Media attention is back on Tunisia following recent startling declarations by Rached Ghannouchi and his political party, Ennahda, which was in power from late 2011 to early 2014.

On 19 May, the eve of Ennahda's 10th Congress, Ghannouchi outlined to Le Monde the ideological changes taking place in his party. Ghannouchi said that Ennahda would 'leave Political Islam' and enter 'Democratic Islam'; an expression that draws an analogy with the Christian democratic parties of Western Europe.

Ghannouchi told Le Monde: 'We are Muslim democrats who no longer claim to represent political Islam'. He said there was no point in referring to the term 'Political Islam' in post-revolution Tunisia. Further, he explained that 'Tunisia is now a democracy. The 2014 constitution has imposed limits on extreme secularism as well as extreme religion'. He described Ennahda as a 'political, democratic and civil party whose point of reference is rooted in the values of Islam and modernity'.

Ennahda's 10th Congress on 20-22 May ratified the movement's separation of its political activities from its religious and social activities. The reform, backed by the party's leadership, was approved by 93.5% of the party delegates. Ennahda has thus divided itself into a civil political party and a separate religious movement. Religious and social activities are to be carried out by independent civil society associations. Ennahda leaders will therefore have to choose between holding leadership positions in the party or in civil society associations and they will no longer be allowed to preach in mosques.

The reform announced by Ennahda seems to fit with the views of the majority of Tunisians, with a recent survey suggesting 73% of Tunisians were 'in favour of a separation between religion and politics'.

However, Tunisia's other political parties and the media have expressed doubts about the scope and political impact of this evolution within Ennahda. It has been noted the party is still claiming Islamist roots which suggests relations between the party and religious associations may not disappear, even if there are no longer organisational links between them. The separation between political and religious activities is therefore perceived to be technical; not ideological.

These doubts seem to have been validated by a text published online by Jamil Mansour, head of Mauritania's Tawasol party which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Mansour, who is well acquainted with Ennahda and its leaders, said Ennahda has renounced its Islamist ideology and the distinction between political activities and preaching does not mean the movement has divided into two independent entities. He view was the changes were an evolution towards specialising in two different fields (political and social activities) in conformity with the law. He added that while the reform announced by Ennahda has been given much media coverage, it is not a novelty within Islamist movements. The distinction between political activities and preaching is an idea that has already been put forward at the Justice and Development Party and its senior members, such as Saadeddine El Othmani, in a book titled Religion and Politics: Distinction not Separation. He noted that Islamists in Algeria and Mauritania are also carrying out similar reforms.

Several Tunisian observers say the reform announced by Ennahda should be viewed in the context of other actions the party has taken as it prepares to return to power.

After it won the largest number of Constituent Assembly seats in the October 2011 election, Ennahda led a governing coalition for two years before handing over power to a caretaker government in January 2014 after public pressure. The Ennahda-led movement was then accused of having a soft stance towards jihadi salafist groups that carried out two political assassinations in 2013 (leftist leader Chokri Belaid and Constituent Assembly member Mohamed Brahmi).

In the October 2014 legislative elections, Ennahda won 69 seats but was defeated by the secular Nidaa Tounes party which gained 86 seats. The latter formed a coalition government in which there was one minister only from Ennahda.

Today, however, the situation has changed. Following the resignation of several MPs of the Nidaa Tounes party, Ennahda has became the largest party in parliament. In a media interview on 11 June, Ghannouchi said that Ennahda's representation in government should be in proportion to its electoral weight.

The doubts about the real scope of Ennahda's renouncing of political Islam do not seem to take into account past decisions by the party that confirm ideological changes have been underway. Ennahda has mainly approved the country's 2014 constitution recognising the Tunisian state as a civil state and making no mention of Sharia (Islamic law) as the basis of law. This renouncing of Sharia has so far been exceptional within Islamist groups in the region, in the Maghreb as well as the Mashreq.

We must now wait and see how the entities announced by Ennahda will evolve and how they will approach contentious issues, such as keeping mosques away from politics. It also remains to be seen whether the Tunisian people will accept a potential return to power by Ennahda. The October 2014 elections were not so long ago and they showed a majority of Tunisians wanted the country to remain secular and revealed most were not satisfied with Ennahda's performance in government.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Cernavoda.