Ennahda, the “Sick Man” of Tunisian Politics

Since the revolution of 2011, Ennahda has been at the heart of the Tunisian political debate, raising all fears for some, all hopes for others. But nine years later, the party is questioning its future and struggling to set its priorities, causing disappointment among its supporters.

unisian Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party leader Rached Ghannouchi (R) chairs the first session of the new parliament following the October elections in the capital Tunis, on November 13, 2019.
Fethi Belaid/AFP

Right now, Ennahda ought to be enjoying its consecration. Now that it is a full-fledged participant in the country’s political life and its institutions, now that its chairman Rached Ghannouchi is the second most important official (Speaker of the Assembly), now that it has come first in the recent legislative elections with a group of 54 MPs (of whom 52 figured on its own lists) and even managed to field a candidate for the presidency (who took third place with a score of 12.9¨%). For a party which was outlawed for thirty years and even had to go underground, which was the target of an attempt at total eradication, it is more than just a success, it is a victory in itself. But a bitter victory.

Because now the party’s internal divisions are out in the open, to the point where some cadres have declared in private that a schism or even the disappearance of Ennahda are no longer taboo subjects. For example, both Hichem Laarayedh (son of Ali Laarayedh, former premier) and Zien Boumakhla, historic cadres of the younger generation, turned in their Party cards on 14 January, the anniversary of the fall of the old regime, signifying that the revolution was continuing outside the Party which they believe cannot be reformed. The secretary general, Zied Laadhari (also Minister of Development ad International Cooperation) resigned his position on 29 November 2019 in protest against the choice of Habib Jemli as the party’s candidate for Prime Minister. On 10 January, he broke with his parliamentary group by joining the majority in its vote of no-confidence to the government.

Habib Jemli, a revealing failure

As a result of the legislative election of 6 October, Ennahda has the largest group in parliament and hence the responsibility of appointing the Prime Minister. The party was thus in control of the agenda in an environment far more peaceable than it was in 2011 at the time of its first electoral triumph when it was under attack from all sides. Yet it failed to convert its electoral victory into the exercise of power. This failure is telling evidence of its shortcomings and dysfunctions.

In the first place, its ballot-box erosion has deprived it of a majority comfortable enough to facilitate alliances. The figures speak for themselves: 1,5 million voters (37%) for the Constituent assembly in 2011, 947,000 (27%) for the 2014 legislatives, 517,000 (28%) for the local elections in 2018, 434,000 (12%) for the last presidential ballot and a modest recovery with 561,000 votes (19.7%) in the last parliamentary election. Consequently, a drop in the number of MPs from 89 in 2011 to 69 in 2014, then to 54, of whom only 29 gathered the number of votes corresponding to the electoral quota, the other seats having been filled through the allocation of remainders.

Its narrow relative majority has obliged Ennahda to enter an alliance with parties that for the most part don’t trust it. The one exception is the Al-Karama coalition (“Dignity”) which probably attracted a share of Ennahda’s most radical voters on the basis of a strong affirmation of Islamic identity and a clean break with the former system, winning 21 seats. Its head is Seif Eddine Makhlouf, said to have close ties with Nourredine Bhiri, an Ennahda cadre who was Minister of Justice from 2011 to 2013 in the so-called Troika government and is a member of the Islamist party’s political bureau.

This isolation, this lack of a natural ally, this climate of distrust or hostility obliges the party to negotiate and thus to maintain its position through an unstable combination of concessions, quid pro quos and pressure tactics. Since party programs are not an essential element of Tunisian politics, the terms of these negotiations are rarely revealed to the general public. This situation fuels both the parties’ disrepute in public opinion and the distrust among possible allies. Not to mention the frustration of activists and the bitterness of the electorate.

In this ever-changing kaleidoscope of situations, Ennahda had no scenario to handle its unexpected victory with such a fragmented Parliament. When the latter convened on 13 November 2019, Rached Ghannouchi was elected president of the assembly thanks to a deal with presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, the media tycoon, founder of Nessma TV and of the party Qalb Tounes which Ennahda repeatedly described during the electoral campaign as the party of corruption. A change of tune which was soon followed by another.

