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Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have historically excluded Islamist parties from the political process, making it difficult to assess assumptions about how they would behave in power, let alone about their potential to stimulate and steward a democratic transition. Until Tunisia’s Ennahda party won elections in 2011, no Islamist party in (or beyond) the MENA region had managed to lead an elected government, with a single exception: Turkey’s Justice and Development party (AKP). While scholars have tended to focus on the regional impact of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the original Arab Islamist movement, in many ways the Ennahda-AKP comparison is tighter, and therefore more illuminating, than the Ennahda-Muslim Brotherhood comparison. Comparing the AKP and Ennahda, therefore, can help scholars identify how different Islamist parties’ impact on democratization may diverge.

Can Islamist parties be loyal contributors to long-term democratic consolidation, or are they likely to abandon pluralist pretenses and swallow up state institutions if the opportunity arises?1 Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have historically excluded Islamist parties from the political process, making it difficult to assess assumptions about how they would behave in power, let alone their potential to stimulate and steward a democratic transition. Until Tunisia’s Ennahda party won elections in 2011, no Islamist party in (or beyond) the MENA region had managed to lead an elected government, with a single exception: Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (better known by its Turkish acronym AKP), which scholars have described either as Islamist or post-Islamist.

In the late 1990s, Turkey’s Islamist opposition expanded beyond its religious roots to unite a rainbow coalition of liberals, Kurds, and other groups that felt marginalized by the sclerotic nationalism of Turkey’s Kemalist establishment. This process culminated in the formation of the AKP, which in 2002 overcame what political scientist Stathis Kalyvas has termed the “commitment problem” of religiously oriented parties and succeeded in winning two-thirds of the seats in parliament.2 The AKP’s single-party government arguably then became the primary engine of democratic change in Turkey. It advocated European Union membership and inaugurated prodemocratic constitutional reforms to help harmonize Turkish and EU legislation. By the late 2000s, the AKP’s apparent successes in power seemed to have proven that Islamists could act as drivers and defenders of democracy. Talk of a “Turkish model” abounded, and scholars and Western policy makers—along with some [End Page 102] Arab Islamist parties—began approvingly citing the AKP as an example of moderate Islamism shepherding economic development and democratic reforms.

This was not to last. The Turkish model began losing its luster following the AKP’s complicity in the politicization of the judiciary, its support for widespread military purges, and its crackdowns on media freedom—trends that had become visible by 2010. By the time the government crushed the civil society protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013, academic and policy-making circles had largely abandoned talk of the AKP as a model. Liberals who had supported the AKP in its earlier, more pluralistic days became targets for mockery from anti-Islamists who labeled them naïve dupes and authoritarian enablers. Many of these disillusioned liberals began to resent the AKP, believing that the party—and its increasingly domineering leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—had betrayed the cross-ideological coalition that swept them to power in the first place.

As the AKP’s star faded, however, another party of self-proclaimed Muslim democrats was on the rise. Tunisia’s Ennahda party—brutally oppressed during the twenty-three-year rule of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali—earned well-deserved plaudits for its leadership in advancing Tunisia’s post-revolutionary transition. After winning a plurality of votes in Tunisia’s first nationwide democratic elections in October 2011, Ennahda led a three-party coalition government including two secularly oriented parties.

Although dogged by economic and security challenges, the Troika government, as it came to be known, helped keep Tunisia’s transition afloat. Ennahda, as the coalition’s leader, deftly negotiated through Tunisia’s postrevolutionary waters. Through canny maneuvering in mid-2013, for example, Ennahda’s leaders defused a soft coup attempt known as the Bardo Crisis that could easily have derailed Tunisia’s transition. To stave off such threats, Ennahda’s leaders adopted a pragmatic approach focused on securing the long-term survival of the party itself and of Tunisia’s nascent democracy. Especially following the Bardo crisis, Ennahda’s leadership adopted hedging positions that opened space for, and even created alliances with, holdovers from the ancien régime. Such political concessions—far more than those dealing with religious issues—initially proved repugnant to Ennahda’s base. In response, the party’s leaders held countless regional and local-level meetings to persuade grassroots members that forgiveness of, and even compromises with, their former oppressors represented the best way forward.

