders say the cultural battle has been won because Tunisia’s Arab-Islamic identity is mentioned in the new constitution, though the country feels as ideologically polarised as ever. The Islamists have postponed Sharia law for the long term, and instead present themselves as a party of political consensus and effective government.

They also have more energy than the other parties. In the last three weeks of campaigning, the movement has held three or four events a day in the Sousse governorate alone. Their supporters drove around in convoys waving flags, walked through local markets greeting shopkeepers, knocked on doors and held rallies at which local candidates spoke to crowds of a few hundred at a time, promising specific economic and social reforms. They also brought thousands to large rallies across the country to hear the movement’s founder, Rachid Ghannouchi.

Other parties have held similar events, particularly the main rival, Nidaa Tounes, which has several members of Ben Ali’s now banned RCD party among its ranks. But none has done it on the scale and with the persistence of Ennahda. Others have opted instead for politics as spectacle, with larger, less frequent rallies at which thousands of supporters wave flags at the party leader. At a Nidaa Tounes rally in Sousse on Wednesday, before the 87-year-old party leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, came on to speak, they played video clips of the independence leader Habib Bourguiba to the soundtrack from The Last of the Mohicans.

Ennahda is likely to be the largest party in the next parliament, though it will be obliged to govern in coalition. As individuals, Ennahda’s members admit their long-term goal is the Islamisation of society to the point at which there will be no need to impose Sharia or to ban alcohol because the people themselves will demand it. Not all of them are comfortable with the new political Ennahda and the concessions it has made. Many speak of their distaste at the prospect of an elite-level coalition with Nidaa Tounes. They will probably soon formalise a division into a religious, proselytising movement and an associated but independent political party. The test then will be whether the politicians can maintain the party’s appeal as it draws away from its Islamist roots.