According to Ennahda’s by-laws, the party’s president was the natural candidate for the office of Premier. Once this scenario was set aside, some independent figure had to be found who was sufficiently credible to inspire confidence in future allies. The choice was up to the majlis al-chura, the deliberative council, on the proposal of the party executive. Rached Ghanouchi had two candidates in mind: Habib Kchaou, former advisor to the Prime Minister on social affairs in the days of the Hamadi Jebalis and Ali Laarayedh governments (from 2011 to 2014), a personality in the good books of the Union generale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), and Risha Ben Mosgah, sometime foreign minister under Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Yet his name was not included on the list of five, submitted to the chura. To the surprise of the council members, considering he usually defended his viewpoint until he won his way, he did not go to bat for any of these candidates.

Habib Jemli led the field with 79 votes, Habib Kchaou got only 2. Jemli, former secretary of State for agriculture in the Troika governments, is not a party member but he reassures the Ennahda apparatus who are afraid of a Premier who would be hard to control. The following morning, before going to officially submit the name of this candidate to the Chief of State, Rached Ghannouchi was still uncertain. He knew that Habib Jemli did not inspire enough confidence. He tried once more to impose Habib Kchaou, even thought of soliciting other candidacies. But the balance of power was not in his favour. He no longer had the authority to impose his choice and finally went along with Habib Jemli.

On 18 December, an agreement which had been reached the day before with other parties to form a government, nevertheless collapsed in utter confusion, undermined by a lack of confidence all around. There followed an increasingly opaque procedure in the inner circles of the party which produced a cabinet of independent personalities, massively rejected by the assembly on 19 January by 134 votes to 72 (Ennahda’s and those of the Al-Karama coalition). In the meantime, Ghannouchi had dropped Habib Jemli and made a deal with Nabil Karoui to back Fadhhel Abdelkefi, once a minister under Beji Caid Essebsi and whom Qalb Tounes had planned to make Prime Minister had Nabil Karoui won the presidency. This at a time when no one had forgotten that on 16 September Ennahda’s president had come out in favour of Kais Saied for president in the name of the revolution.

What this series of events reveals is the isolation of Ennahda, the irreducible distrust of possible partners, the weakness of its leadership, the persistence throughout the party of the trauma of exclusion and repression, and its propensity to ally itself with its adversaries for fear of a return of the dictatorship rather than with partners bearing transformative goals.

The cost of integration

The democratisation of the country’s political life has not lessened the hostility of the intellectual and governmental elites towards Ennahda. The Islamist party is still viewed as a threat to the “national project,” as a player that has to be kept close tabs on in order the better to paralyse it. Normalisation is still seen as a reversible gain. Especially given the unfavourable geopolitical environment, the prevailing instability in both Libya and Algeria. So Ennahda must constantly “pay its dues” to keep its place in the political game.

Yet in May 2016, following the party’s Congress, the future seemed bright. The Chief of State had attended the opening session in person to seal, hand in hand with Rached Ghannouchi, the reconciliation between Ennahda and the State. But voices of protest were raised among a rank and file anxious to see the party become an instrument of systemic reform. Challenged during the Congress, Ghannouchi pushed through his conception of an executive tailored to suit him by threatening to resign. But the reform of the party was under way and the separation of politics from religious proselytism had an impact around the world. The Prime Minister at the time, Habib Essid, was more willing to work with an organised and assiduous party than with Nidaa Tounes (Beji Caid Essebsi’s party) which was already split.

And yet it had been necessary to oust Habib Essid in July 2016 at the insistence of the President who wanted to regain control. “Just how far must we go along with Ghannouchi?” was the question being asked by MPs who had already had to accept, among other concessions, voting down a law which would have barred former cadres of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (DCR), (Ben Ali’s party, dissolved in March 2011) from taking part in the 2013 elections. In October 2017, they had also been compelled to vote in favour of the law of “administrative reconciliation,” granting amnesty to civil servants involved in economic crimes under the previous regime.