Despite the significance of these internal political deliberations, liberal and Western observers have generally been preoccupied with Ennahda’s stances vis-à-vis more ideological issues, such as the role of shari‘a, women’s rights, and blasphemy. For these observers, two capstone [End Page 103] moments have suggested that Ennahda—not the AKP—might offer a promising new model of “Islamist-lite” democratization. The first came in January 2014, when Ali Laarayedh, the outgoing prime minister and an Ennahda member, signed Tunisia’s first democratic constitution, a document that neither referenced shari‘a nor criminalized blasphemy, while obliging the state to seek equal representation for women in public office.3

The second came in May 2016 at Ennahda’s historic tenth party congress, where the party was widely seen as having abandoned political Islam to advocate a clear separation between religion and politics.4 In the months since, observers have increasingly invoked Ennahda as shining example of an Islamist party dedicated to strengthening democracy. Mentions of a Tunisian model for Turkey, as opposed to a Turkish model for Tunisia, can now be heard among academics and policy-makers. Yet critics familiar with the AKP’s fall from grace—particularly disenchanted former supporters of the AKP who feel “once bitten, twice shy”—often wonder: Will Tunisia’s “Muslim democrats” repeat the mistakes of their Turkish counterparts?

Ennahda has indeed been watching the AKP, which it sees as more similar to itself than any Arab Islamist party. The AKP has followed Ennahda’s progress as well, but given its longer experience in office and the fact that Turkey is much bigger and more powerful than Tunisia, the AKP has tended to approach Ennahda as a mentee rather than as a model. Ennadha leaders insist that various writings of their party president, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, have been translated into Turkish and have helped shape the AKP’s development. When questioned on the subject, however, AKP leaders typically display no awareness of this; they describe Ennahda as a “party of brothers” that “looks up to us.”5

Since the Arab Spring revolts of early 2011, the two parties have been in greater contact, with AKP delegations visiting Ennahda’s offices in Tunisia and vice versa. They mutually recognize themselves in each other, in part because of their shared history. Both are center-right Sunni parties that emerged in the MENA region’s two most seemingly secular countries. Yet both Tunisia and Turkey, despite being shaped by a history of French-inspired secular modernism, experienced years of high-level government intervention in and paternalistic control over religious life. These state interventions in religious practice marginalized conservative citizens culturally and politically, restricting their ability to form parties that referenced Islam and prohibiting women who wore the headscarf (called hijab in Arabic and baş örtüsü in Turkish) from working in state institutions such as schools and hospitals, or from attending public universities.

Oppression of Islamists was especially harsh in Tunisia, with tens of thousands of Ennahda members detained by the Ben Ali regime. Exclusion under secular authoritarianism made both parties crave the political [End Page 104] inclusion that came with democratization. Like the AKP and its Turkish predecessor, the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), Ennahda came to embrace democratization as the best bet for its own survival. Ennahda and the AKP stand alone as the only two Islamist parties that have arguably overcome Kalyvas’s commitment problem: Both have cohabitated with secularly oriented parties; both have sought to bring non-Islamists into the party fold; and both have, at least at some moments, preserved and promoted prodemocratic reforms.

Thus, the AKP and Ennahda offer a fascinating comparison. Scholars with an interest in the comparative politics of Islamist movements, however, have tended to fixate instead on the regional impact of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the original Arab Islamist movement, which inspired kindred parties from Morocco to Kuwait. This Egypt-centric approach has obscured the growing regional influence of Turkey’s AKP.6 In many ways, the Ennahda-AKP comparison is tighter, and therefore more illuminating, than the Ennahda–Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood comparison. Comparing the AKP and Ennahda, therefore, can help scholars identify how different Islamist parties’ impact on democratization may diverge.

Turkey as a “Reference State” for Ennahda

Interviews I conducted with nahdawis (Ennadha members) in 2011 made it abundantly clear that the party felt an especially strong kinship with Turkey’s AKP. That summer, Ennahda was campaigning for parliament in the first free and fair nationwide elections in Tunisia’s history. Curious to learn how Ennahda might govern if it won those elections, I asked 72 Ennahda leaders and grassroots activists in cities around the country what kind of Islamic governance model Ennahda would seek to follow.

