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Islamic Studies Hizb al-Nahdah
Allen Fromherz


Hizb al-Nahdah, which translates to “Renaissance Party” in English or “Parti de la Renaissance” in French (the second language of Tunisia), is a political party in Tunisia. Although described as “Islamist,” the Hizb al-Nahdah officially presents itself as a moderate and distinctly “Tunisian” party, a party based on Islamic values but not committed to instituting every aspect of Sharia, or Islamic law, to the letter. Compared to other Islamist parties in the Arabic-speaking world, Hizb al-Nahdah’s platform is relatively secular. Hizb al-Nahdah has often compared itself to the religion-rooted, but also secular, Christian Democratic Party of Germany. The current leader of Hizb al-Nahdah, Rashid al-Ghannouchi (Rashid al-Ghannoushi, Rached Ghannuchi), has said that he does not advocate the idea of joining a unified Islamic caliphate based on Sharia law. Hizb al-Nahdah’s moderate position must be understood in the particular context of Tunisian society. A large proportion of Tunisians, especially in the coastal cities of Tunis, Sousse, and Sfax, identify as secular in outlook. These secularists have expressed some concern that Hizb al-Nahdah has presented mixed messages, a moderate and relatively secular one to residents of the coastal cities and another more conservative one to the more traditional inhabitants living inland. Hizb al-Nahdah has tried to distance itself from the Hizb al-Tahrir, the pan-Islamic and Islamist revolutionary party that embraces the idea of a caliphate and the strict institution of Sharia law.

General Overviews

Unlike Hizb al-Tahrir with its transnational emphasis, Hizb al-Nahdah is primarily a Tunisian phenomenon. As such, until recent events, comparatively little attention has been focused on the Hizb al-Nahdah itself, except within the context of more general studies of political Islam. Few monographs in English focus solely on Hizb al-Nahdah and its historical development. That said, there are several overviews of Hizb al-Nahdah provided by the party itself in various book-length publications and pamphlets tracing the origins of the Hizb al-Nahdah and of its predecessor, the Islamic Tendency Movement (Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique [MTI]), which was renamed Hizb al-Nahdah in December 1988 (AMC 1991). The collections contain some article-length studies of Rashid al-Ghannouchi, the intellectual leader of the Hizb al-Nahdah (Jones 1988.) Indeed, Jones and Ghannouchi wrote an article together in the same journal (al-Ghannoushi and Jones 1988). Also, Tamimi 2001 is a book-length study describing al-Ghannouchi’s complex intellectual development. The history of the Hizb al-Nahdah and the MTI is described as part of a history of labor, Islam, and social uprisings in Tunisia, as discussed in Perkins 2004. More recently, Alexander 2010 briefly discusses the Hizb al-Nahdah and its relationship with the Tunisian state. Studies are also available that contextualize the Hizb al-Nahdah as part of a wider North African phenomenon, including Entelis 1997. Finally, Hamdi 2000 provides a case study of Hizb al-Nahdah and its literature, and Burgat and Dowell 1997 provides a comparative overview of Islamism in North Africa.

Islamic Tendency Movement (1981–1988)

In June 1981 the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI) was founded under the leadership of Rachid al-Ghannouchi and ‘Abd al-Fattah Mourou. Both men concluded that they must adopt the democratic option, albeit one that was still steeped in Islam, after a more liberal wing of intellectuals broke off from their group. Even though they maintained the moral authority of Islam, the new MTI withdrew all claims of “tutelage,” or wisaya, over Islam, truth, and the popular will. As such, the MTI distanced itself from the intellectual writings of the Iranian revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood, which both claimed wisaya (Islamic Tendency Movement ). In al-Ghannouchi and al-Turabi 1981, the authors describe the justification behind the withdrawal from wisaya and other planks of the MTI platform. In prison for demonstrating against President Habib Bourguiba, al-Ghannouchi wrote about Islamic thought and the struggle between idealism and realism in which he critiques the “idealism of the age of decadence” as well as “traditionalist” religious institutions for their lack of support for modern Islamic movements. He rejected texts that were divorced from reality. He called for an alliance with the working class, women, and the proponents of arts and culture. Other sources from within the MTI show that the movement did not depend completely on the charisma of al-Ghannouchi (‘Abdal-Latif 1985) in garnering support. Also, several scholars and reporters from the West began to critique the tacit support given by the US government to Tunisia’s autocratic regime, often mentioning the democratizing tendencies of the MTI (Rupert 1986–1987). As the MTI became more visible, pointed critiques of its ideological platform emerged (al-Hammami 1989). Important primary sources for the early years of the MTI are Al-Ma‘rifa and Al-Mujtama‘, journals founded by al-Ghannouchi and later suspended by Bourguiba.

