THE BLOG
10/29/2014 04:23 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Defeat Could Turn Out an Advantage for Tunisia's Islamists

FADEL SENNA via Getty Images

Tunisia is a small country with a big audience. The process of electing a parliament and a president matters, not only because it keeps the democratic process alive, but also for the signals it sends the rest of the Arab world. Tunisia, the cradle of the revolution, keeps on setting the agenda.

But the signals it sends are many and various, and the western audience listens only to what it wants to hear. To a jubilant French media, Nidaa Tounes' victory over Ennadha was the victory of laicite loosely translated as secularism or the separation of church and state over its polar opposite, Islamism. It was the victory of pro-western modernity over religious conservatism, the good guys over the bad.

Ennahda were the bad guys because they should not have won in 2011. Democracy produced the wrong result. Essentially two faced, Ennahda preached the virtues of democracy to the West, while quietly laying the foundations of the Caliphate it wanted all along. Ennahda thus "allowed," or at the very least, did nothing to stop political assassinations of leftists to take place, according to this narrative.

But Tunisia also sends other messages to other audiences. Secularism is not the only hallmark of Nidaa Tounes. The force with the strongest adhesive power binding this heterogenous party together is a negative. Nidaa Tounes is defined by not being Ennahda, or any of the other two parties Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol which shared power with Islamists since 2011.

This is why Nidaa Tounes does not now want to share power with any of the troika. Both Nidaa Tounes and CPR are secular, in the French meaning of the word. The center-left CPR should have more in common with Nidaa Tounes, than the Popular Front, which is composed of communists, marxists and Arab nationalists, and could form one of Nidaa Tounes' coalition partners.

Little of this matters to Nidaa Tounes. Other factors are at play. The party is first and foremost the vehicle of its leader Beji Caid Essebsi, who served under the governments of both Bourghiba and Ben Ali. If this passenger does not go on to win the presidency, there is a real question over the roadworthiness of the vehicle Nida Tounes itself. One of Essebsi's advisers admitted that Nidaa Tounes was the extension of the regimes the revolution has blown away. Anadolu News Agency quoted him as saying: "We are an extension to the Ben Ali regime with one exception and that is the freedom of speech," which was not available (then).

Without Essebsi does Nidaa Tounes exist as a party with a coherent message? And will a coalition formed with a host of minor parties be stable? There is at least the risk that Ennahda could regularly form a blocking majority in parliament, composed of smaller parties that defected to it on single issues.

If the primary battleground of the next parliament will be an economic one, with the new government tempted to make unpopular decisions to lift subsidies, the poisoned chalice of unpopular government in a transition period will have been gratefully passed from Ennahda to Nida Tounes. This could be just what the Islamist party wants.

For Ennahda, a defeat which leaves it the second most powerful political force could be no bad thing. Think of where it came from -- prison and exile and where it is now, a permanent fixture on the Tunisian political scene. This is consistent with other polls measuring the popularity of political Islam even in those Gulf countries which are doing everything they can to bury it.

A poll conducted by the Washington Institute, not a think tank known for its sympathy to Islamism, found the Brotherhood still attracted a "surprisingly large minority" in those countries which moved heaven and hell to suppress it -- 31 percent of Saudis, 34 percent of Kuwaitis, and 29 percent of Emiratis. Hamas, its Palestinian offshoot, scored even higher 52 percent of Saudis, 53 percent of Kuwaitis, and 44 percent of Emiratis.

As Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, professor of political science in the UAE tweeted: "For the percentage of support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE to be 29 percent despite all the intensive media, official and unofficial campaign against them, is a percentage that deserves a pause and a thorough reading."

Considering what has been thrown at it in the last two years -- all the money at the command of the Saudis and Emiratis, the media campaign, the arrests, imprisonment and torture, the Brotherhood enjoys a hard and increasingly hardened core of support across the Arab World.

This of course does not help either side to move forward. Most of the money and power is located on the counter-revolutionary side of the fence, while most of the protest is on the other side. As long as that cleavage exists, neither side can triumph over the other. The flame lit in Tunisia and Egypt will not be snuffed out.

There are other messages from this result. The defeat of Ennahda in the parliamentary elections in Tunisia put to rest the myth that once elected Islamists would be unwilling to give up power, that the movement is essentially exclusionary. This was the charge leveled at Mohamed Morsi -- that he could not form coalitions and presided over the Ikwanisation of all the institutions of state, and the charge Nida Tounis leveled repeatedly at Rached Ghannouchi.

The reality is that he has done nothing but form coalitions and make compromises, which cost him dear. He compromised over the inclusion of the word sharia to get the constitution. He voted against a law that would have excluded members of the old regime from taking part in elections. He paved the way for his own apparent defeat. He put the process of getting a constitution through above the result. He weathered in the process, what his own supporters were calling a soft coup.

Ennahda is playing a longer game. This election has turned the charge of exclusionary politics on its head. When in 2011 Ennahda won 89 seats, they took the premiership but gave the two other most important political prizes, the presidency and the head of parliament to secular parties. They need not have, because they were clear winners. The gap between first place and second in 2011 was 60 seats.

This time around the gap between first and second in the parliamentary elections is much thinner -- 15 seats and Nidaa Tounes does not seem to want to share out the goodies. So the question this time around is not whether Ennahda is exclusionary, but whether Nidaa Tounes is. Will the winner attempt to take all this time around? Will it deal with Ennahda as a legitimate political force? Much will depend on the answer.