To my surprise, not a single respondent mentioned Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as an inspiring example. Instead, the vast majority of nahdawis at all levels of the party named Turkey’s AKP as the most relevant model. “Ask anyone in Ennahda,” said Yesmin Masmoudi, a 24 year-old volunteer at the party’s youth wing in Sfax. “We are more advanced than the Ikhwan [Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood].”7 Like many nahdawis, Masmoudi cast Ennahda as the progressive nephew to the Ikhwan’s comparatively stodgy older uncle. Instead of referencing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, she and other party members repeatedly cited Turkey’s AKP as representing an enviable combination of piety, prosperity, and democratic credibility.

Ennahda leaders saw in the AKP a model of gradual and sustainable Islamization through democracy—a model that relied on economic growth, democratic alliance-building, and a long-term perspective. Having experienced decades of persecution and exile, Ennahda leaders [End Page 105] staked their bets on this long-term style of thinking, as opposed to the shari‘a-centric and comparatively heavy-handed approach of the Ikhwan. “The AKP will gradually make Turkey a more Muslim country, through education, building the economy, and diversifying the media,” said Ennahda president Ghannouchi. “That’s our model—not law. Make people love Islam. Convince, don’t coerce them.”8

During the course of those 72 interviews in 2011, some Ennahda members—especially those who had been exiled to or educated in the West—also invoked Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) as a model. Yet more than twice as many party members at all levels invoked the AKP as mentioned the CDU, and they evinced a deeper connection to the Turkish organization. Under the AKP, Turkey became what political scientist Nancy Bermeo has termed a “reference state” for Ennahda—a nation that serves as a point of comparison and source of learning for political actors in another state, often for reasons of geographic proximity, shared history, cultural similarity, or some combination of the three.9

In fact, by 2011, the AKP had easily outstripped the Egyptian Brotherhood as Ennahda’s chosen reference state. How, then, did the AKP rise to this status in the eyes of Ennahda members? This shift, which signalled the reversal of decades of detachment between Turkish and Arab Islamist trends, happened for three main reasons.

First, the AKP government invested more energy than its predecessors had in cultivating relations with Turkey’s neighbors to the south and east, especially after its EU accession prospects dimmed. This push was undergirded by a neo-Ottomanist foreign policy that sought to rewind Turkey’s regional relations back to a time when the engagement of empire, rather than the standoffish insularity of anti-Arab Kemalist nationalism, held sway. A few high-profile events also helped Turkey win favor among Arabs for standing up against both Israel and Western imperialism: Parliament’s vote in 2003 to reject the U.S. request to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base for staging incursions into Iraq; then–prime minister Erdoğan’s denunciation of Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009 regarding the situation in Gaza; and Turkey’s role in supporting the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010 (better known as the Mavi Marmara incident).

Second, Arab Islamist parties aspired to replicate in their home countries many of the AKP’s economic and political achievements. The AKP’s time in power coincided with rapid economic growth that transformed Turkey’s infrastructure and boosted its global financial standing. Politically, the AKP had opened Turkey’s rigidly secular military and judicial establishments to allow the inclusion of religious conservatives. Arab Islamist parties, chafing under authoritarian systems that were no less exclusionary than Turkey’s, aspired to achieve similarly resounding electoral victories—a prospect that looked less distant following the Arab Spring uprisings. [End Page 106]

Third, following those uprisings, Turkey sided strongly with the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional analogues. When Egypt’s military threatened in late June 2013 to overthrow the country’s first democratically elected president, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, Turkey advised Morsi to stand his ground rather than take action that might have defused the crisis, such as transferring power to a newly appointed prime minister.10 On July 3, Morsi was ousted in a military coup, and the following month Egypt’s military regime massacred as many as one-thousand pro-Brotherhood protesters in Cairo’s Rabaa Square. Erdoğan immediately opened Turkey’s doors to political asylum seekers from the Egyptian Brotherhood. By 2016, Turkey hosted an estimated 1,500 Egyptian Brotherhood asylees, making Istanbul a regional hub for meetings of Islamists and greatly expanding dialogue among the AKP, the Egyptian Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Ennahda, and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD). At the same time that Turkey threw open its doors to the Brotherhood, it was also accepting millions of desperate Syrian refugees. This humanitarian act, approved by Erdoğan at a time of Western waffling and hypocrisy on the issue of Syria, bolstered his image as a man of principle who placed Muslim solidarity over self-seeking political gain.