At the end of the day, these accommodations had a demobilising effect on rank and file activists who found themselves the butt of criticism from voters who accused them of profiteering from the State and using religion as a pretext. They no longer understood why the Party was participating in the government. To reform the system? To protect itself? Or to keep its leaders in office? What was this tactic supposed to be in aid of? The gratitude felt towards the leadership for this unexpected acceptance into the political game was gradually changing to doubt.

The turning point came with Ghannouchi’s tactical decision, in May 2018, to throw his weight behind Youssef Chahed, the Premier whom the President had been wanting to dismiss since the beginning of the year. Beji Caid Essebssi appeared weakened, embroiled as he was in the crisis caused by his son’s takeover of Nidaa Tounes. Youssef Chad on the contrary was flying high, he seemed to have broad backing, including among Tunisia’s foreign partners. While the majlis chura was laying down its conditions, Rached Ghannouchi came to his own decision and announced on 28 May that Chad was not to be ousted, thus breaking with Beji Caid Essebsi. Hence the capital acquired thanks to the party’s modest success in the local elections was squandered on a power game instead of being used to push through more ambitious reforms.

This arrangement with a power-hungry freewheeling politician (albeit the head of the government) was a gamble fraught with danger. Lofti Zitoun, political advisor to the party executive, pointed out that the 2014 alliance had been sealed with the chief of State, not with a politician. And the latter was soon to revive the ideological polarisation which could only weaken Ennahda, by announcing on 13 August 2018 his intention of establishing inheritance equality between men and women. The closer the collaboration with Youssef Said, the more dossiers embarrassing for Ennahda were brought to the fore. In particular, the issue of the party’s own intelligence apparatus which some have accused (without proof) of being involved in the murders of leftists Choukri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013.

While party reform, initiated at the 2016 Congress, was at a standstill, the old demons were back and internal disputes were on the rise. The divorce became an accomplished fact in July 2019. For the coming legislative election, the party president changed, the leading candidates on 30 out of 33 lists as they had been selected by the regional bodies, in order to isolate his opponents and create a parliamentary group that he could control. But what he gained in power he lost in authority. He no longer had the means to dictate his choices to the party. And while the next Party Congress was meant to be held in the spring of 2020, he has put it off in order to extend what is to be his last term of office. Just as the skin of the wild ass in Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin shrinks with each new wish granted its purchaser, so too what Ennahda has gained in achieving its dream of integration, it has lost in vital energy.

An identity crisis

So despite the party’s flattering electoral results, a mood of depression has set in. “What are we fighting for? What is our social identity? What is our aim as a member of this government?” These questions are rampant in the party ranks and find no answer. Ennahda is the last major party from before 2011 and is having a hard time updating its heritage under the new circumstances. It is no longer a party of protest. “The party emerged in response to three shortcomings of the Bourguiba era”, a regional party cadre explains: “the lack of democracy, the non-recognition of the religious dimension of the nation’s cultural identity and widespread social exclusion. The first two tasks have been accomplished but we have been unable to accomplish the third.”

In other words, faced with the social issue, the country’s social-territorial divisions, the party has been unable to produce an explanatory model capable of being converted into political action. What once determined the Ennahda vote—the reference to religion, the rejection of the old regime, cultural and political sovereignism, the integration of the marginal categories of the population—all tend to have been taken over by other electoral organisations.

While Elyes Fakhfakh, the Premier appointed by Kais Saed, has joined a majority for a transformational government, Ennahda is clinging to its arrangement with Qalb Tounes which is likely to lead to the dissolution of Parliament. The goal is supposed to be the formation of a broad majority to deal with the “huge challenges” ahead (which are very real) but mostly it is for fear of seeing a coalition englobing Qalb Tounes and the Free Destourian Party (FDP), successor of Ben Ali’s DCR, which would endanger the party itself and its leaders.

Said Ferjani, also accustomed to negotiating with the party’s adversaries, has just declared that Abir Moussi, head of the FDP,1 would be a welcome member of the government if she cared to support it. And indeed, today more activists than ever are raising the dreaded question: “All that for this?”

1Moussi unabashedly claims to be a follower of Ben Ali whom she refuses to describe as a dictator. In her public statements, she regularly refers to the Islamists as “Daechiens” (members of Daech ) and “terrorists,” even in Parliament where she has sat since the last election.