Tunisia. Ennahda Undone By the Test Of Power

Late February in Tunis, and the conservative Islamist party is trying to rally its followers for a show of force around its leader, Rached Ghannouchi. But ten years on from his first electoral victory, Ennahdha is struggling to hold a decent position on the political chessboard.

Rached Ghannouchi, November 27, 2013

On 30 January 2011, Rached Ghannouchi stepped onto Tunisian soil after more than 20 years in exile. The Ennahda leader was acclaimed by thousands who flocked to greet him at Tunis-Carthage airport, with cries of Talaa al-badru ’alayna! (“The full moon has risen over us,” a traditional Islamic song celebrating the arrival of the Prophet Mohammad at Medina). His return, two weeks after the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, signalled the rebirth of a party which the authoritarian regime had striven to eradicate.

Despite the imprisonment and exile of a large number of its activists, the Ennahdha party, finally legalised in March 2011, could already count on a militant network throughout the country and in the main states where the Tunisian diaspora had dispersed. With the new electoral law banning adherents of the old regime from office, the party became the strongest political force in the country. Faced by this popularity, a considerable part of the post-revolutionary elites, born of the old opposition to Ben Ali, defined its electoral strategy in relation to Ennahdha, not hesitating to adopt the rhetoric used by the old regime to demonise Ghannouchi’s movement. In doing so, it helped put the party centre stage in the political game.

Until the Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011, Ennahda avoided confrontation with the incumbent powers. Its leaders preferred to dwell on their suffering under the dictatorship, enough to fix them firmly in the camp of the revolution in the eyes of a large segment of public opinion. The victim posture was further reinforced by the anti-Islamist discourse taken up by the mainstream media. All this fed into their success at the polls. Coming out ahead in all constituencies, the party won 37% of the vote and took 42% of the seats in the new Constituent Assembly.

To rule, but not too much

But how to rule a country without a minimum of support from its political, cultural, media and administrative elites? Ennahda found itself trapped between pressure from its own bases and hostility from a considerable part of the influential circles, both in Tunisia and abroad. Among some Tunisians, it stirred fears of an Iranian scenario, or even worse, an Algerian one.

To provide reassurance and tone down the image of Islamist hegemony over all the institutions, the movement formed a coalition with two non-Islamist parties: Moncef Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic (CPR), and Mustapha Ben Jaafar’s Democratic Forum for Rights and Freedoms (Ettakattol). The three parties shared out the three top jobs: head of government (to Annahda), president of the Republic (CPR) and speaker of parliament (Ettakattol). In reality, basic executive power was wielded by the head of government, and the main ministries and parliamentary commissions were also controlled by the Islamist party.

Positioning relative to the Islamists henceforth became an electoral leitmotif. That may not have prevented Ghannouchi’s party from coming out ahead in elections (albeit with an ever-shrinking lead), but he drew the lesson that his movement should never rule alone, so as not to become the sole focus for popular anger.

Béji Caïd Essebsi was prime minister during the transition period (February-October 2011). Less than a year later, in June 2012, he benefitted from the erosion of the supposedly “democratic” opposition to create Nidaa Tunis (“The Call of Tunisia”), a party bringing together historic oppositionists, trades unionists and members of the old regime, all of them sharing a sole common position: opposition to the Islamists. But once in power, the dichotomy would not last long.

Egyptian-style scenario?

Reinforced by the electoral endorsement of October 2011, Ennahda’s partisans launched an unrelenting campaign against any signs of dissent, combined with a rejection of poll results. Thus several luminaries from the opposition to Ben Ali found themselves accused of being counter-revolutionaries simply for not supporting government actions. The accusation was levelled even at lawyers who had represented Islamist defendants under the old regime. In the winter of 2012, a sit-in was staged in front of the national TV station, accused of not reflecting the will of the people. The leaders of this campaign were to set up the “Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution” (LPR), militias which did not hesitate to take on their opponents physically. Nidaa Tunis was also to become one of their favoured targets, as the party rose in the opinion polls to become a serious threat to Ennahda.

