Tunisia’s largest political party faces an existential threat after President Kais Saied assumed executive powers.
By: Aymen Mejri.
Rached Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia on January 30, 2011, after more than two decades in exile. Thousands of Ennahda supporters greeted the Ennahda leader at Tunis-Carthage airport with chants of Talaa al-badru ‘Alayna! (“The full moon has risen over us,” an Islamic traditional song celebrating the Prophet Mohammad’s arrival in Medina). His arrival, two weeks after Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s fall, marked the rebirth of a movement that the authoritarian administration had attempted to exterminate.
Despite the detention and exile of a substantial number of its activists, the Ennahdha party, which was ultimately legalized in March 2011, already had a militant network operating across the nation and in the major states where Tunisia’s diaspora had gone. With the new electoral legislation prohibiting supporters of the former government from holding office, the party became the country’s biggest political force. Faced with this popularity, a significant percentage of the post-revolutionary elites, many of whom were born within the old Ben Ali opposition, defined their election strategy in relation to Ennahdha, not hesitating to embrace the previous regime’s language demonizing Ghannouchi’s movement. Thus, it aided in elevating the party to the forefront of the political game.
Ennahda avoided conflict with the existing authorities until the October 2011 Constituent Assembly elections. Its leaders preferred to concentrate on their suffering during the dictatorship, which was sufficient to cement their position in the camp of the revolution in the eyes of a sizable part of the population. The victim narrative was bolstered further by the mainstream media’s embrace of anti-Islamist propaganda. All of these contributed to their electoral triumph. Coming out on top in every constituency, the party won 37% of the vote and secured 42% of seats in the new Constituent Assembly.
To Rule, But Not Too Much!
How could a party rule without the backing of its political, cultural, media, and administrative ruling elite? Ennahda discovered itself stuck between internal pressure and opposition from a significant portion of Tunisia’s prominent circles. It sparked worries among some Tunisians of an Iranian scenario, or even worse, an Algerian one.
To reassure Tunisians and mitigate the perception of Islamist control over all institutions, the party established 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 the three highest-ranking positions: head of government (to AnnahdaEnnahdha), president of the republic (CPR), and speaker of parliament (Ettakattol). In fact, the prime minister exercised fundamental executive authority, and the Islamist party also controlled the major ministries and legislative committees.
Positioning oneself in relation to Islamists became an electoral leitmotif. That may not have halted Ghannouchi’s party from winning elections (although with a steadily diminishing advantage), but he learned a valuable lesson: his movement should never govern alone in order to avoid being the only target of popular rage.
During the transition phase, Béji Cad Essebsi served as Prime Minister (February-October 2011). He capitalized on the erosion of the ostensibly “democratic” opposition less than a year later, in June 2012, to found Nidaa Tunis (“The Call of Tunisia”), a party bringing together historic oppositionists, trade unionists, and former regime members, all of whom shared a single position: opposition to the Islamists. However, once in power, the duality would dissolve.
Driven by the October 2011 election endorsement, Ennahda’s adherents conducted a public strategy against any form of disagreement, along with a denial of poll results. As a result, some prominent members of the opposition to Ben Ali were accused of being counter-revolutionaries just for opposing government activities. The charge was leveled even against attorneys who had defended Islamist defendants during the previous administration. Early in 2012, a sit-in was organized in front of the national television station, which was criticized of failing to reflect popular opinion. The leaders of this movement were to establish the “Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution” (LPR), militias that would not dare to physically assault its rivals. Nidaa Tunis was also to be one of their preferred targets, as the party rose to become a significant danger to Ennahda in the public polls.
Along with this complete impunity for violence, the executive branch demonstrated tolerance for Islamism’s more extremist manifestations, invoking religious freedom. Numerous extremist speakers, like Egyptian Wagdi Ghoneim and Kuwaiti Nabil al-Awadi, were greeted with great ceremony by Ennahdha officials. The Salafist Party Ettahrir, which calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate, was legalized, and al-Qaida offshoot Ansar al-Sharia relocated. All of this takes place against the backdrop of terrorist assaults on the military services. On 18 October 2012, an LPR rally in Tataouine devolved into a stabbing and stoned death of a local Nidaa Tounes official.
The violence persisted, resulting in the assassination of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi, the Popular Front’s leaders, in 2013. (a coalition of the left and the extreme left). Late in July, a huge sit-in in front of the constituent assembly was held in Bardo, demanding the dissolution of all institutions created as a consequence of the 2011 elections. This occurred only a few weeks after Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-coup Sisi’s against Egypt’s elected Islamist President Mohammad Morsi was supported or accepted by the majority of Tunisia’s partners.
Adapt and Survive
The Ennahda leaders recognized that their electoral mandate was no guarantee against a popular uprising and perhaps, a revolt, and therefore chose to ally with yesterday’s opponents, the constitutionalists, and seek a consensual policy. Not for the first time: while the Islamist party and the CPR declared war on the old government in 2011, proposing a legislation of political cleansing, they did not hesitate to select persons close to Ben Ali to lead administrations and public companies in exchange for a pledge of fealty.
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Ennahdha was established in 1981 as the Islamic Tendency Movement. term In recent years, the party has split its religious and political operations, adopting the Muslim Democrat.
Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that ousted Ben Ali, Ennahdha has been a key element of several coalition administrations and is presently the biggest and most dominent party in Parliament, although possessing less than a quarter of the assembly’s seats.
However, in recent years, Ennahdha has come under growing criticism from disappointed Tunisians who blame the party and the previous administration led by independent Hichem Mechichi for Tunisia’s political and economic difficulties.
Protests over rising COVID infections and deaths, police violence and repression, deteriorating economic prospects and roughly 19 percent unemployment have also simmered for months.
On July 25, protests against the government erupted in cities across Tunisia, with demonstrators destroying numerous Ennahdha offices — purportedly prompting Saied, a political independent elected in 2019, to suspend Parliament.
Saied’s decision to suspend the Parliament met with widespread support in Tunisia. Mass celebrations took place around the country right after president’s decisions.
Meanwhile, Ennahdha is divided and the party’s response to the crisis has been hesitant and unsure – exemplified by the reversal in stance over protests. The party has been holding frequent meetings to discuss the crisis. However, the situation is still chaotic.
Ennahdha, Tunisia’s largest political party, is experiencing its worst crisis in decades following President Kais Saied’s surprise sacking of the country’s prime minister and freezing the Parliament on July 25.
Rached Ghannouchi, parliament speaker and president of Ennahdha, first referred to Saied’s activation of Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution – which empowers him to seize executive authority in times of national crisis – as a “coup” and “unconstitutional.”
Tunisia’s president stated the parliament will only be suspended for 30 days and that he would “not turn into a dictator”. But, when he lifted the immunity of parliamentarians, politicians from different parties and representatives of Ennahdha have been imprisoned.
The president’s actions could not have come at a worse moment for 80-year-old Ghannouchi, who is suffering health issues after catching COVID.
Ghannouchi and his party confront their worst existential crisis since 1989 when then strongman President Zine Abbedine ben Ali dissolved Ennahdha – leading in many members going into exile or being arrested and tortured.
Now the party’s future once again hangs in the balance.