Ennahda dismissive of crisis as leader readies to face parliament

At the root of current tensions is a phone call by Ghannouchi to congratulate Sarraj on recapturing al-Watiya airbase.
Tuesday 02/06/2020
A file picture of Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of the House of the People's Representatives, during a parliamentary session. (AFP)
A file picture of Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of the House of the People's Representatives, during a parliamentary session. (AFP)

TUNIS - A day before Tunisian Parliament Speaker and head of the Ennahda Movement Rached Ghannouchi was set to appear before the legislative body to be questioned over his alleged partisan connections to Turkey and undue interference in the country's Libya policy, the Islamist party was dismissive of any serious problems facing the party and its leaders.

Ennahda’s comments seemed like a last-minute attempt to reassure supporters who are concerned by reports of growing divisions within the party and about possible political fallout from its leader's scheduled questioning by MPs Wednesday.

Imad Khemiri, spokesman for the Islamist Ennahda party, pinned the blame on the party's rivals and some ill-defined conspiracies. At a press conference Tuesday in front of parliament, he said: "The country has recently witnessed calls for a coup against legitimacy in an attempt to target constitutional institutions, notably the parliament and its speaker Rachid Ghannouchi.”

Khemiri went on to say, “All this comes within the framework of exploiting the difficult situation the country is going through as a result of the coronavirus pandemic."

"Ennahda Movement and its parliamentary bloc believe there is no political crisis in the country. The state institutions are coherent and functioning," he said.

“Calls for the dissolution of parliament and for Ghannouchi to step down as speaker were not expressed by strong social forces in the country, nor by political parties that have a significant representation" on the political map, added Khemiri.

Khemiri’s remarks echo previous statements by Ghannouchi pushing back against his political opponents and trying to justify his stance on the Libyan crisis.

Ghannouchi has faced political backlash since he congratulated Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), on recapturing al-Watiya airbase during a phone call on May 19.

The move was decried by many political parties and commentators as breaching Tunisia’s traditional posture of diplomatic neutrality, leading to calls to have Ghannouchi removed as parliament speaker.

In comments to the Turkish Anatolia News Agency, Ghannouchi said that “passive neutrality makes no sense” when it comes to the Libyan conflict.

"Libya's neighbours cannot be indifferent. If there is a fire at your neighbour's, you cannot be neutral; extinguishing the fire is a duty and necessity, so passive neutrality makes no sense," Ghannouchi said.

Ghannouchi also described efforts to withdraw confidence from him as "calls for chaos and collusion with foreign powers."

Ennahda’s position in support for the GNA is in line with that of Turkey, which has been accused of transferring thousands of Syrian mercenaries to Libya and providing military and logistical support to GNA-aligned militias.

Ghannouchi’s foray into the Libyan conflict has drawn the ire of Tunisian opposition parties and large segments of the public.

Abir Moussi, head of the anti-Islamist Free Destourian Party (PDL), bloc made waves when she unleashed fierce criticism at Ghannouchi from parliament and called for deputies to withdraw confidence from him.

On May 29, Moussi announced that a coordination meeting had been held by the PDL and representatives of four major political parties – the National Reform, Tahya Tounes, Qalb Tounes and Al Mostakbal — to discuss the hearing over Ghannouchi’s alleged attempts to influence Tunisia’s foreign policy agenda based on Ennahda's Islamist sympathies.

A file picture shows the leader of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi (C) challenging a parliamentary procedure. (AFP)
A file picture shows the leader of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi (C) challenging a parliamentary procedure. (AFP)

The parliamentary front could be expanded to include some two-thirds of MPs, Moussi said during a news conference.

On June 1, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of parliament to protest against Ghannouchi ahead of his scheduled questioning.

The Islamist chief is facing further pressure due to an online petition that has been circulating since May 25 calling for MPs to “withdraw confidence” from him. According to organisers, it has so far collected more than 80,000 signatures and is expected to be presented to parliament June 3.

Ghannouchi’s critics accuse him of meddling with the country’s foreign policy to serve his party’s agenda, bypassing state institutions, notably the presidency, and dragging the country into the Libyan conflict in support of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies.

Though Ennahda insists on being united amid the crisis, there have been growing signs of feuding within the Islamist party, including numerous high level resignations.

Some prominent Ennahda officials have even called on Ghannouchi to step down, arguing it is time for new, younger leaders to take the mantle.

"I advise Ghannouchi to step down from the party’s presidency and retire permanently from politics,” Zoubeir Chehoudi, a former chief of staff of the president of Ennahda and former member of the party's Shura Council, recently said. “After the withdrawal of Abdel Fattah Mourou from politics and the departure of Beji Caid Essebsi, you no longer have a place.”

Chehoudi also stressed that there is no way Ghannouchi could be re-elected as Ennahda’s president at an upcoming party convention because "the party is not based on the person of Ghannouchi and is able to continue without him."

He said "Ennahda can have a leader but a leader cannot have Ennahda."

Ennahda’s rules stipulate that the party’s president is limited to two terms, but Ghannouchi is accused by his critics of manoeuvring to extend his mandate to a third and possibly fourth term. This means the rules would have to be reviewed before the party’s 11th convention scheduled this year.

In response to his critics, Ghannouchi has taken steps to expand and mobilise his inner circle, and silence critics within the movement.

Adding to the country's political tensions and the pressures facing Ennahda, a barely-veiled political rift has developed between the Islamist leader and President Kais Saied, with Tunisian political parties and figures largely rallying behind the president. Although he has often denied this rift, Ghannouchi has so far failed to show that he sees eye-to-eye with the president on the role of institutions and the country's priorities.