Alongside this unleashing of violence with full impunity, the executive displayed tolerance towards the most radical expressions of Islamism, citing religious freedom. A number of extremist preachers, such as the Egyptian Wagdi Ghoneim and the Kuwaiti Nabil al-Awadi, were received by the Ennahda leaders with great ceremony. The Salafist Party Ettahrir, which advocates the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, was licensed, and the Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaida affiliate, settled in. All this against a background of terrorist attacks on the armed forces. On 18 October 2012, a LPR demonstration in Tataouine degenerated and a local official of Nidaa Tounes was stabbed and stoned to death.

The violence continued, with the assassination in 2013 of Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahimi, leaders of the Popular Front (a coalition of the left and the extreme left). At the end of July, a major sit-in was staged at Bardo, in front of the constituent assembly, demanding the dissolution of all the institutions resulting from the 2011 elections. This was just a matter of weeks after Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup against the elected Islamist President Mohammad Morsi in Egypt, which was supported or tolerated by most of Tunisia’s partners.

Adapt and survive

The Ennahda leaders understood that their electoral mandate was no guarantee against a putsch, so they decided to cosy up with yesterday’s enemies, the constitutionalists, and to pursue a strategy of consensus. Not for the first time: the Islamist party and the CPR may have officially thrown themselves into a struggle against the old regime in 2011, proposing a law of political purging, but they did not hesitate to appoint some figures close to Ben Ali to head administrations and public enterprises in exchange for a switch of allegiance.

Ennahda agreed to leave government and to hand power to technocrats charged with running the country until the 2014 elections, in which Nidaa Tounes won the parliamentaries and Beji Caid Essebsi the presidential. After a ferocious campaign, there was a coup de theatre: the Islamist party refused to support its former ally, the incumbent Moncef Marzouki, in the second round of the presidential polling. Coming in second in the parliamentary elections, Ennahda would even end up allying with Nidaa Tunes “in the national interest.” That was the first in a long series of concessions by the Islamist party, torn between the demands of a base driven by Islamist ideology and the need for compromise to assure political survival.

Essebsi’s five-year term was undoubtedly the most beneficial time for Ennahda, but also marked the period of its greatest mutations. Taking part in power without being in the front line, the party was to see its influence grow as the presidential party came apart, sapped by internal struggles. The Islamists did not hesitate to support controversial pieces of legislation such as the “reconciliation” bill, offering amnesty to officials of the old regime prosecuted for misappropriation.

This was also the time when the party reviewed its internal organisation. Beyond official policy stressing the separation of political and religious action, Ennahda’s 10th congress in 2016 added considerably to the powers of Rached Ghannouchi, allowing him to appoint members of the executive committee, to be endorsed by the Shura Council. Quite a paradox for a party which advocates a parliamentary system supposedly limiting abuses of personal power. A number of candidates in the parliamentary elections of 2019 paid the price: the sheikh did not hesitate to make substantial changes to lists which had, moreover, emerged from primaries in all constituencies.

Contrary to the beliefs of some of the Islamists’ detractors, the alliance between Ennahda and Nidaa Tunis was not totally unnatural. The parties saw eye to eye on some issues, notably on economic and social policies. Ennahda supported the reforms demanded by international donors, and did not criticise the development model followed by the country since the 1980s, based on a gradual disengagement of the state and an opening up to unequal free-market agreements.

The double game has its limits

There was a price to be paid at the polls for this constant shuttling between revolutionary rhetoric and an ambivalent exercise of power. The party may have come out first in the parliamentary elections of 2019, but it ended up with barely a quarter of the Assembly, and continued to see its electoral base drastically whittled away, from 1.5m votes in 2011 to a mere 560,000.