  • ‘Abd al-Latif. “Al-Haraka al-Islamiyya fi Tunis.” Al-Mawqif, 9 February 1985, 130–136.

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    This article describes the basic principles of the Islamic Tendency Movement in the 1980s.

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  • al-Ghannouchi, Rached, and Hasan al-Turabi. Al-harakat al-Islamiyya wa al-Tahdith. Tunis, 1981.

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    Although the book speaks in general terms, it is meant to be an intellectual manifesto for “democratic Islam” within Tunisia and the Islamic world more broadly.

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  • al-Hammami, Hamma. Didd al-zallamiyya al-Ittijah al-Islami harakat Nahdah . . . am harakat imtihat? 3d ed. Tunis: Hamid lil Nashr, 1989.

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    The MTI did not go unnoticed by critics, including Hamma al-Hammami.

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  • Islamic Tendency Movement. Islamic Tendency Movement: THE FACTS. Washington, DC: Islamic Tendency Movement, 1987.

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    Distributed by the Islamic Tendency Movement in 1987 and translated from the Arabic, this pamphlet was meant to influence political actors and perhaps potential donors in the United States. The introduction states: “the confrontation between the Islamic Tendency Movement and Bourguiba is a confrontation between Democracy and dictatorship, and we are confident that, God willing, democracy will be triumphant.”

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  • Rupert, James. “Tunisia: Testing America’s Third World Diplomacy.” World Policy Journal 4.1 (1986–1987): 137–157.

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    Studies of US foreign policy toward Tunisia in the context of the government’s oppression of the MTI.

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The Renaissance Party under Ben ‘Ali (December 1988–February 2011)

Prohibited from using “Islamic” in its name, the Islamic Tendency Movement was refounded as the Hizb al-Nahdah (Renaissance Party) in December 1988 in time for the upcoming election. Seeking legitimacy after his takeover of power, President Ben ‘Ali announced this election would take place in November 1989. President Ben ‘Ali wrested power from Bourguiba in a coup on 7 November 1987. Initially, the Hizb al-Nahdah and Rashid al-Ghannouchi embraced the promise of a free and fair election. Ultimately, however, al-Nahdah candidates were not allowed to run, despite the change in the party’s name. Instead, the party sponsored independent candidates. Astonishingly, the “independent” candidates indirectly sponsored by the Renaissance Party won 19% of the vote, even according to highly manipulated “official” numbers. In 1990, the Renaissance Party and other, smaller parties decided to boycott the municipal elections, pronouncing them, like the earlier national elections, rigged as well. After 1990, the Hizb al-Nahdah was subject to constant surveillance from the secret police and intense pressure from the full power of the Tunisian state. In some respects, the crackdown under Ben ‘Ali was just as bad as, and sometimes worse than, the situation had been under Bourguiba. The role of the Hizb al-Nahdah in this period drew the attention of the international press, as discussed in Markham 1989. After the false promise of elections under Ben ‘Ali, the Hizb al-Nahdah began an active campaign of publicizing instances of torture and oppression to members of the Western press and human rights organizations. Some of these organizations wrote reports about extensive abuses directed toward adherents of the Renaissance Party (Amnesty International 1990, Amnesty International 1991) The US Department of State has submitted reports before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs detailing similar abuses in Tunisia (see Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor 2011). Oppression heightened as instances of torture of members of the Renaissance Party increased and students were forced into military service in large numbers, as discussed in al-Ghannouchi 1993. Al-Ghannouchi 1993 focuses on the roots of Islamic democracy and the respect for elections. The Hizb al-Nahdah continues to publish pamphlets. With the introduction of email and the Internet, the party began to use an extensive listserv as a potent way to express, and to spread, its message.