Turkey as Defender of Islamism

Interestingly, the symbol of the Rabaa massacre—a raised four fingers printed in black against a bright yellow background—became ubiquitous among AKP members, many of whom changed their social media profile pictures to include the symbol and used it in signs and banners as a rallying cry for solidarity against coup-making. Erdoğan himself was photographed making the hand gesture during public addresses. Three years later, following the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, flags, scarves, pins, stickers, and banners with the Rabaa symbol were featured in pro-government rallies. By extending its umbrella of protection to the Brotherhood and explicitly adopting Rabaa as a rallying cry, the AKP symbolically presented itself as an integral partner and defender of Islamist movements in the region.

Well before Morsi’s ouster, Ennahda had criticized the Brotherhood’s maximalist approach to power.11 Nonetheless, it felt outraged and deeply shaken by the coup and its aftermath, which served to remind nahdawis of the fragility of Tunisia’s own transition. For Ennahda, Erdoğan’s bold stance against the coup in Egypt offered a refreshing alternative to the muted responses and hypocrisy of Western leaders. In Ennahda’s view, Western countries weighed down by close ties to Israel, a history of chummy relations with Arab autocrats, and a Janus-faced approach to democratic elections (supporting them in theory, but often condoning their suppression when an Islamist party won), were strongly [End Page 107] predisposed to ethical inconsistency where Islamist parties were concerned. Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were even worse: They had acted as the chief opponents of the Arab Spring uprisings and had bankrolled anti-Islamist autocrats, including Egypt’s coup-makers. By contrast, Ennahda saw in the AKP a valuable friend and sympathetic ear in the region.

Comparing Party Congresses

Despite their many real and perceived similarities, the AKP and Ennahda possess strikingly different internal organizations. Since the late 2000s, the AKP has functioned along increasingly exclusionary lines, as Erdoğan has replaced critical voices with compliant sycophants in the party and in his advisory bodies. Meanwhile, Ennahda, which was already more internally pluralistic than the AKP, has pushed to diversify party membership, and has recently experienced calls for greater bottom-up representation in its internal electoral structures. These differences were showcased during the two parties’ most recent congresses, which coincidentally were held at exactly the same time in late May of 2016.

At its tenth congress in May 2016, Ennahda decided to separate da’awa (preaching) from siyasa (politics), and eased membership regulations to facilitate the entry of non-Islamists. Members of Ennahda whom I interviewed before and during the Congress agreed that these changes recalled the early years of Turkey’s AKP, when boutique Islamist parties were amalgamated into a national conservative party capable of capturing votes on a large scale.

By far the most controversial issue during Ennahda’s national congress concerned the party’s internal structures. Three proposals were presented regarding the election of the party’s maktab tenfidhi (Executive Board). The first, supported by party president Ghannouchi, proposed retaining the existing system, according to which the president appointed all board members and the elected 150-member majlis shura (Shura Council) then confirmed them. The other two proposals aimed to give the Shura Council greater say over the Executive Board’s appointment. One, proposed by long-time Ennahda leader Abdellatif Mekki, called for the Shura Council to elect the members of the Executive Board. The second, put forward by Abdelhamid Jelassi, called for a mixture of the two models (election of one-third of the Executive Board by the Shura Council).

The first vote on the issue, held May 22, produced a virtual dead heat: Almost the same number of delegates favored “democratization” of the Board’s appointment as backed Ghannouchi’s status quo. A quorum was not present, however, so a second vote was held after some cajoling by Ghannouchi, who vowed to withdraw his candidacy as party president [End Page 108] unless he could choose his own Executive Board. The delegates then voted to maintain the current system.

