Hani Nasira describes the roles of Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists in those countries’ uprisings and transitions. Salafists have a considerably stronger presence in Egypt — where they formed parties and performed exceptionally well in recent election — than in Tunisia. Both parties have been forced to cooperate with other parties and factions, some of them non-Islamist. En-Nahdha in particular entered a coalition with left-wing and secular parties in that country’s constituent assembly. What Nasira does not describe, perhaps for reasons of space or something else, is how the Tunisian and Egyptian socio-political contexts differ and how this contributes to producing rather different Islamist scenes and behavior in relation to both Islamist and non-Islamist elements. What kind of relationships to Islamist actors have with the masses and institutions in the rest of society? What structures their course of action? That en-Nahdha was pushed into a coalition with non-Islamist parties in Tunisia can easily be understood given how divisive religious issues are there; and how the diversity of expectations regarding religious politics in Tunisia differs from the Egyptian situation where Muslim identity politics leans in the favor of the major religious parties somewhat decisively. The Tunisian tradition of official state secularism also differs qualitatively from Egypt’s (as well does the overall conversation about religion), and there is a comparatively large element which is comfortable with excluding religion as such from public life which pulls the politically active religious trend more to the center of things and it also means there is more popular contestation between the religious and secular tendencies over the larger picture as compared to in Egypt. Non-Islamsit parties performed much better in Tunisia than in Egypt, and the average Tunisian and probably in somewhat of a different place politically form the average Egypt in how he views Islamism and Islamists more generally, even accounting for class and regional variation which is quite acute. Islamists and secularists ‘get away with’ certain things in Egypt which they cannot in Tunisia and vice versa. Some Tunisians voted for en-Nahdha not out of ideological solidarity but because they felt the other parties were too obscure or arrogant or shallow or the like — protest votes, which one heard about when so many Algerians voted for the Islamic Salvation Front in 1991. But because of the way the electoral system was arranged there was the problem of ‘wasted votes’ and the actual returns for en-Nahdha might have been somewhat understated in the final election results. The Salafist trend differs considerably in the two countries, both in their numbers and their attitudes toward elections. The number of their parties in Egypt is truly impressive. What accounts for the vast numbers of Salafists in Egypt and the ideological and political diversity of Salafist parties there in comparison to Tunisia?
In any case, with all the ink let out over how well Islamists have performed in recent elections, it is worth looking at how these parties got to where they are in political context — what regulates their electoral performance and popular appeal, internally and externally, socially (in official and non-official ways) and both at the elite and mass levels.
UDPATE: Reader ‘Salah’ left the following thoughts in the comments section and they help explain some of en-Nahdha’s performance.
I can not speak for Egypt as I lack knowledge about it and their political arena. As far as Tunisia concerned I can speak of them being Tunisian myself. Tunisia (and all of the Francophone Maghreb countries) can not in any way be compared to Egypt when it comes down to the role between the state and Islam last decades. Tunisia is much closer to Turkey in that regard. This is why Nahda is the only Islamist party indeed and they are very much under scrutiny and constantly “walking on eggs”. Whereas in Egypt it seems the big majority is totally at ease with Islamist parties, in Tunisia this is not the case.
Nahda compared to other political parties in Tunisia are much better organised and more importantly able to reach all classes and parts of Tunisian society with their message. Whereas other political parties such as PDP (liberals) are clearly concentrated in just the bigger cities and not able to get their message to other parts or classes of the country. This is due to several reasons that Nahda achieved to be much more a wider popular movement throughout different classes of Tunisian society. One, they have a long history in Tunisia as a political party and have basically always been the only Islamist opposition. Therefore, anyone leaning to the Islamist vision in Tunisia and ready to be politically active would just end up at an-Nahda, and not other Islamist competitors.
Second, they are inclusive. Where other Islamist parties easily make the mistake to just represent “the women wearing headscarves” or just “the muslims that pray five times a day” an-Nahda has many activists that do not wear a headscarf but do campaign for Nahda, or youth that are just like the average youngsters and not the ones “walking piously around with a beard in white thobe”. They did not create barriers for non-practicing Muslims to join their party and more important do not lecture people (or insinuate) about how and why Islam should be (more) practiced from a PERSONAL perspective. The often “pointing finger” an “serious look” that is present among many Islamist parties and activists when it comes down to Islamic issues is not present among Nahda ones. It has more an attitude of “everyone has their own right to be Muslim how they want to be but we all agree that Tunisia should become an democracy where Islamic values are present and maintained”.
Third, an-Nahda fully subscribes to achieving a democratic state where the people decide who represents them through elections. This fact is very important because it makes them combine and embrace Islam and democracy fully. When it comes down to other Islamist parties this is often not the case because the higher goal is still an Islamic state. It is important to note that almost all Nahda voters and activists truly believe their party subscribes to Tunisia becoming an democracy where it goes hand in hand by maintaining Islamic values. And the two are not mutually exclusive. The last decade of Ben Ali there was among the AVERAGE Tunisians (not elite) a widely shared feeling that Ben Ali was not only a dictator constantly trying to represent “modernity”, but even worse one who was trying to brush ISLAM aside. And this last fact was a very common feeling shared by many Tunisians, practicing or not. Just listen to various rap songs and they all mention it somewhere in their lyrics that “in this country you get jailed for prayer morning prayer at the mosque as a student but not when your drunk shouting in the street”. Nahda fills the gap here, heavily persecuted by Ben Ali but they call for a democracy in Tunisia which goes perfectly hand in hand with Islam according to them.