The Islamist who would be president

Why We Wrote This

Religion and politics are rarely an easy mix. Yet in Tunisia, a nation with a long secular tradition, an Islamist is a leading candidate for president. He’s a profile in contradictions.

Taylor Luck
Islamist presidential candidate Abdelfattah Mourou (right) chats with a resident of the working-class Hay At-Tadhamin neighborhood while campaigning in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 9, 2019.

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The issue is fundamental, and universal: Can a holy man lead a country as president? Abdelfattah Mourou, a judge turned politician and co-founder of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, is just the second Islamist to run for president in the Arab world.

He was set to study Islamic law, but first he went to an elite lycee high school that taught French, humanities, theater, and music. As a result, he straddles Tunisia’s great divides. He speaks six languages, but has working-class roots. And he’s just as comfortable talking about gay rights as he is Catholic liturgy.

But even as his charm wins over critics, questions remain whether his larger-than-life personality can paper over the deep-seated suspicions swirling around religious-oriented political groups. It's especially true in Tunisia, with a century-old secular liberal tradition and one of the most relaxed social attitudes toward drinking, music, relationships, and religious freedoms in the Arab world.

Liberals and secular politicians freely admit that “we hate the Islamists, but we love Mourou.” Others say, “Mourou is all of Tunisia put into one man.” But will voters make the distinction between party and person?

A polyglot who can joke in German, loves music, has working-class roots, and is just as comfortable talking about gay rights as he is Catholic liturgy.

That makes for a unique candidate of any stripe – let alone an Islamist running for the highest office of an Arab state.

Tunisia’s Abdelfattah Mourou, a judge turned Islamist politician and co-founder of the Ennahda party, is the second Islamist to run for president in the Arab world.

But even as his charm wins over critics, questions remain whether his larger-than-life personality can paper over the deep-seated suspicions and fears swirling around religious-oriented political groups.

The issue is fundamental, and universal: Can a holy man lead a country as president?

The question is especially difficult in Tunisia, with a century-old secular liberal tradition and one of the most relaxed social attitudes toward drinking, music, relationships, and religious freedoms in the Arab world.

Questions linger on the left whether his friendly face masks a deeper conservative agenda.

Born before Tunisia’s independence in 1956, Mr. Mourou grew up in Bab Souika, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood at the gates of Tunis’ 1,300-year-old medina, or old city, that has been the beating heart of Tunisia’s politics, culture, and art.

His father ran a cafe, while his mother worked as a seamstress, putting him in contact with people of all walks of life, what he calls his “true education.”

Contradictions

Mr. Mourou was set to study Islamic law at the University of Ez-Zitouna, which has produced top Islamic scholars for more than a millennium.

But thanks to a scholarship, he first went to Western-oriented Sadiki College, the elite lycee high school that taught French, humanities, theater, and music, and produced the liberal elites of Tunisia, including the independence fighter and the country’s first modern president, Habib Bourguiba himself.

A product of both schools, he straddles Tunisia’s great divides.

“Abdelfattah Mourou represents all these different facets of Tunisian identity that at first glance may seem contradicting,” says Khalil Amiri, a campaign aide.

Mr. Mourou worked as a public defender and a judge before his political activism landed him in prison for two years in the early 1980s under the Bourguiba regime.

“I have been a lawyer, judge, and a prisoner,” he jokes both in private and on the campaign trail, “so no one knows the justice system better.”

He revels in his contradictions.

He can discuss Islamic law, Sufi saints, and the old taverns and dancers in Tunisia. He speaks eloquent Quranic Arabic in interviews, and drops into street slang on the stump.

He has survived being shot at a protest for laborers’ rights, but continues to praise Bourguiba – a man who shuttered Zitouna and cracked down on Islamists – for ending the French occupation.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
A campaign billboard depicts Islamist presidential candidate Abdelfattah Mourou, dressed in his trademark traditional Tunisian jebba, in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 11, 2019.

Dressing the part

To this day, Mr. Mourou wears the traditional Tunisian jebba, a cowl-like gown that drapes from the arms with intricate embroidery down the center seam, and a chechia, a red felt fez-like cap – a centuries-old symbol of Tunisian identity.

He began wearing the outfit at the age of 18 as young Tunisians were rushing to wear Italian-tailored suits as a form of rebellion.

Mr. Mourou has worn the jebba at debates and while campaigning. Yet when he met with business leaders this week, he donned a suit and tie – literally slipping in and out of Tunisia’s various identities as casually as a change of clothes.

And he won’t hesitate to tell you that nothing is wrong with that – in Arabic, French, Spanish, German, English, and Italian.

He even surprised viewers and campaign aides earlier this year with impromptu sign language for an entire minute on national television.

“When he was done, he told us, ‘There are people in Tunisia who are never spoken to, and it is our job to reach them,’” says one aide. “We were just shocked – we didn’t even know he could sign.”

Man of the people?

The legend of Mr. Mourou and his work as a public defender lives large in the Tunis neighborhood of Hay At-Tadhamin, one of the most densely populated areas in Africa.

“Abdelfattah defended poor people for free; he defended the rights of single mothers, even prostitutes – he was the people’s champion,” says Mohammed Dhawaidi, in his 60s, as he lines up to see Mr. Mourou campaign in the neighborhood. “He is one of us, and he knows the life we lead.”

As Mr. Mourou stepped out of his motorcade, dozens of men, women, and children lined up to hug him, embracing him like an old friend. Women ululated.

His streetwise toughness surfaced when an angry resident got an inch from his face, screaming at him about Ennahda’s absence between elections and for the traffic his visit created.

Mr. Mourou’s smile disappeared, and after nodding for a few minutes, he said sternly, “Hey guy, that’s enough. Point made.”

On policy, he pushes a tough-on-terrorism approach, calling for a special brigade to “liberate this country’s mountains” from groups such as Al Qaeda. He calls for opening Tunisia’s economy, combating climate change, and boosting digital security.

Yet socially, he has distanced himself from his movement’s more conservative talking points.

There is no talk of drinking, nightclubs, or moral values – trademark issues for Islamists elsewhere.

Mr. Mourou came out against a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality on the grounds that it violates “personal freedoms,” at a time when some secular candidates have been using homophobic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

“You cannot apply a law that investigates people’s private lives, that spies on people, that violates the sanctity of the body,” he said at a press conference Monday. “The issue of homosexuality is an issue of personal choice, and we must respect a person’s choices.”

History

History hangs over him.

The first and last Islamist to run for president, Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup backed by large segments of the Egyptian public in 2013 and died in prison in June.

Ennahda refused to field a candidate in Tunisia’s last presidential elections in 2014.

“Mourou’s candidacy is part of Ennahda’s ongoing struggle to be accepted by the elites in Tunisia and regional powers, to show them that they are pragmatic and not a threat,” says Tarek Tahlawi, a Tunisian political analyst.

Many internal polls show Mr. Mourou running second or third out of the 26 candidates, with a strong possibility he will be among the final two in a runoff.

Liberals and secular politicians freely admit that “we hate the Islamists, but we love Mourou.” Others say, “Mourou is all of Tunisia put into one man.”

But will voters make the distinction between party and person?

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