With Tunisia’s presidential and parliamentary elections fast approaching, Ennahda, a dangerous Islamist political party in the North African republic, has been making quite a few campaign stops in the United States.
Two prominent Tunisian-American activists, in particular — Radwan Masmoudi and Mongi Dhaouadi — have long supported the Ennahda cause and now appear to serve as coordinators for Ennahda’s activities inside the United States.
Most recently, in September 2019, Masmoudi organized an event featuring Rabeb Ben Letaief, Ennahda’s selected parliamentary candidate to represent the Tunisian diaspora in America. And earlier this year, In January, Dhaouadi organized an event with Ennahda politician Mehrzia Labidi, inviting Tunisians of the area to join them for a “great conversation.” During her visit, Labidi met Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), with Dhaouadi enthusiastically commenting that they were both “two amazing political leaders.”
Dhaouadi, former executive director of the Connecticut branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), is a “proud” Ennahda member. He attended the party’s tenth congress in 2016 and escorted Ennahda founder and international Islamist luminary Rachid Ghannouchi during his 2015 visit to Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, Masmoudi, also a card-carrying Ennahda member, heads the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Washington — for which Dhaouadi now also works. Masmoudi and Dhaouadi have spent years strengthening Ennahda’s image in the U.S. and introducing Ennahda to American officials.
Through CSID, Masmoudi has organized many events that feature high-ranking Ennahda officials. In 2014, Ali Larayedh, Ennahda’s former prime minister, delivered the keynote address at CSID’s 15th annual conference. Others present included Phillip Gordon, then the Special Assistant to President Obama; as well as then-Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) (who has his own Islamist ties). During this same event, CSID awarded the 2014 Muslim Democrat of the Year Award to the Ennahda bloc of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly.
In 2015, CSID held a dinner in honor of Ghannouchi. This time, those in attendance included John Desrocher, then the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Egypt and Maghreb Affairs at the U.S. State Department, as well as the former U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, Gordon Gray.
Through his other group “Friends of Ennahda, USA”, Masmoudi has also organized events up and down the East Coast wit Larayedh, high-ranking Ennahda member (and recent presidential candidate) Abdelfattah Mourou, and, most recently, Ennahda parliamentary candidate Rabeb Ben Letaief.
Masmoudi claims that CSID is independent, is not part of Ennahda, and works only for the success of Tunisian democracy. But this claim of nonpartisanship is far from convincing.
In 2014, Ennahda hired American public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. According to Jeune Afrique, Masmoudi personally arranged for Burson-Marsteller Paris to manage Ennahda’s public relations in Europe.
Masmoudi has been rewarded for his unwavering support for the party. In January 2019, Sayida Ounissi, an Ennahda minister in the coalition government who had previously attended CSID events, nominated Masmoudi’s daughter for a high-ranking position in the Tunisian government, despite her scant qualifications.
Ennahda’s roots lies in international Islamism. Its founding members pledged allegiance to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Originally established as a student organization in the 1970s, over the years, Ennahda became increasingly involved in politics and national protest, eventually escalating to violence and a coup attempt in 1987.
Many prominent party members and allies were imprisoned or exiled around that time. In the West, these exiled Tunisian Islamists became closely involved with leading Islamic community groups. In the United Kingdom, for example, Mohammed Ali Harrath set up the Islam Channel, one of the most watched Islamic television stations in the West. The Islam Channel has long promoted some of the world’s most extreme Islamist clerics, including deceased Al Qaeda operative Anwar Al-Awlaki. The channel has been censured several times by British authorities for “advocating violence against women and supporting marital rape.”
Many Tunisians returned home after the 2010 revolution, which would later come to be seen as the precursor to the Arab Spring. Ennahda emerged victorious from subsequent elections. Prominent Islamist figures, such as Harrath, relied on the new Islamist regime to nullify their previous terrorism convictions. Ennahda proceeded to manage the country disastrously for only two years before being forced out of power.
While Ennahda claims to be a moderate movement, its two years in power illustrated otherwise. In 2012, Ennahda founder Rachid Ghannouchi asked young Salafi activists to be patient, saying that “secularists” still controlled the media and the economy, and so Islamists had to proceed slowly and carefully in order to “consolidate” their hold on the government. Ghannouchi’s advice, which led to widespread outrage in Tunisia, came to be seen as proof the party’s double discourse.
Ennahda once promised that it would not impose Islamic law, but Ennahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali subsequently proclaimed that Ennahda “w[ould] not allow the illicit, clearly enacted by God.” He added that Ennahda would one day call for the introduction of corporal punishments according to Sharia.
Worse still, Ennahda permitted Ansar Al Sharia Tunisia (AST), an Al Qaeda offshoot, to operate freely in Tunisia for several years. Only when AST was shown to be involved with the violent 2012 attack against the American embassy in Tunis did Ennahda finally distance itself from the group, which was consequently put on a Tunisian terror list. However, Larayedh nonetheless prevented the police from arresting AST leader Abu Iyadh, who was able to give a live-streamed sermon in a mosque encircled by law enforcement before mysteriously evading capture.
Ennahda was forced to relinquish power in 2014. Along with widespread protest against its policies, it was also accused by the opposition of bearing responsibility for the murders of two left-wing politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.
In the wake of its ouster, Ennahda sought to improve its image. In 2016, Ennahda declared it was “leaving political Islam” and would be separating its political and religious wings. This separation, however, was widely regarded as “purely technical and not ideological.”
Despite Ennahda’s incontrovertible links to violent Islamism, members of the party have been frequently welcomed as moderates in the United States. Ghannouchi visited the United States several times, giving lectures at Yale University and Columbia University and attending various events with leading U.S. government officials.
Tunisians are well aware of Ennahda’s duplicitous rhetoric: Claiming moderation while holding on to its extremist ideology. In the United States, however, Islamists such as Masmoudi and Dhaouadi work to portray the party only as peaceful, democratic and modern. Masmoudi’s events, at which high-ranking Ennahda officials mingle with U.S. diplomats and representatives, afford credibility to a party that enabled an Al Qaeda offshoot and worked towards a theocratic state.
Ennahda’s years in power were at least useful in the sense that they confirmed that party’s underlying extremism. Now, prominent American Islamists are doing all they can to ensure that Ennahda wields power once again.
Martha Lee is a Research Fellow at Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.