The push to give greater control to the Shura Council, along with the result of Ennahda’s presidential contest (Ghannouchi won reelection with 800 of 1058 votes, with Shura Council president Fathi Ayadi taking second with 229 votes), show that Ghannouchi’s leadership within Ennahda is not uncontested. Most Ennahda leaders and party members I spoke with see the Shura Council—not the president or the executive bureau—as the true seat of power within the party. The primacy of Ennahda’s Shura Council has long been enshrined in its internal documents, which list the hierarchy of its party organs in the following order: 1) the national congress, held on average once every four years; 2) the Shura Council; 3) the party president; and 4) and the Executive Board. When asked why Ennahda structures its internal hierarchy in this way, nahdawis respond that it is because the party formed during and in opposition to dictatorship, and that institutionalized governance—as opposed to the personalization of power—is a core part of its identity.

Throughout its May 2016 congress, Ennahda placed great emphasis on an extensive internal review of the party’s achievements and failures since its last congress in 2012. This self-critique was the product of multiple committees and months of research, culminating in a draft document read to and adopted by the tenth congress. Ennahda used the opportunity to drive home the importance of learning from its mistakes. In his opening speech on May 20, delivered before a stadium full of Ennahda members and a national television audience, Ghannouchi repeatedly cited the importance of self-criticism. The internal review also was highlighted in Ennahda’s summary document of the congress, released to the public on May 25.

Inside the AKP, by contrast, trends toward pluralism and self-critical reflection that emerged during the party’s earliest years in power have been reversed. On 5 May 2016 Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned from his governmental post and his position as leader of the AKP. He did not jump, but rather was pushed by President Erdoğan, who reportedly was displeased with Davutoğlu’s less than full-throated support for his ambition to change Turkey’s constitution to a presidential system. That change would formally grant Erdoğan the executive powers he has exercised de facto since assuming that the presidency in August 2014 after more than a decade as prime minister. Davutoğlu’s ouster was the latest in a succession of party purges that have marginalized [End Page 109] and even demonized critical voices within the AKP, including former president Abdullah Gül and former deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç.

In response to Davutoğlu’s departure, the AKP held an extraordinary congress on 20 May 2016 to elect his replacement as head of the AKP and Turkish prime minister. Instead of allowing internal debate, competition among multiple candidates for the post, or even any contested voting, the congress functioned as a pro-Erdoğan loyalty exercise. The AKP’s Central Decision and Executive Board, a group composed of Erdoğan loyalists, quickly crowned the president’s choice, Binali Yıldırım. “The AK Party has only one leader,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ said during the congress, “and that is our president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”12

For many observers, Davutoğlu’s ouster marked the moment at which Turkey’s increasingly majoritarian one-party system mutated into a oneman system. By ejecting Davutoğlu from his position of national and party leadership, Erdoğan left himself alone at the top of political power with no other prominent personality remaining within his party to offer pushback, regardless of how muted. Turkey has become a de facto (if not yet de jure) presidential system with increasingly sultanistic characteristics.

The AKP’s May 2016 congress could also be read as the moment when raw power-seeking (personified by Erdoğan) sidelined attempts at self-critical reflection (personified by Davutoğlu) within the party. To justify this shift, AKP leaders and party activists say that Erdoğan, the reis (“leader”), knows best; about Davutoğlu, a former academic known for his attempts to moderate Erdoğan’s steel-fisted approach to the 2013 Gezi Park protests, as well as his ill-fated “no problems with neighbors” foreign policy, they say that the hoca (“teacher”) was growing increasingly out of touch. Instead of a reflective philosopher, they argue, Turkey needs a powerful reis: someone who can confidently steer the country toward a safe harbor in which the AKP will be free from all threats, whether from the Gülen Movement, Kurdish nationalists, or antidemocratic Kemalists.

