Honorable Mention — The Realities of the Rise of an Islamist Group to Power: A Case Study of the 2010 Tunisian Revolution

This piece appeared in the 2017 Acheson Prize Issue of the Yale Review for International Studies.


The concept of an Islamic state is central to traditional Islamic thought. Since the dissolution of Muhammad’s “perfect” Islamic state in Medina, Muslim leaders have striven to reestablish a state of the same character. Recently, fundamentalist Islam has served as the proponent for the establishment of an Islamic state, namely a state based entirely on shari’a law and the sovereignty of God.[1] Fundamentalism in itself is a reaction to the desolate condition of the Muslim world relative to the West, and finds its two most influential manifestations in the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 Egypt, and the Jamaat-e-Islami , founded by Abul-Alla Mawdudi in 1941 Pakistan.[2] Each of these Muslim thinkers developed their own vision of an Islamic state and, along with Sayyid Qutb, provide almost all of the fundamentalist literature concerning one. Though each Muslim scholar’s vision of an Islamic state is relatively idiosyncratic, they all share general themes: the overarching narrative describes an Islamic state founded upon the complete implementation of shari’a law, thereby establishing a supremely just society.2

Though none of these figures was ever able to establish the Islamic state they preached, their writings significantly influenced later Islamist groups. Today, Hamas, Hizbollah, and Islamic Jihad all trace their intellectual and ideological roots to the fundamentalist writings of their predecessors.2 One decidedly more moderate example of such a group, Tunisia’s Ennahda party, recently emerged on the world stage as the landslide winner of Tunisia’s post-revolution elections.[3] This marked the first time an Islamist group had risen to power through fair, democratic elections, potentially setting the stage for future Islamist groups to gain power the same way. As such, the Ennahda party possessed unparalleled legitimacy and a remarkable opportunity to finally establish an Islamic state. Therefore, the Tunisian Revolution presents an ideal case study to determine the realities of an Islamist group with legitimate power and its attempts to establish an Islamic state. Considering the Middle East’s continuing state of upheaval following the Arab Spring, such a case study maintains relevance and potential applicability today, as it is plausible for future Islamist groups to share similar experiences. The goal of this paper is to closely examine and analyze the causes and initial goals of the Tunisian revolution, the Ennahda party’s background and rise to power, and the party’s behavior in power, with the ultimate end of outlining underlying themes applicable to the general case of an Islamist group’s rise to power. Through the lens of this case study, we can draw greater conclusions concerning the feasibility of the establishment of both the Islamic state of al-Banna and Mawdudi and an Islamic state in general.

Causes and Context of the Revolution

The causes and goals of the 2010 Tunisian Revolution provide the first access point in considering the Islamist Ennahda party’s rise to power on the Tunisian political scene. The immediate impetus for the revolution can be found in Sidi Bou Zid on December 17, 2010, when Muhammad Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire. Bouazizi acted to raise awareness and stir activism concerning the dismal condition of unemployed Tunisian youth. He was badly burned and died in a Tunisian hospital weeks later, but his suicidal actions served as the metaphorical “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Though Bouazizi’s actions were not the first instances of extreme and suicidal symbolic speech, his self-immolation and subsequent death served as the effective political tipping point, forcing Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to abdicate his position and opening the door for political change.[4]

Bouazizi’s attempted suicide may have served as the direct stimulant for Ben Ali’s departure and the regime change, but revolutionary stirrings had been in the makings for years. Heightened by the peak of the recent global economic crisis, protests over the economic and social shortcomings of the Ben Ali administration shook Tunisia in the time leading up to Ben Ali’s exit. Unemployment, poverty, and internal corruption, along with the detrimental intervention of foreign, Western, financial institutions created what Tunisians saw as intolerable and protest-worthy conditions. Further, the wealth disparity between coastal Tunisians and those farther inland only served to exacerbate the already unhealthy Tunisian socio-economic situation.[5] Thus, protests became common and widespread, as citizens took to large labor strikes and public protests in reaction to widespread poverty and outrageous food prices, ultimately bringing to the forefront the issues that had been plaguing the country for at least a decade.[6]

While the Tunisian Revolution has its obvious roots in economic and social turmoil, some analysts argue that the greater context of the Tunisian revolution must account for the oppression present since Tunisian Independence in 1956 and possibly even earlier. Tunisia has a long history of authoritarian politics, stretching from its status as a colonial possession to the twenty-nine year single party rule of the Dustur Socialist Party to the “medical coup” that brought the corrupt and oppressive president Ben Ali in to power for a quarter-century. In addition, Tunisian bread rioters made clear that their protests expressed their willingness to “live on bread and water” and inability to be bought off by the Ben Ali regime, highlighting the discontent that went beyond the critical economic conditions. Thus, the flame that sparked the Tunisian Revolution may have been the 21st century protests of Bouazizi and others, but the coals had been smoldering from the excessive and oppressive nature of the regimes that had controlled Tunisia since its time as a French protectorate.[7]

