The Muslim Brothers and Ennahda: Parties or Movements or Can They Be Both?

May 21, 2014

By Roger Owen

Egypt’s Muslim Brothers describe themselves as a “society” and Tunisia’s Ennahda as a “movement.” Yet, due to the particular circumstances triggered by the Arab Uprisings of January 2011, both have also become political parties. And this, in turn, has raised many problems both for them and their members, as well as for the general public.

As is well known, the creator of the Muslim Brothers, Egypt’s Hassan al-Banna, aimed for his movement to act as the conscience of the nation, a stance which worked best in the years when the Brothers were part of the wider nationalist movement against the British. And when he could readily disseminate his message via newspapers, sermons, and the famous letters he sent to King Farouk drawing attention to local practices that he regarded as a threat to the faith.

Even so, serious problems had begun to emerge many years before al-Banna’s assassination in 1949. For one thing, the Brotherhood soon grew so large as to attract the attention of more secular politicians who either saw its members as potential voters for parties like the Wafd or who viewed its increasing power with alarm. For another, there were problems with some of the younger activists who felt that more was required in response to al-Banna’s call that Islam was in danger than a slow and patient reconversion of the entire Muslim population. Hence the creation of a secret apparatus and the beginning of a violent cycle of assassinations ending in the death of their leader himself. What followed is also well known, as the Brothers ran the whole gamut of persecution under Gamal Abdal-Nasser, toleration under Anwar Sadat, and a junior partnership in social management under Husni Mubarak.

The Brothers were unexpectedly presented with an opportunity to revive their fortunes by the particular circumstances of the 2011 uprising with the move from revolution to constitution-making, and then to national elections which, given their history of opposition and of mass popular organization, they were bound to win. But only to suffer greatly from their success as their control of the government began to excite the suspicion of the general public, alarmed at their lack of openness, their scramble for government jobs, and their rather too obvious inability to come up with a solution to the country’s huge economic and social malaise. No wonder that so many observers have now concluded that the Brothers’ transition from a religious movement to a party of government was a tragic mistake.

There is much to be learned too from the more complex process of political transition in Tunisia. Here too, a religious movement, Ennahda, won the 2011 elections as a political party. Although, perhaps fortunately, not by such a large majority that it could form a government alone but only as part of a larger coalition involving two smaller secular parties. This also had the chastening effect of forcing Ennahda’s leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi and his close associates to recognize the strength of public opposition to their total failure to make any headway against the country’s huge economic problems, a major factor behind their forced resignation in favor of a caretaker government of experts in September 2013.

It is here that the story of the two religious movements that came to power as parties diverges. While in Egypt the Brothers are facing a serious military attempt to eliminate them as both a political and a religious force, in Tunisia Ennahda still has the opportunity to find a place for itself in a system of coalition and compromise which it itself did much to bring into being. True, fortune can be said to have been on Ennahda’s side with Tunisia not only a more homogenous society than Egypt, with a powerful set of institutions like the UGTT well-placed to act as national arbiters, but also with the brief rise of what was perceived as a dangerous fringe movement of local Salafis that gave Ennahda a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate its own reasonableness and moderation by turning against them. Nevertheless, the skills of its leaders, the good use to which they put their exile, and their ability to learn from their own experience also had a great deal to do with it. Witness, for example, their recent recruitment of a number of young women lawyers with skills in constitution-writing they so obviously lacked themselves.

Not the least of Ennahda’s assets is its ability to find a way of utilizing its strengths as both a party and a movement in what seems to me a wonderfully novel way via its leadership’s embrace of a model of democracy which allows space for both. Here I turn for evidence to a recent interview with Rachid al-Ghannouchi himself in which he elaborated the notion of what he called a “comprehensive social project”—based on a religious culture of  missionary work and charity—with a highly important political dimension which allows it to be in an active and continuous dialogue with the other major forces at work within Tunisian society. The result: its participation not only in a process designed to shepherd Tunisia through the necessary, but difficult, process of transitioning from a dictatorial regime to a more open and accountable one, but also of laying the groundwork for the spread of a practice of tolerant cooperation among a people who conceive themselves more and more as citizens with rights as well as duties.

How far this will succeed is, of course, quite another matter. But given the state of the rest of the Arab world, as well as the present needs of the Tunisian people, it is certainly worth a try. Note too the extent to which its success will also provide an answer to Ghannouchi’s as well as to Ennahda’s desire to demonstrate the real possibility of a functional Islamic democracy. Let us all watch it with as much sympathetic attention as we can.

This article was published in Arabic in Al-Hayat in May 2014. Read more of Professor Owen's Al-Hayat columns in English here.