By Souad Sbai
The Women’s Day in Tunisia, held on Monday, August 13, was accompanied by demonstrations and bitter polemics due to the endorsement of the President of the Republic, Beji Caid Essebsi, to the proposal to equate man and woman as to the inheritance rights.
The proposal was put forward by the Colibe Commission, entrusted by Essebsi himself with the task to study the reforms necessary to bring the laws into line with the principle of equality established by the 2014 constitution. The President hoped that the proposal could become law in a short time, even if the date of the start of the Parliamentary debate has not been set yet.
The major stumbling block to the entry into force of the law is the firm opposition of the ultra-conservative factions. The massive female presence among those who took to the streets in defense of the traditional prescriptions of Islam in matters of inheritance, according to which a woman has to receive the half of a man, is a sign of how the grip of fundamentalism on the conscience and the psyche of Tunisian women remains very strong, although Essebsi has guaranteed the freedom to continue referring to the Islamic laws. At the same time, the President’s support to the findings of the Colibe Commission could succeed in destabilizing the fundamentalist camp, led by the party of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda.
The forced cohabitation in the same government between the Islamists led by Rached Ghannouchi and Nidha Tounes, the secular party founded by Essebsi, is based on a fragile pact of non-belligerence that does not apply to the political competition. The electoral campaign for the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled in 2019 has already begun, and Essebsi seems to be pushing Ghannouchi, his likely adversary, to throw off the mask as to a crucial topic for the Muslim Brotherhood: the rights of women. The need to show a modern and progressivist face, especially in front of Europe, has pushed Ennahda to accept the introduction of “gender-friendly” measures contrary to the fundamentalist ideology of the “Ikhwan”, which in the course of history has been the main source of inspiration of jihadist and terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Women’s rights are advancing in Tunisia as well as in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world, and to keep up with this process Gannouchi could not oppose the abolition of the law that until September 2017 had prevented Tunisian women from marrying non-Muslim men if not converted.
With the aim of surpassing Essebsi and Nidha Tounes in terms of openness, Gannouchi even endorsed the candidacy of a non-veiled woman in the recent elections for the mayor of Tunis.
However, the victory of Souad Abderrahim, the first female mayor in the history of the country, must not deceive on the nature of Ennahda. The political and electoral machine of the Muslim Brotherhood is well-oiled, unlike that of Nidha Tounes, and was key to the defeat of the latter also in the municipal elections of last May (28 against 20 percent), while Gannouchi was celebrating the taking of important places such as Sfax, the second richest city, and Kairouan, the spiritual capital. On the other hand, the road to power also passes through the “taqiyya”, the typical dissimulation indicated in the strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood to conquer both the Middle East and the West. Therefore, Ennahda purports to embrace change only for opportunism and so that nothing will change, remaining coherent with the origins and the Islamist essence of the party.
This approach is not without risks. The search for the lay and secular votes to the detriment of Nidha Tounes, is leaving Ennahda increasingly vulnerable to the criticism of the fundamentalist factions, the main electoral base of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The allegation to distort Ennahda’s nature are translating into the strengthening of alternative fundamentalist movements and parties, which openly oppose the improvement of women’s rights in Tunisia, without any dissimulation. Ennahda is aware of the risk of losing its ultraconservative electorate, but it is also afraid to lose all the lay and secular votes to Nidha Tounes, discrediting its image abroad. The ensuing ambiguity is well-summarized by the position taken by Ennahda on the reform of the inheritance legislation. The party did not take any clear stance, neither in favor nor against the equation between men and women, and just expressed a general appreciation toward the need to “deepen the discussion and dialogue on the contents of the report” and the “value of rights, liberties, and equality between sexes”.
Essebsi’s move to place women’s rights at the center of the electoral campaign is thus likely to put a strain on the transformism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia. If Ennahda fails to find an effective formula to address its ambiguity, the outcome of the 2019 elections will be a defeat.