Given that the 2010 revolution was the product of long-term discontent and short-term suffering, it is important to recognize that the 2010 Tunisian Revolution was not an Islamic revolution. This fact casts doubt over whether Ennahda’s unrivaled support in the 2011 elections was a sign that the Tunisian population supported an Islamist agenda or merely favored their moderate and progressive platform as a solution to the country’s problems. After all, if the desire of the population was to establish an Islamic state one would think the people would have set this as a goal and proposed it as a solution from the outset.

The Ennahda Party: Background and Rise to Power

Though Ennahda was not a major factor in the immediate Tunisian Revolution, an inquiry into its historical and ideological background will illuminate its position in Tunisian politics and its goals as a political Islamist party. In the 1980’s Ennahda (Rebirth), also known as Harakat al-Ittijah al-Islami (Islamic Tendency Movement), became politically active as it fought on behalf of the lowest classes. However, its leadership had been significantly influenced by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Mawdudi, and in 1985, it shifted its agenda toward Islamism. Ennahda called for a national referendum to repeal the Personal Status Code (PSC), which codified gender equality, claiming it violated basic Islamic principles and hurt men’s position in the workplace.[8] As Ennahda gained popularity among Tunisians, it was repressed by Ben Ali’s government and was even denied recognition as a political party. This marked Ennahda’s shift from a political party merely seeking to influence Tunisia to an Islamist party seeking control of the state. This shift was best expressed by Ennahda’s leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi when he said: “We sought only a shop and we did not get it. Now it’s the whole souk [marketplace] we want.”[9]

At this point in Ennahda’s history, many of its leaders went into exile. However, it seemed that as Ben Ali’s repression of the party grew, so did its support. Ennahda’s commitment to Islamism became even more evident, as it became more militant during the Gulf War in 1991 and was even accused of conspiring to lead a coup to establish an Islamic state. Though Ben Ali’s harsh reaction to Ennahda activism played a role in creating Tunisia’s national mood of discontent and restlessness, as mentioned before, the revolution was not an Islamic revolution. Ennahda leadership only returned from exile and gained power after Ben Ali was ousted, at which point they began campaigning once again for the party’s Islamist agenda, which they explained would be pursued through elections.[10]

Finally, the causes of the revolution converged with Ennahda’s political ambitions, creating an opportunity for the Islamist group to amass political power. Though until then relatively dormant, the Ennahda party mobilized following Ben Ali’s exit from power, supporting progressive causes like gender equality. In fact, many posited that Ennahda embodied “the most progressive Islamic party in North Africa or the Arab world.”[11] With the 2011 democratic elections approaching, Ennahda presented a platform calling for a democratically elected government that respected Islamic values and culture. With no previous record to cite, this ambiguous platform left ample room for speculation, as Ennahda could have just as easily been calling for a state governed by shari’a as it could a state simply administered by Muslims. Ennahda leaders stressed, however, that though they disapproved of the risqué nature of the tourist industry’s alcohol and immodest dress, they would do nothing to harm such beneficial economic sectors. Such claims revealed a willingness to compromise and a “non-ideological pragmatism” that diverged from traditional Islamist principles but positioned Ennahda to succeed within the constraints of a democratic government.[12]

Ultimately, in the October 2011 elections, Ennahda garnered a staggering share of popular support, receiving forty percent of the vote and taking eighty-nine of 217 parliament seats.[13] The elections represented the first purely democratic vote in the country’s history, and also produced the first democratically elected Islamist government. Ennahda’s electoral rise to power imparted remarkable legitimacy, and Ennahda appeared shockingly yet reasonably capable of creating an Islamic state. Though many worried about an Islamist group’s political triumph, the Ennahda party and Islam seemed poised to shape post-revolution Tunisia.

