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HIZB AL-NAHDAH. Formerly called al-Ittijah alIslami (Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique, abbreviated MTI), the political movement that in 1988 adopted the name Hizb al-Nahdah (Renaissance Party) is the principal representative of Islamist thought and political expression in contemporary Tunisia. The movement’s relations with the government have from the outset been contentious, but it has survived successive waves of repression. It is thought to have the diffuse support of as much as one-third of the Tunisian population.

The contemporary Islamist movement traces its roots to the Qur’anic Preservation Society (QPS), a cultural association founded in 1970 in reaction to modernist reforms promulgated in the I96os, and to the Pakistan based Da’wah (The Call), which spread across the Maghrib in the early 1970s “calling” Muslims to return to the faith. Out of this group emerged a nexus of activists who were satisfied with neither the cultural critique of the QPS nor the more personal approach of the Da`wah, but who focused rather on the role of Islam in society and openly preached reform (tajdid). As these sentiments sorted themselves out in the 1970s, young men with beards and women in the chador-like hijab (veil) became a common sight in Tunis and other cities. By 1979 one group identifying itself as “progressive Islamists” and concentrating on the renewal of Islamic thought (ijtihad) had split off to pursue essentially intellectual matters. The energies of those who sought political action coalesced around Rashid Ghannoushi (Rashid al-Ghannushi) and Abdelfatah Mourou. Ghannoushi had recently returned from Syria, and Mourou, a jurist, had been studying at the Zaytunah Mosque in Tunis. At a press conference in 1981 they announced the formation of the MTI, which officially called for the reconstruction of economic life on a more equitable basis, the end of single-party politics, and a return to the “fundamental principles of Islam” through a purging of what was viewed as well-entrenched “social decadence.” Further, MTI representatives announced that they were seeking recognition as a political party according to guidelines established by the government in the preceding autumn. That request was denied, and less than two months later most of the MTI’s leaders were imprisoned.

Despite this repression-or perhaps because of it-the MTI survived and even gained strength in the early 198os. The MTI found allies in other Tunisian opposition forces, including the Movement of Democratic Socialists and the new Tunisian League of Human Rights, and its discourse took on egalitarian and republican overtones. Under pressure, the Tunisian government released MTI leaders in 1984, but its basic stance remained unchanged. The MTI’s second bid for legal recognition was rejected in 1985, and, in a symbolic gesture, the government outlawed the hijab. As the MTI’s condemnatory rhetoric once again gathered steam, in spring 1987 the government intensified its efforts to eradicate the movement, arresting more than three thousand of its alleged supporters. The party’s leaders were tried en masse before the State Security Court in August for ill-defined capital crimes, and several were sentenced to death in absentia.

The specter of politically motivated executions and uncontrollable social response created a backdrop for the coup instigated by Prime Minister Zine el Abidine Ben Ali a few months later. Islamists were the primary beneficiaries of the liberalizing policies introduced by the new regime. Prisons were emptied, a multiparty system was embraced, and the franchise was restored to those who had previously been imprisoned. The atmosphere of detente raised hopes among Islamists that they would be allowed to participate in the political system; to comply with new rules prohibiting parties from capitalizing on religious sentiments, the MTI changed its name.

The renamed Hizb al-Nahdah reached a turning point in relations with the new regime in April 1989. Without legal recognition, Islamists were prevented from participating openly in Tunisia’s first contested legislative elections, but the independent slates they fielded nevertheless garnered 14 percent of the popular vote (30 percent in certain Tunis suburbs) and sent shock waves through the government. Al-Nahdah’s pending request for recognition was denied, educational reforms aimed at curtailing Islamist influence were implemented, and the movement’s leaders were taken in for questioning. Tensions were exacerbated by the Gulf War, which fanned flames of anti-Western sentiment. The death of one Islamist student, shot by government militia during a demonstration, sparked protests that inspired a new wave of arrests and further restrictions. An assault by Islamists on an office of the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) in February 1991, which killed one guard and injured another, heightened the political confrontation. Al-Nahdah’s formal responsibility for that attack was never made clear, but together with the discovery in subsequent months of two alleged plots to overthrow the government, the event fueled a campaign of repression that resulted in more than eight thousand arrests. In 1992, 279 al-Nahdah members were tried before military tribunals; leaders in the government’s custody were sentenced to life in prison.

It is unclear how much al-Nahdah has been affected by the most recent and far-reaching efforts to stifle it. Its leadership has changed. In 1993 Rashid Ghannoushi was still formally recognized as the head of al-Nahdah (although since 1989 he had been in self-imposed exile), but Mourou formally dissociated himself from the unauthorized party in 1991 following the attack on the RCD office. A new cadre of leaders emerged, and the government claimed to have uncovered a covert military wing. Meanwhile, El fajr, the al-Nahdah publication that was to have illuminated its thought, has been silenced.

Concerted pressures in the early 1990s made alNahdah less visible; in particular, many young women ceased to wear the symbolic hijab. There has been evidence all the same that the Islamist movement continues to enjoy popular support-perhaps more than ever in the wake of disappointment with the Ben Ali government. A membership once described as young and chiefly comprised of students has now aged, without obvious attrition. Students, particularly those in religious and technical institutes, continue to supply recruits, but the Islamist message of social and political resistance and reform resonates in the humanities and social sciences as well. The movement has held particular appeal for sectors of society that have felt relatively disenfranchised by the modernist regime, and economic pressures in recent years have only increased those sentiments. Parents and others of an older generation are now commonly identified as sympathizers, and the movement is supported from abroad by a broad network of Tunisian students. It remains the most significant opposition group in contemporary Tunisia.

[See also Tunisia and the biography of Ghannushi]


Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques. Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord, 1979. Paris, 1981. Yearbook devoted to the special topic of Islam in the Maghrib, containing several articles on Tunisia.

Waltz, Susan. “Islamist Appeal in Tunisia.” Middle East journal 4o (Autumn 1986): 651-670.

Zartman, I. William, ed. Tunisia: The Political Economy of Reform. Boulder, 1991. Contains several insightful articles on Islam in Tunisia.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/hizb-al-nahdah/

  • writerPosted On: June 10, 2013
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