Islamic Party's Secret Weapon in Tunisia Local Elections: A Jewish Candidate

In bid to attract liberal voters, Simon Salama will stand for the Ennahda party in municipal elections. Muslim party rejects criticism from religious circles

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The Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. The country is home to no more than 2,000 Jews, making an Islamic party's decision to field a Jewish candidate particularly bold.
The Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. The country is home to no more than 2,000 Jews, making an Islamic party's decision to field a Jewish candidate particularly bold.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

You can imagine the furor in Israel if the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party selected a Muslim Arab candidate to stand in local elections. But party members can relax: The party that espouses Jewish law above all others would never contemplate such an off-the-wall idea. However, what is impossible in the Jewish state turns out to be a considered political move in Tunisia.

The Ennahda party, originally inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and led by one of the country’s leading clerics and political thinkers, Rached Ghannouchi, has put forward a Jewish candidate for the upcoming municipal elections in May.

The decision to select Simon Salama to stand in the coastal city of Monastir didn’t pass without some stormy reactions among both religious and liberal circles. But Ennahda’s spokesman had a simple response to critics: “Salama’s joining is an important addition to the party.”

Simon Salama, the first Jewish candidate to stand for the Islamic Ennhada party in Tunisia. "All I want is to serve the public of Monastir," he says.Credit: Screengrab

Salama, 55, is the party’s first Jewish candidate, and he is a long way from a being prominent public figure. The son of a sewing machine repairman, he learned the same trade in Strasbourg, France, before returning home to run the family business.

Speaking to the media, using colloquial and basic Arabic, he said he had decided to run for an Islamic party because it “extended its hand to me. If any other party had offered to make me a candidate, I also wouldn’t hesitate. All I want is to serve the public of Monastir.”

But former Ennahda activist Sheikh Khamis al-Majari was unmoved by these arguments. “Placing a Jew as a Muslim leader flies in the face of Islamic law,” he told the media. “I’m shocked that this party – which also objects to calling normalization of relations with Israel an offense – puts up a Jew as one of its candidates,” he said.

Liberal opponents of the party believe it’s a political stunt, since Ennahda is considered politically weak in Monastir. One opponent speculated that running Salama is intended to justify the party’s expected defeat there on Election Day, which is scheduled for May 6.

Thinking outside the political box

But Ennahda is no stranger to demonstrating political originality. When it won a large majority in the first elections held after the Arab Spring in 2011, its leadership still decided to concede the positions of prime minister and president. And following protests against the Ennahda government in Tunisia and after the Muslim Brotherhood’s removal from power in Egypt, Ennahda decided to enter a coalition with the secular Nidaa Tounes party, agreeing to appoint a technocratic government based on this religious-secular alliance.

This has been a relatively stable government, symbolizing the exceptional democratic achievements of the Arab Spring revolution in Tunisia. It is the only Arab country in the region that has managed to preserve the principles of democracy, to significantly expand human rights, formulate a liberal constitution and overcome political crises.

But this success story now faces dangerous challenges, mainly in combating terrorism – which has dealt a heavy blow to tourism (a vital branch of Tunisia’s economy). A further challenge is the economic crisis, which led to mass demonstrations in January. Tunisia is a poor country with high unemployment and a budget deficit reaching 6 percent of GDP; inflation stands at 6.3 percent and the budget deficit is growing. The country’s minimum monthly wage is now $144, and that is after a recent substantial increase.

The upcoming municipal elections will be an important test for the government, but equally so for the actual system of government – since there will be a general election next year, whose outcome may lead to nothing less than a constitutional revolution.

Voices are already calling for the establishment of a powerful presidential style of government, which may turn into an authoritarian regime that curtails human rights, freedom of expression and private initiative. The local election results will draw the map outlining the political forces and highlighting the prominent players who will compete to replace the incumbent president, 91-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi.

The importance of these elections is evident in the large number of candidates – about 57,000 – who are competing for 7,182 seats in 350 municipal districts.

Given this situation, the decision to field a Jewish candidate is indeed a bold move that poses a huge political risk – given that the number of Tunisian Jews is between 1,500 and 2,000, giving them no political clout. We can therefore assume that Ennhada’s move is truly an attempt to present itself as an open and modern party, one that accepts secular and non-Muslim people, in an attempt to win the hearts of liberal voters.

The move is also linked to the party’s 2016 decision to separate religious preaching and politics – in other words, that political activity should not be derived from religious ideology.

Incidentally, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also added secular groups to its list of candidates in 2012, in order to show that it was a party for everyone. The key difference is that in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood acted like a hungry monster that tried to devour everything in its path, while in Tunisia Ennahda seems to acting with political wisdom.

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