(Bloomberg) -- Abdelfattah Mourou is the first-ever presidential candidate for Tunisia’s leading religious party. Just don’t call him an Islamist.
The Ennahda party is done with proselytizing, Mourou, 71, said in an interview at his villa in the Mediterranean town of Marsa before Sunday’s vote. “We have neither a theological nor a worship reference point,” he added, describing the group as simply “conservative.”
Confronting a crowded field of about two-dozen mostly secular-leaning rivals, Ennahda believes that the impeccably folksy Mourou, who’s almost always seen in public dressed in a traditional Tunisian djebba robe, is its best chance to connect with an electorate jaded by years of political bickering and economic stagnation since the nation touched off the Arab Spring uprisings.
The election will be closely watched in a region where Islamists have been overthrown and thousands of their supporters jailed in the past decade, but Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a political researcher, says many Tunisians no longer fear the party. It was forced to step down from a ruling coalition in 2014 amid sharp ideological debates, but has since worked with other parties and held ministries.
“In 2011, the debate was how Ennahda would establish polygamy and impose the niqab” or face veil, he says of widely held public perceptions. “That kind of fear doesn’t exist anymore.” Mourou now has to convince voters that his party’s new program to encourage foreign investment, stem corruption and overhaul a bloated bureaucracy is the change a weary Tunisia needs.
Not everyone’s convinced. Opponents continue to accuse the party of harboring the same aims of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which took power in 2012 before the army, spurred by mass protests, ousted its democratically elected President Mohamed Mursi and jailed him.
When Mursi died in detention in June, Ennahda parliamentarians asked that a prayer be read for him during a session, prompting a walk out by a fiercely secular lawmaker. Mourou at the time said it was a humanitarian gesture.
Legalized after the 2011 ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Ennahda faced years of hostility from secular Tunisians who suspected it of burying an Islamist agenda under a democratic guise. In 2016, more moderate factions in its leadership -- some of whom lived in exile -- pushed the party into formally separating itself from religious work.
“The Tunisian people have grown accustomed to Ennahda,” says party leader Rashid Ghannouchi. “The polarization we saw in 2014 has greatly diminished.”
By one measure, at least, Tunisians have accepted Ennahda into the political mainstream. As with other parties, its time in government means it gets a share of the blame for the high inflation and stubborn unemployment that have plagued Tunisia even while it avoided the bloody upheaval and militant violence that swept through fellow Arab Spring nations.
At a campaign stop in Tunis’s working-class district of Tadamon, Mourou gives a stump speech, telling a few dozen supporters that he and the neighborhood go way back. A group of unemployed youths at a nearby cafe aren’t impressed.
“He’s lying. They only come to us during the elections,” says 20-year-old Iskander, who wouldn’t give his full name. “After the elections, they rob us.” If, as one poll suggests, no candidate wins an overall majority, there will be a second round ballot by November.
Mourou, a former judge who’s now the interim speaker of parliament, has sought to allay fears that a victory for him would directly deliver power to Ennahda.
“This is my farewell speech,” he told the party faithful at a conference to launch his campaign, warning them not to expect any perks if he took office. Ennahda is also contesting parliamentary elections in October with a list headed by Ghannouchi, who’s running for the first time. But Mourou says it shouldn’t be seen as a power grab.
“There’s no authority in the hands of the president, the presidency is almost symbolic,” Mourou says. So why run at all? He says it was time for Ennahda to show it’s not concealing an alternative agenda. “Staying outside the presidential race raises suspicion that it is hiding something,” he says.
The president acts as the country’s elder statesman, with a say over defense and foreign policy. The decision to field Mourou was controversial within the party, and hastily undertaken after the death in July of President Beji Caid Essebsi, with whom Ennahda had an uneasy alliance that had recently unraveled.
Some in Ennahda felt it would be better to back a candidate from outside the party for the vote that’s being held earlier than planned due to Essebsi’s passing.
“It was split till the end,” says Munthir al-Makawi, a party organizer. “My position was we should find an external candidate, given the situation regionally. Others said we’ve always been the most oppressed, why should we always cede ground?”
Like other activists, Makawi said members accepted the party’s embrace of democratic politics, though it retains a strong religious conservative streak that saw it unsuccessfully opposing a law that would gave women equal inheritance -- something that runs counter to Islamic scriptures.
Thanks to electoral rules, there’s no recent polling to indicate whether Mourou’s bid might succeed. One survey in June suggested Ennahda’s popularity had dipped in recent months, something Ghannouchi said is common to several political parties.
At Mourou’s headquarters, his campaign manager Najib al-Gharbi, who spent 15 years in prison under Ben Ali, says regional powers such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which have both cracked down on Islamists, needn’t worry if Ennahda wins.
Tunisia’s brand of diverse, consensual politics is an exception, and anyway it’s not interested in exporting its values, he says.
“The Nile won’t pour into the Volga nor the Congo into the Euphrates. Each river has its own course,” he says, quoting a Tunisian poet.
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