The Ennahda Party in Government: Successes and Failures

With its overwhelming electoral success, Ennahda was given a mandate of sorts to govern as they saw fit. Though there exists globally a mindset asserting that an Islamic state and Western, liberal ideals must remain mutually exclusive in an effective government, Tunisia seemed to be the first place capable of integrating the two. Unlike in other secularized Muslim countries, Islam had retained its significance in the Tunisian identity, and millions of Tunisians still supported the establishment of some sort of Islamic government.12

Amidst accusations that it sought to create an Islamic theocracy, Ennahda continued to cling to its moderate platform. Ghannouchi preached his theory of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, pointing to the conflict between the Arab-Islamic identity and a Westernized one, not individually between Islam and democracy. He claimed that secularism is not rejected on principle but because it represents the illegitimate sovereignty of non-Tunisians. In short, he focused on the importance of an authentic Tunisian cultural identity and the existence of a civil society in which the will of the people governs. His ultimate vision of religious democracy comprises “a political situation where society is religious, but the state refrains from interfering with religious affairs, while allowing for the development of piety and virtue.”[14]

However, the pressing issue for the post-revolution Tunisian government remained engaging and treating the socioeconomic problems that triggered the revolution. Once in power, Ennahda’s inability to reconcile its rhetoric with tangible progress in socioeconomic areas created a tense political atmosphere. The majority of its efforts continued to concentrate on deflecting accusations that it was a religious party, and though it claimed otherwise, the climax of Ennahda’s Islamist agenda appeared when its members officially pushed for the inclusion of shari’a in Tunisia’s new constitution. Though Ennahda members claimed this desire stemmed not from a desire to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state but an attempt to solidify Tunisia’s Islamic identity, significant opposition arose. Ennahda eventually backed down, and shari’a was not officially included in the drafted constitution.14

The conflict that emerged concerning shari’a’s inclusion in the constitution highlights the overwhelming complexity of the post-revolutionary Tunisian political scene and exposes one of Ennahda’s major failures. In terms of politics, many Tunisians believed that Islam, as a central facet of their identity, ought to be incorporated into the constitution. At the same time, the Tunisian populace was unwilling to commit to the explicit implementation of shari’a law. On a smaller scale, the Ennahda party was attempting to straddle the line between remaining loyal to Islamic values and protecting liberal freedoms, and, frankly, was struggling to do so.[15]

Ennahda’s Failed Islamism, A Fragile Democracy, and the Compromise that Removed Them from Power

As the country moved farther from the 2010 revolution, Ennahda’s struggles worsened as they tried to balance their moderate Islamist platform with liberal, Western ideals. Ennahda was consistently badgered by critics on both the left and the right. A particular example of Ennahda’s failure to straddle this political line involved the Tunisian Salafis, a group of young, poor, traditional, and conservative Muslims. As the Salafi movement pushed to abolish the prohibition on female students to wear a Niqab, or traditional Muslim veil, they criticized Ennahda for what they saw as its abandonment of Islam for “political opportunism.” This criticism highlighted Ennahda’s inability to cater to Tunisia’s more conservative Islamist faction, while the aforementioned shari’a incident emphasized their inability to please the left.[16]

As if Ennahda’s reputation wasn’t delicate enough, the 2013 assassination of liberal opposition leader Chokri Belaïd cast doubt over whether the ideals of the original 2010 revolution would ever be realized. It became unimaginably clear that Tunisian democracy was in an incredibly fragile a state.[17] As the process of finalizing Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution dragged on, it appeared violence would become prominent, as Tunisia was wracked by a second assassination, that of Mohamed Brahmi in July. Ultimately, Ennahda was forced to concede in the interests of its country, and in January 2014, Tunisian and Islamist Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh announced his resignation as a part of a compromise that would result in the government’s adoption of a new constitution.[18]

Thus Ennahda’s rule of Tunisia ended, and with it disappeared Islamist leaders’ aspirations of establishing an Islamic state in Tunisia. The compromise provided for a new independent government to be installed, and for new elections to occur in the coming weeks and months, with the ultimate goal of finally adopting a new constitution. Perhaps the most interesting and telling aspect of Ennahda’s graceful exit from power is its decision to do so voluntarily—no coup was led and no leader assassinated, and so one must assume that Ennahda recognized its failures in government and decided to pursue realistic nationalist goals over Islamist ones.[19]


Ultimately, the Ennahda party was unable to successfully establish a traditional Islamic state in Tunisia. Though the causes of the revolution were decidedly un-Islamic, Ennahda was still presented with a legitimate opportunity to establish an Islamic state following its democratic rise to power. As the moderate Islamist party struggled to straddle the line dividing traditional, Islamic values with liberal, Western ideals, it was eventually forced to concede its Islamist visions in the interests of the welfare of the fledgling Tunisian democracy. The compromise that ended Ennahda’s brief rule revealed the triumph of national identity over traditional ideology and questioned the realistic plausibility of establishing a modern-day Islamic state.