Limits of al-Nahdah

In the 1990s some scholars, in works such as Abu Khalil 1994, came to doubt the intellectual coherence and prospects of Islamic parties such as Hizb al-Nahdah. Others, such as Alexander 2000, identified the Hizb al-Nahdah in the context of larger labor movements. Some authors remained somewhat skeptical of the ultimate goal, or vision, of ostensibly “secularist” Islamist parties (Miller 1993). Similarly, interest grew in the dilemma of reconciling Islam with democratic values, as seen in Esposito and Piscatori 1991. Also, some scholars have seen a more inevitable paradox arising between Islamist ideals and democratization, as seen in Schwedler 1998. Articles also appeared in the West, including Halliday 1990, in which observers framed the future of Ben ‘Ali as a struggle between parties such as Hizb al-Nahdah and the secularist state that the dictator upheld. Many remained confident, however, that al-Nahdah would remain moderate in its fundamentals, despite state repression, as discussed in Dunn 1996. Even so, Dunn identifies a split in the movement between the more moderate ‘Abd al Fattah Mourou and Rashid al-Ghannouchi.

  • Abu Khalil, As’ad. “The Incoherence of Islamic Fundamentalism: Arab Islamic Thought at the End of the 20th Century.” Middle East Journal 48.4 (Autumn 1994): 677–694.

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    In this article, the author doubts the intellectual coherence and the future prospects of Islamic parties such as Hizb al-Nahdah.

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  • Alexander, Christopher. “Opportunities, Organizations, and Ideas: Islamists and Workers in Tunisia and Algeria.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 32.4 (November 2000): 465–490.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020743800021176Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Identifies al-Nahdah as conscribed within the wider context of labor movements in Tunisia and North Africa. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Dunn, Michael Collins. “The al-Nahdah Movement in Tunisia: From Renaissance to Revolution.” In Islamism and Secularism in North Africa. Edited by John Ruedy, 149–187. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.

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    Dunn’s work describes how the al-Nahdah movement developed from advocating reform to adopting more revolutionary rhetoric. He also describes how this revolutionary rhetoric was shaped by Tunisia’s particular secularist situation.

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  • Esposito, John L., and James Piscatori. “Democratization and Islam.” Middle East Journal 45.3 (Summer 1991): 427–440.

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    The “dilemma” of reconciling Islam and democracy in Tunisia is treated in general terms in this study.

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  • Halliday, Fred. “Tunisia’s Uncertain Future.” Middle East Report 163 (March–April 1990): 25–27.

    DOI: 10.2307/3012554Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article was written as Ben ‘Ali began his consolidation of power and crackdown against al-Nahdah.

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  • Miller, Judith. “The Challenge of Radical Islam.” Foreign Affairs 72.2 (Spring 1993): 43–56.

    DOI: 10.2307/20045523Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article details many of the challenges faced by “moderate” and nation-specific Islamist parties.

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  • Schwedler, Jillian. “A Paradox of Democracy? Islamist Participation in Elections.” Middle East Report 209 (Winter 1998): 25–29.

    DOI: 10.2307/3012731Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Following Miller’s article, Schwedler similarly elaborates on the limitations imposed on moderate Islamist parties by the authoritarian state. Also see p. 41.

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The 2011 Revolution

It has often been reported that the Hizb al-Nahdah played much less of a role in the revolution of 2011, the revolution that ousted Ben ‘Ali from power, than had been expected. Although few scholarly articles have, as yet, appeared, newspaper articles allude to the potential future role of the party in post-revolutionary Tunisia, including Kirkpatrick 2011 and Fuller 2011. Marzouki 2011 contextualizes the revolution. The website of the Hizb al-Nahdah has updates about its continuing activities in Tunisia. As the website reveals, the Hizb al-Nahdah is also called “Harakat al-Nahdah,” or Renaissance Movement.

LAST MODIFIED: 06/26/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0094

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