The AKP’s glorification of Erdoğan as reis has no parallel within Ennahda, where the influence of Ghannouchi, though powerful, is far from absolute. The way AKP members treat their party leader more closely resembles the situation in Nidaa Tounes, Ennahda’s anti-Islamist rival in Tunisia. “Beji makes the decisions, but he listens to all sides,” Nidaa leaders would say with regard to Beji Caïd Essebsi, the party’s founder and Tunisia’s current president. Like Erdoğan, Essebsi styled himself as a charismatic leader, received genuflecting devotion from party members, and has had trouble distancing himself from his party’s internal affairs despite the Tunisian constitution’s requirement that the president remain independent from political parties.

Though Ghannouchi plays a possibly indispensable role in holding together [End Page 110] Ennahda’s disparate trends, nahdawis never refer to him in rhapsodical terms. AKP members, by contrast, routinely refer to Erdoğan as sessizlerin sesi, “the voice of the voiceless.” The words of Meryem Goka, who works at the women’s division of the AKP’s headquarters in Ankara, reflect the way many in AKP describe Erdoğan:

Women come from their houses when the AK Parti makes visits—it’s something like a miracle. They come just because of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, they want to see him, touch him, feel him—he is the voice of the voiceless. … All the people in Turkey, we are all praying that he lives for a very long time … so he can fix the institutions in this country. Then he can step back, so that Turkey, like a young baby, can walk on its own.13

Such statements about Ghannouchi would be unfathomable inside Ennahda. In more than four years based in Tunisia, interviewing hundreds of nahdawis, I never met one who attributed the strength of Ennahda itself, or the success of Tunisia’s transition, to the singular power of Ghannouchi’s guidance. Unlike Erdoğan, Ghannouchi is described by his supporters as a subdued philosopher-politician—a grandfatherly yet often quite cunning thinker whose rhetoric is measured, not hostile, and who has been surprisingly free of paranoia or egoism.

AKP members with whom I have discussed Ennadha tend to describe Ghannouchi as a hoca, sometimes drawing analogies between him and Davutoğlu. But some AKP members have suggested that this type of personality is not what Tunisia needs in a leader. The implication is that, though Ghannouchi’s consensus-oriented ideas might sound nice, they will do little to drive the kind of economic development that Turkey has achieved under Erdoğan. “He is an idealist and a philosopher,” one AKP parliamentarian said of Ghannouchi. “Not a realist politician like Erdoğan.”14

Some AKP members have advised Ennahda to adopt a stronger model of reis-style, unilateral leadership within their party. One AKP member who had met with Arab Islamist delegations, including Ennahda and Morocco’s PJD, put it this way:

We do training programs, and they [Arab Islamist parties] always take us as a model. They ask how we broke these [anti-Islamist] perceptions. I always say that we had one person, one four-star general, and we all loved him. They [Ennahda] need someone who can take them in a similar way and pull them from these struggles.15

Pro-AKP Turkish newspapers tended to report Ennahda’s May 2016 congress as a positive example of a small Arab Islamist party making changes similar to those that AKP’s predecessor, the Welfare Party, undertook in the late 1990s. In interviews with AKP members following Ennahda’s congress, I raised the question of whether there might be anything to learn from Ennahda’s pluralism, its representative institutions, [End Page 111] or its support for cross-ideological coalition building. This notion struck most members of the AKP as mildly absurd. AKP’s longer history in power, its vastly larger size, and Tunisia’s more limited economic development seemed to them to render Ennahda’s achievements irrelevant to the situation in Turkey.

Can Ennahda Learn from the AKP’s Mistakes?

Meanwhile, surprisingly few nahdawis have expressed concern about the AKP’s organizational culture, its leadership dynamics, or its overall direction—even when asked directly whether a post-Gezi AKP continues to represent a viable model for Ennahda. One exception, a member of Ennahda’s Shura Council, expressed concern that AKP members sometimes advocate for a highly centralized model of charismatic leadership:

Most people in my party [Ennahda] do not see that the AKP has a problem with this [Erdoğan’s leadership style]. … [But] If you can’t be a democrat within your own party, you can’t be a democrat outside. The prophet [PBUH] did not have to ask for advice from anyone, but he chose to. So should our leaders.16

Such sentiments are the exception, however. All but a handful of Ennahda members that I interviewed continue to regard the AKP as successful and worthy of emulation. Following the AKP’s victory in Turkey’s November 2015 general elections, dozens of nahdawis posted long messages of congratulations to the AKP and to Erdoğan on their social media feeds. Few acknowledge that the AKP has made any mistakes at all; thus the prospect of Ennadha learning any cautionary lessons from the AKP’s mistakes seems unlikely, at least for now.