While I’ve discussed Ennahda’s struggle to straddle the spectral center, its more concrete failure involves its government’s inability to address the ills that plagued pre-revolution Tunisia. Had Ennahda tabled its dream of an Islamic state and discussed reforms to ameliorate unemployment and poverty, let alone implemented them, it would be easier to imagine an Ennahda-led Tunisia that still had the potential to be transformed into an Islamic state.

While Ennahda’s electoral success failed to fulfill the vision of Qutb’s “revolutionary vanguard,” there is no questioning their genuine attempt to establish an Islamic state in Tunisia.[20] Their attempt to include shari’a in Tunisia’s new constitution aligns identically with the fundamentalist notion of a state governed entirely by shari’a. Thus, direct parallels can be drawn between this case study, the hypothetical Islamic state of notable fundamentalist writers, and potential future Islamist groups. Ennahda’s position as the overwhelmingly supported Islamist party in Tunisia empowered it with a legitimacy and opportunity to establish a democratically (and therefore favorable, at least by Western normative standards) created Islamic state, and its failure to do so implies much about the general establishment of an Islamic state.

Lastly, the fact that Ennahda voluntarily conceded power is an aspect of the post-revolution saga that can be easily overlooked. Yet its active relinquishing of power and by extension Islamist goals highlights two critical points concerning the establishment of an Islamic state. First, based on Ennahda’s rhetoric surrounding its decision to sign the compromise, it is clear the Ennahda’s Tunisian identity surpassed its Muslim identity, as Ennahda leaders prioritized Tunisian national interests over Islamist ones. Second, Ennahda’s reluctant yet deliberate decision to resign from power reveals its recognition that its goals were not feasible under the circumstances. Ennahda was not forcibly ousted from power and its leaders will remain Tunisian citizens; thus, Ennahda’s decision to stop pursuing the creation of an Islamic state should resonate, suggesting greater implications concerning the viability of a contemporary Islamic state.


Following the “Tunisian Experiment,” it is obvious that an Islamist group can legitimately rise to power in a democracy; the common conception that Islamism is by definition authoritarian and anti-democratic is flawed. However, it is also evident that such an Islamist group cannot vacillate between appeasing its critics on the left and the right, as the Ennahda party did. It must either commit wholeheartedly to protecting its Islamic values or conform to leftist critics and concede in favor of a fully liberalized (and by extension Westernized) state.

Given that the more moderate Ennahda party was unable to Islamize Tunisian government, it is easy to speculate on the ability of a more conservative and perhaps radical Islamist groups ability to do so. However, one must also question whether such a conservative Islamist group would have been able to democratically rise to power; it seems Ennahda’s support was largely due to its progressive nature, and so a more conservative or extreme Islamist entity would likely not have succeeded through the same legitimate means. Conversely, on the success of an even more liberal Islamist party, it’s hard to see how a more liberal government could even be considered an Islamic state.

I would suggest that it may be impossible to establish a contemporary Islamic state in line with the vision of the Muslim Brotherhood or Mawdudi. These fundamentalist authors’ lack of political power allowed them great leeway in drawing the blueprints for their Islamic state; however, when confronted by the challenges of real political power, one must adapt to survive, as Ennahda attempted to do. Ennahda’s “tight roping” as they set out to establish an Islamic state, whether a result of their ideology or pragmatism, revealed the difficulty inherent in doing so. Further, Ennahda’s individual decision to step down from power reflects its personal realization that it would be unable to found an Islamic state in Tunisia, suggesting the complexity and potential impracticality of establishing such a state.

I do not seek to make sweeping generalizations—I concede that an Islamist group could very well rise in the Middle East and establish a state based on shari’a, as Iran did 35 years ago. However, the aforementioned superseding of an Islamic identity by a national one, as evidenced by Ennahda’s decision to abandon its Islamist ambitions in favor of Tunisian national interests, complicates the situation. In a world defined by the modern nation-state and nationalism, identities have shifted and the ancient Muslim umma no longer holds the same meaning. This point is perhaps best understood by recognizing the self-identification of Tunisians as “Tunisians” rather than simply “Muslims living in Tunisia.”

Discussion of the establishment of a contemporary Islamic state begs the question of what exactly defines an Islamic state. As a contemporary Jew living in a world in which a “Jewish State” exists in the land of Israel, I struggle with the same question. A “Jewish State,” like an “Islamic State,” could mean anything from a theocracy to a government run by Jews to a country culturally defined by its Jewish heritage. I have concluded that there is no finite Jewish or Islamic state.