At the time of that election, the party rejoined the “revolutionary” camp, but the emergence of two reactionary groupings, Abir Moussi’s Free Constitutional Party (PDL) and the al-Karama (Dignity) coalition, weakened the politics of consensus. The former noisily challenged the entire post-revolutionary order, while the latter, although a faithful ally, was positioned to the right of Ghannouchi and included a number of LPR militants.

Caught uncomfortably between a right wing playing up issues of identity—which had been renounced by Ennahda—and the trauma of being reduced to a minority which could end up in an Egyptian-style scenario, the party once again opted for an alliance with the old system. It moved closer to Qalb Tunis, the party of Nabil Karoui, the businessman who was at the time under provisional arrest on suspicion of money-laundering. He had been prominent under Ben Ali, and was in the hard core of Nidaa Tunis. This alliance allowed Ghannouchi to become Speaker of the Assembly, a sort of consecration although he knew that the hostility he aroused would prevent him from seeking the presidency of the Republic in a popular vote.

Moreover Kais Saeid’s election as President with a comfortable majority, and the fact that his popularity was little dented by the exercise of power, was a source of discomfort for Ennahda. Unlike his predecessor, the new president was not a man of compromise. He constantly harped on the contradictions and compromises of principle of his adversaries without naming them, which explained the high rates of confidence he enjoyed despite modest achievements.

This situation is at the core of the current political crisis. On 16 January this year, after a reshuffle of Mechichi’s government prompted by Qalb Tunis and Ennahda, Saeid refused to organise the swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers, a precondition for them taking office. While some parties and organisations attempted mediation between president and prime minister, Ennahda decided to go for confrontation. On Saturday 27 February, the party called on its followers to take to the streets to support “the institutions and legitimacy.” Flouting the pandemic ban on movement between regions and ignoring protective measures, thousands of protestors from all over the country marched on Mohammad V Avenue, one of the capital’s main thoroughfares. This show of force also served to rally support around Ghannouchi, who risked losing his post as Speaker of the Assembly.

Ennahda’s capacity for permanent adaptation may allow it to stay in power for the medium term, but it none the less represents a threat to its integrity in the long run. For one thing, the party’s electorate is being increasingly reduced to a hardcore base of historical militants welded together by suffering under the dictatorship. Even Ghannouchi’s closest associates are throwing in the towel. For another, the Sheikh’s all-powerful position at the head of the party for 30 uninterrupted years, is increasingly vulnerable. The fallout from the 10th Congress is still there, and the 11th, constantly deferred, will have to decide either to keep Ghannouchi on—impossible under the current rules—or to replace him. In September 2020, 100 high party members signed an open letter asking the leader not to stand again, an unprecedented move in a structure known for its internal discipline.

Ennahda may have managed to penetrate all levels of public life, but it continues to provoke rejection on the part of some Tunisians, beyond the “Eradicators” (a party of the left and the old regime). Some reflexes, hangovers from the underground period, inspire mistrust among the public. Several times, for example, administrative or political officials who had been presented as independents “came out” as members of Ennahda. That raises doubts about eventual parallel structures, a classic strategy for movements linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

That accusation was reinforced by the latest confrontations relating to the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), long-headed by the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. From November 2020 the PDL leader Abir Moussi organised a sit-in in front of the Tunis premises of the IUMS, regarded as the ideological nursery of the Muslim Brotherhood. On 9 March this year, the PDL broke in and seized some of the centre’s teaching materials. A counter-demonstration was promptly organised by some figures linked to political Islam. Among them, the deputies of the al-Karama coalition, some of the Ennahda staff, but also some of its former officials who had quit the party acrimoniously. This unconditional defence of the IUMS reinforces the notion that over and above the party there is an allegiance to a supranational movement bent on attacking the Tunisian State. Such rhetoric has already been used to justify the repression meted out by Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Now it could serve the purposes of Abir Moussi, who wants to close the revolutionary chapter.