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The decision last week by Tunisia's successful Ennahda Party to separate its political from its religious functions strikes me as one of the most important developments in modern Arab political life. It may help clarify perhaps for the first time since the 1930s how powerful religious sentiments and values in Arab society can interact with the frail world of electoral politics and ideology-based parties. The separation of political work in public from religious preaching and other spiritual functions is especially significant because Ennahda has proven to be perhaps the most effective Islamist political organization in the modern Arab world. It will reveal in the coming years, at local and national levels simultaneously, whether Islamist movements like itself can be at once effective protest and opposition groups, successful political actors in fair and free elections, efficacious incumbents once in office, and graceful losers when popular opinion turns against them.The important thing in Ennahda no longer allowing its leaders to hold leadership positions in civil society organizations while also being active in religious organizations or preaching in mosques is what this will reveal about the party's ability to function purely as a political organization, in a competitive electoral environment.
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