While I admit the conclusion that founding an Islamic state today would be impossible may be severely overgeneralized, one would be remiss not to acknowledge the immense difficulties present today that did not exist previously. The unipolar nature of the global balance of power creates a situation in which countries’ wills must not conflict with that of the global superpower—America. I therefore feel comfortable asserting that as the consequences of the Arab Spring continue to unfold, I find it hard to envision a world in which either America would allow a radical military to establish a fundamentalist state or an Islamist group would rise democratically and successfully found an Islamic state. The former claim refers to the United States’ sometimes-unwarranted involvement in sovereign nations’ domestic affairs, while the latter refers to the above case study of the 2010 Tunisian revolution.

Every religion has historically struggled to reconcile its old and new guards, its conservatives and progressives, its fundamentalists and modernists. Yet as history and hopefully this paper have shown, it may in fact be impossible to do so. As society continues to drive towards the mythical modernity, the question remains whether we must abandon all old-fashioned and traditional inclinations in favor of rational change and progress. I think that Ennahda’s experience proved that we don’t have to do that.

Rashid al-Ghannouchi stressed that his goal was not to modernize Islam, but to develop it.[21] I think this poignant statement brings to light an alternate path to progress. Advocates of change call for the discarding of “obsolete” or “backward” traditions in order to develop and modernize, while fundamentalists and conservatives cling to their conception of a perfect past. The middle ground involves implanting important traditional values within modern society. The Ennahda party’s use of entirely modern constructions and institutions, specifically democratic elections and a constitution, to incorporate valuable, traditional, Islamic principles was an effort to do just that. And though through this method they may have failed to establish an Islamic state, and though Ghannouchi emphasized their intention not to modernize Islam, their success lies in their steadfast preservation of the old while adjusting to the new: their “Islamization of modernity.”

[1] Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi, “The Political Theory of Islam,” in Political Theory of Islam. Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam, ed. M. Moaddel and K. Talattof (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002), 263-271.

[2] David Waines, An Introduction to Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 239-247.

[3] Lise Storm, “The Fragile Tunisian Democracy – What Prospects for the Future?” in The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects, ed. N. Gana (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013) 274.

[4] Julia Clancy-Smith, “From Sidi Bou Zid to Sidi Bou Said,” in The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East, ed. M. L. Haas and D. W. Lesch (Boulder: Westview Press, 2013), 16-18.

[5] Emma C. Murphy, “Under the Emperor’s Neoliberal Clothes! Why the International Finance Institutions Got it Wrong in Tunisia” in The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects, ed. N. Gana (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013) 35-57.

[6] Sami Zemni, “The Labor Origins of the Tunisian Revolution,” in The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects, ed. N. Gana (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013) 127-146.

[7] Clancy-Smith, “From Sidi Bou Zid to Sidi Bou Said,” 16-34.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kenneth Perkins, “The Use and Abuse of Religion,” in The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: contexts, Architects, Prospects, ed. N. Gana (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013) 58-80.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Clancy-Smith, “From Sidi Bou Zid to Sidi Bou Said,” 16-34.

[12] Kenneth Perkins, “The Use and Abuse of Religion,” 58-80.

[13] Lise Storm, “The Fragile Tunisian Democracy,” 274.

[14] Nadia Marzouki, “From Resistance to Governance: The Category of Civility in the Political Theory of Tunisian Islamists,” in The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects, ed. N. Gana (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013) 207-223.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Fabio Merone and Francesco CaCavatorta, “The Rise of Salafism and the Future of Democratization,” in The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects, ed. N. Gana (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013) 252-269.

[17] Lise Storm, “The Fragile Tunisian Democracy,” 270-290.

[18] “Tunisia’s Arab Spring: Three Years On,” Al Jazeera, January 14, 2014.

[19] “Tunisia Deal to Bring End to Islamist Rule,” Al Jazeera, October 6, 2013.

[20] Sayyid Qutb, “Jihad in the Cause of Allah,” in Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam, ed. M. Moaddel and K. Talattof (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002), 223-245.

[21] Nadia Marzouki, “From Resistance to Governance,” 207-223.



Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam. Edited by M Moaddel and L. Talattof. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002.

The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Propsects. Edited by N. Gana. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013.

The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press, 2013.

“Tunisia Deal to Bring End to Islamst Rule.” Al Jazeera. October 6, 2013. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2013/10/tunisia-deal-bring-end-islamist-rule-20131064312798990.html (accessed April 28, 2014).

“Tunisia’s Arab Spring: Three Years On.” Al Jazeera. January 14, 2014. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/01/tunisia-arab-spring-three-years-20141146353728616.html (accessed April 28, 2014).

Waines, David. An Introduction to Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.