Several factors help account for why relations between Ennahda and the AKP have thus far remained warm and uncritical. First, Ennahda instinctively identifies with the AKP and sympathizes with the Turkish party’s reaction to many of the criticisms directed against it. Tunisia and Turkey share strikingly similar patterns of what might be termed “paternalistic interventionism” in the way that the state deals with religion. Modern Turkey and postcolonial Tunisia were both influenced by the relatively rigid French form of secularism known as laïcité. Neither state, however, became truly secular according to the five definitions of secularism commonly cited by scholars.17 Instead, both states adopted models of extensive government intervention in religious life that were designed to subordinate religion to, rather than keep it separate from, the state.

Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba (1956–87), imitated many of the reforms of Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1923–38), producing comparable patterns of illiberal and oppressive state intervention [End Page 112] in religious life. These included prohibitions on wearing headscarves in many public facilities and the barring of even peaceful religiously-inspired political parties. Given these historical parallels, Ennahda conceives of both itself and the AKP as prodemocratic Islamic parties that overcame dictatorship to foster democracy and economic growth.

Second, when Ennahda members hear the AKP being accused of nurturing jihadist terrorism, or of pursuing policies harmful to Turkish democracy, they detect echoes of similar criticisms that Ennahda has received from both local and international actors skeptical of political participation by Islamists. Many nahdawis feel that such criticisms are motivated by bias against the AKP’s identity as a religiously conservative party, rather than by any genuine mistakes that it may have committed.

Ennahda members sensed this bias, for example, in Westerners’ description of Turkey’s November 2015 elections as free but unfair, and in their tendency to characterize Erdoğan as an autocrat.18 Some nahdawis observed that Turkey’s allegedly unfair 2015 elections received more Western condemnation than the sins of Egypt’s murderous government. “While dollars, euros, and state invitations come to Sisi, [Western politicians] are criticizing Turkey’s democracy?” asked a contact in Ennahda. “Typical.” I heard variations of this reaction from many members of Ennahda, and from the AKP. In a Huffington Post op-ed, Ghannouchi’s daughter Soumaya reprised this critique of Western hypocrisy: “The message sent to the people of the region is loud and clear: either a made to fit democracy tailored to our [Western] needs and likes, or a dictator, odious though he may be.”19

Following the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, both the AKP and Ennahda railed against Western politicians’ criticisms of Erdoğan’s postcoup purge, which by October 2016 had suspended or fired approximately seventy thousand public employees. Ennahda members, typically unfamiliar with the intricacies of Turkish politics and often hearing just the AKP’s side of the story, instinctively felt that they had seen this movie before: A democratically elected Islamist party, faced with the threat of its undemocratic ouster, has its mistakes dissected with a fine-tooth comb while the transgressions of the coup-makers are largely overlooked, or even actively endorsed, by the West. Ennahda felt it had itself lived a version of that story in 1989, as had Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the early 1990s, Gaza’s Hamas in 2006, and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.

Watching the Turkish coup attempt play out reinforced Ennahda’s feelings of solidarity with the AKP and stunted the possibility that some nahdawis might learn cautionary lessons from the AKP’s mistakes. It also reinforced Ennahda’s conviction that the AKP faced challenges (coup threats, hypocritical Western powers) that Arab Islamist parties shared. AKP’s strong resistance to the coup attempt—aided by ordinary [End Page 113] men and women who stood down army tanks and by pro-Erdoğan protesters who waved Rabaa signs at subsequent rallies—reinforced in Ennahda’s eyes perceptions of Erdoğan as a courageous democrat rather than an autocratic bully.

