Middle East

Moderate Islamists make new power quest in Tunisia

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s moderate Islamists are hoping the genial Beethoven fan they have nominated to run in next month’s presidential elections will break the mould in the Arab world by turning success at the ballot box into uncontested rule.

Abdelfattah Mourou is a lawyer who has distanced himself from the more socially conservative positions of his Ennahda party in the past, has friendly relations with opponents and is known for a jokey manner.

His aim, he says, is to unite Tunisians via the election to be held on Sept 15 in which he will face 25 other candidates, including prominent secularists such as Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, his Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi and a TV tycoon.

“If I am elected I will be president of all Tunisians, not president for Ennahda supporters,” Mourou, 71, told reporters when he submitted his application earlier this month.

Ennahda won the first free parliamentary elections after the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings of 2011, but did not stand in the presidential poll after protests by secularists like those against Egypt’s freely elected Muslim Brotherhood, which was subsequently banned.

Mourou, kept under police surveillance during the 24-year rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has a good chance of surviving the first round of the election because the secularist vote is split, analysts say.

If he wins the second round he would become a standout, elected Sunni Islamist president in North Africa and the Middle East, where many longtime rulers style themselves as bulwarks against radical Islamism. Whether that would happen is less clear in a country with no reliable opinion polls.

Some Tunisians are wary, recalling a 2013 reception Mourou gave to visiting Islamist preacher Wagdy Ghoneim, who was excluded from the United Kingdom in 2009 for “seeking to foment, justify or glory terrorist violence”. Mourou later apologized, saying he did not realize the full extent of his views.

“Mourou is like a chameleon; his positions change every day like the rest of the Islamists,” said Mouna ben Salem, a student in Tunis, capital of the former French colony, where the key tourism sector is recovering from 2015 militant attacks.

Ennadha officials say the party has shown its true colors in its readiness to seek political consensus and is entitled to compete in polls for the president, who deals only with foreign and defense policy in Tunisia’s nascent democracy.

Mourou was not immediately available for comment, but he regularly displays moderate credentials, attending annual gatherings of Jews at the ancient Ghriba synagogue, for instance, where he speaks about religious coexistence.


Tunisia, where the Arab Spring uprising began, is more secular than the rest of the region: its elites study in Europe and women enjoy more rights. Ennahda has sought to distance itself from other Islamist movements such as the puritanical Wahabi sect of Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Campaigning does not begin until Sept 1 and Mourou has said little since he was nominated.

He left the party in 1991 after it failed to clearly condemn an attack by Islamists on a bureau of Ben Ali’s party and returned in 2012. Two years later, he helped make the power-sharing deal with the secularists.

“He is able, and can convince anyone,” said a man named Mohamed who was trying to persuade friends at a cafe that Mourou was the best choice. “He is also a statesman, can bring Tunisians together and work with opponents. We need to see a face that resembles us in power.”

A 2011 online video shows Mourou, in his traditional Tunisian robe, singing Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Ode to Joy, in perfect German; at the funeral of former secular President Beji Caid Essebsi, whose death precipitated the election, he showed his respect by walking 15 km (9 miles) behind the procession.

“Mourou is certainly the most palatable candidate Ennahda could offer up to the secularists,” said Sharan Grewal, a visiting fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.

The only country where the Arab Spring brought democracy rather than a crackdown, civil war or partial steps, Tunisia has had nine governments since 2011 as political infighting and protests against austerity measures bring down coalitions.

Despite avoiding top positions since 2014, Ennahda remains the largest party, with grassroot networks even in small towns, in contrast to secular parties, which have repeatedly split.


To allay fears, Ennahda has rebranded itself as a party of Muslim democrats analogous to the Christian Democrats of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It agreed to a new constitution in 2014 which guarantees fundamental and religious freedoms.

But critics say Mourou and other Ennahda officials hold contradictory positions on the role of Islam in society.

“The problem today is that Ennahda trying to hide the conservative face and promote the modernist one,” said Zied Lakhdar, a leftist from the liberal Popular Front party who took part in protests against Ennahda in 2013.

Last year, Ennahda refused a plan guaranteeing women equal inheritance, a taboo in the Muslim world which Essebsi and other secularists had sought to break. Typically, Muslim countries allow women to inherit only half of what men get.

Mourou has kept his statements on equality in inheritance vague, saying on local radio last year: “I distributed what I have for my children during my life.. none of them is angry.”

Ennahda has criticized the U.S. decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but given Tunisia’s close ties with Europe and the United States, Mourou would be likely to continue a pro-Western course. Thousands of Tunisians live in France alone.

Analysts said Ennahda, which is Arabic for Renaissance, needs to enter the unexpected presidential vote to motivate its supporters for a parliamentary election just three weeks later.

Party official Imed Khmiri said there was nothing to fear from a possible double victory as the party would continue its policy of power sharing.


Some Tunisians argue that Ennahda’s quest for power risks bringing back the ideological polarization that caused tension in 2013, even though the party says it seeks to avoid this.

“If the Islamist electoral base takes to the streets to campaign for their candidate, the country could return partly to the 2012 and 2013 climate,” journalist Zied Krichen wrote in the Maghreb newspaper, predicting secularist protests in response.

The liberal camp has four main candidates: Chahed, in office since 2016, Zbidi, a civilian defense minister valued by many as being above party politics, Mehdi Jomaa, a former prime minister and Nabil Karoui, a business tycoon.

Having a presidential election before the parliamentary one may make it harder for Ennahda to form the alliances needed to form a stable government, said Max Gallien, a political scientist working on the politics and economics of North Africa.

The struggling economy is at the top of many voters’ priorities and Ennahda and other secularists support market-oriented reforms urged on Tunisia by the International Monetary Fund but strongly resisted by unions and the population.

And Karoui, backed by his Nesma TV station, has positioned himself as champion of the poor in the neglected hinterland outside the capital — Ennahda’s strongholds.

Editing by Philippa Fletcher

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