Chahed, Islamists and the Tunisian electoral calculus

Ennahda views Chahed’s new political project as the largest gathering of its opponents.
Sunday 24/02/2019
Tight manoeuvres. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed in Paris, February 14.  (AFP)
Tight manoeuvres. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed in Paris, February 14. (AFP)

Eight months before presidential and legislative elections, tension has become the dominant feature of the political scene in Tunisia.

The Ennahda Movement is divided between maintaining the government of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed or replacing it with nonpartisan technocrats to ensure the fair organisation of the coming elections.

The latter scenario happened during the 2011 elections when Beji Caid Essebsi, the current Tunisian president, was head of the government and in the 2014 elections with Mehdi Jomaa’s government.

When Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi said there had been consultations about forming a new government he was sending a coded message that Chahed would surely pick up. The first line of that message tells Chahed that his government’s survival depends on Ennahda’s mood and Ennahda has one condition.

That emerged after the meeting of Ennahda’s political bureau, which reiterated its rejection of any attempt to use the means of the state for partisan purposes.

What Ennahda was alluding to was Tahya Tounes (“Long live Tunisia”), which was recently formed by activists who, mostly, had abandoned Nidaa Tounes and who support Chahed. Much of Ennahda’s leadership was hoping to strike an alliance with Tahya Tounes after the elections to replace their entente with Nidaa Tounes.

Ennahda worked with Nidaa Tounes after the 2014 elections but dropped it once its usefulness was consumed. By adopting a systematic penetration of Nidaa Tounes, Ennahda practically finished it off. Nidaa Tounes is but a shadow of its former self, unable to pick up what remains of its scattered ranks.

Ennahda views Chahed’s new political project as the largest gathering of its opponents. It was able to learn what was being said in Tahya Tounes leadership meetings, including discussions of working against Ennahda after winning the next elections.

Chahed also received a full report on what was said during a meeting of Ennahda’s Shura Council. The report sparked widespread controversy because it was the first breach of the strict secrecy of the meetings of the Islamist party.

Ennahda said it has proof that those running Chahed’s project are abusing state authority and means for partisan purposes. Caid Essebsi said it clearly in his interview with The Arab Weekly that Tunisians love whoever is in power and therefore will always seek him out, even if he does not go to them himself. Ennahda also believes that.

Chahed is more than certain of that truth and that is why he sees his position as the head of the government is the only guarantee for him to achieve positive results in the upcoming elections.

If, however, he and his government are removed, he would be abandoned and many would seek an appointment with Nidaa Tounes leader Hafedh Caid Essebsi, hoping to be accepted back into the party and securing a place on the party’s electoral lists. They won’t forget to appeal to Beji Caid Essebsi to run for a second term as president.

Then again, all that enthusiasm might not be enough to save Nidaa Tounes’s chances in the elections. True, Caid Essebsi’s party won the 2014 vote, in part because of its anti-political Islam and anti-Ennahda stance. Once it won the elections, however, Nidaa Tounes turned around and struck an alliance with Ennahda, which, in the end, led to its downfall.

The best proof was the scandalous result in the partial legislative elections for the seat of the representative of the Tunisian community in Germany. The Nidaa Tounes candidate couldn’t even muster 100 votes. The party also slipped significantly in the municipal elections even though the government and its head were in the front row of the party’s campaign.

Can Caid Essebsi regain the trust of his voters and especially that of the 1 million women who voted for him in 2014?

Contrary to what some say, Caid Essebsi won’t regain that trust through his proposed law instituting equality in inheritance. He can do it only by harassing and besieging Ennahda. For that purpose, he would invoke many of the sensitive files of the Tunisian National Security Council regarding Ennahda’s rumoured secret security apparatus, political assassinations and recruiting and sending Tunisians to fight in Syria and other hotbeds.

These sensitive files, however, might turn out to be worthless if Nidaa Tounes continues its downfall and if Chahed remains prime minister during the march towards the elections, regardless of whether Tahya Tounes turns out to be abusing the means of the state.

Some of Ennahda’s leading personalities, especially those in on some secrets, do not want to see Nidaa Tounes rise again nor do they wish for Caid Essebsi to win a second term as president. What they want is another big rival under whose wing they can find shelter.

It looks unlikely that Ennahda will abandon Chahed but this does not prevent Ennahda from trying to secure concessions from Chahed, such as barring from Tahya Tounes those it describes as “the exclusionists,” allowing it to move with ease in all of its positions of power, continuing to protect it from dangerous accusations levied against it, especially by the leftist opposition, and continuing to cooperate with it in parliament so it can push its agenda forward.

Undoubtedly, Chahed has become expert at political manoeuvring since rebelling against Caid Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes, refusing to let them manipulate him. He has started seeing the big picture and proved his tactical abilities. Ennahda is quite adept at steering in hot waters with nerves of steel and at being pragmatic in pursuit of its goals.

Both know what the opposite side wants and everybody can look forward to hot bouts between them. The fact remains that each side needs the other for its survival, at least for the time being.

So, let’s wait and see what secrets, interests, schemes and surprises come until Tunisians are given the chance to vote next fall.