Third, Ennahda’s kinship with the AKP is also based on a strong sense that the two parties are, broadly speaking, fighting for the same team: Muslim democrats capable of delivering smart governance and democratic development. Each party keenly feels that it is more in tune with national opinion (the “will of the people,” or “the people’s voice,” as the AKP often says) than its rival parties, whose lack of grassroots organization and dismissal of Islamic values often make them seem absent and aloof. This perception engenders a strong sense that the AKP must be right, even if nahdawis are not familiar with the nuances of Turkish politics or the basis of critics’ accusations. Finally, Ennahda’s uncritical support for Turkey’s AKP also may reflect strategic concerns. In a region where Islamists have few friends, and in a context where Western democracies still seem prone to accept Gulf-supported critiques of Islamist parties, Ennahda would have good reason to cultivate a friend and strategic partner in Turkey.

So far Ennahda has demonstrated, much as the AKP did in its early years, that a party with Islamist roots can steward democratic development. One major reason why Ennahda has managed to navigate the choppy waters of Tunisia’s transition so effectively has been its ability to learn not only from European experiences of democratic transition and consolidation, but also from the setbacks of Islamist parties elsewhere in Arab lands. Yet Ennahda could also learn some important lessons by critically examining why Turkey’s AKP, despite its earlier democratic achievements, has recently turned in a more authoritarian direction.

Monica Marks

Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and PhD candidate at Oxford University. She was based in Tunisia from 2012 to 2016, and currently resides in Turkey, where she has also been a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Instructor at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University.


The author would like to thank Marc Lynch, Alfred Stepan, and Jeremy Menchik, for providing feedback that helped develop the ideas in this article.

1. For a discussion of democratic loyalty and disloyalty, see Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

2. Stathis Kalyvas, “Commitment Problems in Emerging Democracies: the Case of Religious Parties,” Comparative Politics 32 (July 2000): 379-98.

3. For more on Ennahda’s constitutional drafting process, see Monica Marks, “Convince, Coerce, or Compromise? Ennahda’s Approach to Tunisia’s Constitution.” Brookings Institution, 10 February 2014,

4. Abdou Filali-Ansary, “Tunisia: Ennahda’s New Course,” Journal of Democracy 27 (October 2016): 99–109. Monica Marks, “What Did Tunisia’s Nobel Laureates Actually [End Page 114] Achieve?” Washington Post, Monkey Cage blog, 27 October 2015,

5. Interviews with Ennahda members in Tunisia (2011–16) and AKP members in Turkey (2012; 2016).

6. Monica Marks, “Tunisia’s Ennahda: Rethinking Islamism in the Context of ISIS and the Egyptian Coup.” Brookings Institution’s Rethinking Political Islam Series; publication forthcoming with Oxford University Press in 2016.

7. Interview with Yesmin Masmoudi, 7 August 2011.

8. Interview with Rachid al-Ghannouchi, 22 August 2011.

9. Nancy Bermeo, “Democracy and the Lessons of Dictatorship,” Comparative Politics 24 (April 1992): 283.

10. Ahmet Kuru, “Turkey’s Failed Policy Toward the Arab Spring: Three Levels of Analysis,” Mediterranean Quarterly 26 (September 2015): 94-116.

11. Monica Marks, “Did Egypt’s Coup Teach Ennahda to Cede Power?” Project on Middle East Political Science, June 2016,

12. “AK Party Emergency Convention Elects Binali Yildirim as New Party Chairman,” Daily Sabah, 22 May 2016.

13. Interview with Meryem Goka, 6 June 2016.

14. Author interview, AKP parliamentarian who asked to remain anonymous, 14 May 2016.

15. Author interview, AKP leader who asked to remain anonymous, June 2016.

16. Author interview, member of Ennahda’s Shura Council who asked to remain anonymous, 20 May 2016.

17. See the five definitions identified by Daniel Philpott, “Has the Study of Global Politics Found Religion?” Annual Review of Political Science 12 (June 2009): 183–202.

18. Soumaya Ghannouchi, “Erdogan, Sisi, and Western Hypocrisy,” Huffington Post, 5 November 2015,

19. Ghannouchi, “Erdogan, Sisi, and Western Hypocrisy.” [End Page 115]

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