According to the unofficial results of the 2014 parliamentary elections that were held on Oct. 26 in Tunisia, the flagship country of the Arab Spring, the secularist Nidaa Tounes received 38 percent of the vote, while the Ennahda Movement became the second largest party with 31 percent. This outcome represented a defeat for Ennahda, which had won a landslide victory with 41 percent in the 2011 parliamentary elections and a significant achievement for the secularist front. A number of observers will, quite probably, present the situation as the result of the government's poor performance rather than a sign of the shortcomings of Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda Movement, who identifies the AK Party as his role model.
Leaving aside such short-term assessments, one ought to concentrate on the meaning of Ennahda's electoral performance with regard to the relationship between Islamic movements and democracy in the region. Prior to the Arab Spring, the single greatest challenge of Islamic movements in the Middle East and North Africa was their inability to integrate into the political system. During this period, secular-authoritarian regimes did not allow these movements to form legitimate opposition parties – let alone wield political power. As such, Islamic movements failed to gain experience with power sharing or constructive criticism.
When the Arab revolts took place, Islamic movements in Tunisia (i.e. the Ennahda Movement) and Egypt (i.e. the Brotherhood and the Salafis) capitalized on their established organizations to record major achievements in the first free elections. Their lack of experience with functioning as legitimate actors in the political system, however, added to the pressure from proponents of the ancien regime. Consequently, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the government of Mohamed Morsi and perpetrated various massacres against the members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which ended up being declared a terrorist organization. In Tunisia, the Ennahda Movement, which advocated compromise in the country's transition to democracy, could not escape the secularist pressures either. The last of a series of troika governments led by the movement had to resign in January 2014 and give way to a government of technocrats.
Ghannouchi's political talents and foresight, however, remains the main reason behind the Ennahda Movement's credentials as one of the most influential parties in Tunisian politics. Having opted to not nominate a presidential candidate, share power with leftist and liberal parties and not insist on identifying the Shari'a as the source of all laws in the Constitution despite major objections from the Salafis, the movement developed a moderate position. Again, they managed to make certain concessions and keep a lid on the secularist front, which was determined to put Ennahda in a similar position to Morsi and the Brotherhood. As such, Ghannouchi was able to oversee the drafting of a new Constitution and led his country to free parliamentary elections against the backdrop of a negative campaign against Islamic movements across the region under the guidance of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. As a leading intellectual in the Muslim world, he adopted the democratic method early on and became the target of fierce criticism from many Islamists for promoting democracy in the 1990s.
The election results indicate that various parties will seek to push the Ennahda Movement out of the government. Moreover, there is a real threat associated with the secularist front's eagerness to force the movement out of the parliamentary system as well as alienate and criminalize its membership – which is why the Ennahda leadership must continue to respond to the moves of secularist politicians as skillfully as they have thus far. At the same time, they will need to make an effort to prevent their social base from becoming radicalized and stop the Salafis from converting their members.
Briefly put, there remains a long road ahead of the Ennahda Movement. Today, their greatest challenge relates to resisting all efforts to push them out of the system and to serving as a legitimate, responsible and constructive opposition party – which will pave the way to power in future elections. This responsible opposition will no doubt contribute to the Islam-and-democracy debate as much as their experience in power. If Tunisia overcomes this challenge, it will remain an inspiring model even though the country may be the last stronghold of the Arab Spring. Let us hope that this will be the case.