Hamadi Jebali, secretary general of the Islamist Nahdha party, winner of the Constituent Assembly election of October 23, 2011, declared at a meeting of his party on November 13, 2011, that Tunisia was entering the 6th Caliphate. This comment provoked strong reactions and condemnations from the Tunisian political elite, as well as political cartoons lampooning Jebali as the next “caliph” of Tunisia. Jebali and his lieutenants attempted to deflect the controversy by saying the quote had been taken out of context. What is this all about?

In the Muslim political imaginary, the khulafa’ al-rashidun represent an idealized moment in history, that of the first four caliphs, the rightly-guided, who came after the prophet Muhammad: Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, Uthman Ibn Affan, and Ali Ibn Abi Talib. The period from the death of the prophet in 632 to that of Ali in 661 marks a golden era after which political history is conceived as having degenerated. However, Umar Ibn Abd al-Aziz (717-720) from the Umayyad dynasty is often seen as part of the rightly-guided Caliphs and defines what is often dubbed the “5th caliphate”. He exemplifies the possibility of being a pious and just ruler in times of corruption.

Jebali used that reference from Islamic history to speak about political regeneration within an Islamic idiom. Representatives of al-Nahdha insisted afterwards that the reference to the caliphate was symbolic, and did not put into question al-Nahdha’s commitment to the republican regime and to the people’s will as the foundation for government. However, their adversaries responded that words mattered, and that the evocation of the caliphate in public political discourses was not simply a “symbolic matter.” Indeed, the notion of Caliphate is also related to that of the Islamic state, and mentioning the caliphate in times of political transition is not a small matter.

The controversy around the 6th caliphate illustrates the new public contentions emerging in Tunisia around the language that Tunisians now use to discuss politics. For 55 years, the language of liberal democracy was used in an authoritarian context. During the first months of a more democratic context, Tunisians have been giving free reign to their freedom of expression in the streets, the new media, the written press, the radio and the television, and the new tribunes of political parties, state institutions and civil organizations. A new variegated terrain for politics and new political idioms are emerging, and this new phase of the political history of Tunisia will certainly be punctuated by this sort of controversies. A new political language is being negotiated, and one point of contention will be if and how the Islamic tradition will be woven in this language, and what legal and institutional impact it will have.

The other political parties have reacted strongly, so strongly that Ettakattol has suspended its participation in the negotiations for the formation of the new government, asking Jebali to clarify his position. Although al-Nahdha has won the election, being the party that obtained the most but not the absolute majority of seats, the Islamist party faces the constraints of having to govern in a coalition. More broadly, it is now in the public eye: its leaders’ discourses are closely watched and echoed by the new media. Paradoxically, their discourses did not count much in Tunisian politics before the revolution since they were not in power or not even part of the legal opposition, whereas today their margin of maneuver is limited by the strong resistance they encounter from the rest of the political elite.

The Islamic public figures who will govern Tunisia will now be forced to define their political language with more clarity, in particular in the ways this language relates to Islam and to the future political reforms. Their platform speaks of a “civil state,” which is in contrast with the institution of the caliphate. Al-Nahdha’s leadership knows very well that these two concepts have been in conflict in the modern history of Islam: Muslim intellectuals have discussed the legitimacy of the caliphate as well as alternative forms of political institutions in the 20th century, from Egyptian Ali Abd al-Raziq to  Tunisian Abd al-Aziz al-Thaalibi. These are not debates that one can describe as “foreign” to the history of the intellectual life of Tunisians. Will al-Nahdha demonstrate its political and intellectual rigor by providing public intellectuals who will fully and thoughtfully engage with such urgent questions? After 55 years of authoritarianism, during which the very articulation of truly public political discourse was of the order of the impossible, will we be able to think clearly and deeply about the language we want to articulate when we speak about politics? This will involve much more than mere words pronounced in Arabic or French to please specific constituencies. In the end, whether we want a “republic” or a “caliphate” will depend on the specific meanings we give to these two institutions, how we relate them to past political histories and how we imagine their future.

Hamadi Jebali’s comment is not just a matter of “symbols.” If the mention of the caliphate was simply the consequence of a moment of carelessness, he needs to clarify his position. Today in Tunisia the mention of a republic is less contentious than that of a caliphate, but we should not forget that it was under a republican regime that authoritarianism flourished for more than half a century. In the new post-revolutionary Tunisia, language –its form and its meanings– matters. How the elected government, and the parties participating in it, al-Nahdha, the Congress for the Republic, and Ettakatol, describe and define the future political institutions matters, because Tunisians want to know how those whom they have elected will reform their political institutions to ensure democratic life and political accountability.