Ennahda faces growing challenges amid Tunisia crises

Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, is currently manoeuvring on more than one front to prevent President Kais Saied from forcing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi to resign.
Saturday 13/02/2021
A 2019 file picture shows Tunisia’s President Kais Saied (R) receiving Ennahdha leader and parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi at the presidential palace in Carthage. AFP
A 2019 file picture shows Tunisia’s President Kais Saied (R) receiving Ennahdha leader and parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi at the presidential palace in Carthage. (AFP)

TUNIS--Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, is currently manoeuvring on more than one front to prevent President Kais Saied from forcing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi to resign, opening the path once again for the presidency to decide on the appointment of the next premier.

Ghannouchi, who has created an alliance with liberal Qalb Tounes party and the far-right Dignity coalition in an attempt to control the political levers of power, is reportedly worried that the current developments coupled with  raging public discontent will result in a resounding downfall for his Islamist party and its allies.

The tense political climate comes as relations continue to soar between Saied and Mechichi over a recent ministerial reshuffle, with preconditions and counter preconditions being put forward in efforts to resolve the crisis.

Sources close to Ennahda say that Ghannouchi is extremely concerned about Saied rejecting the ministerial reshuffle, a position the Islamist party did not expect him to take.

Unprecedented challenges 

The Islamists are apparently concerned the current deadlock could mix the cards and lead to the formation of a new political belt around Saied that would allow him to form a new government that excludes Islamists such as Ennahda and the Dignity Coalition.

These sources indicate that Ennahda lost its traditional allies in its struggle with Saied, especially the Democratic Current and the People’s Movement. Increasingly isolated politically and among the public, Ennahda has also lost the trust of some pro-revolution factions in light of its poor governance over the past ten years.

At this critical juncture, experts believe that Ghannouchi’s days as parliament speaker are numbered. The Islamist leader’s opponents have already succeeded in gathering the signatures of 76 parliamentarians, which allows them to organise a session to hold a vote no confidence and propose he be replaced by with Samira Chaouachi, the current deputy speaker.

The pressure on Ghannouchi has increased after MPs from Qalb Tounes demanded that he intervene to secure the release of their leader Nabil Karoui from prison, or lose their alliance and potentially see them vote to withdraw confidence in him in parliament.

Allegations that Ennahda previously set up a secret apparatus within the state is also being reexamined amid reports claiming that Ghannouchi had been heard from the judiciary “as the first defendant,” according to lawyer Iman Gazara, in statements to local media.

As usual, the Ennahda leader resorted to foreign media to express his positions on the severe political crisis that threatens his position as parliament speaker and Ennahda’s influence over state institutions.

“The constitution does not give the president of the republic the right to reject ministers who have obtained the confidence of parliament, and the government’s resignation is unlikely,” Ghannouchi said in an interview with Al-Jazeera Net. However, he left the door open for possible dialogue that might lead to an end to the current crisis.

Observers believe that Ghannouchi’s appearances on allied foreign media shows that Ennahda’s regional supporters are growing increasingly concerned about the party’s dire situation.

Ennahda’s regional supporters are also concerned about the emergence of a broad political and popular current that is opposed to Islamists’ control of power in Tunisia, the last of the bastions of Islamists among countries that witnessed the wave of the “Arab Spring” 10 years ago.

These concerns were echoed in an interview with Qatari-based Palestinian writer Azmi Bishara broadcast on Al-Arabi TV, a large part of which was devoted to the Tunisian experience.

Bishara said, “We are now in front of a democratic system that is in danger,” which indicates that the Islamists’ allies are no longer comfortable with the rule of Ennahda, which they previously promoted as a model to demonstrate the success of the “Arab spring” and “democratic Islam.”

 Tug of war with the president 

Tunisian political sources who spoke to The Arab Weekly did not rule out the possibility of Ghannouchi pressuring the prime minister to accept the presidency’s demand to withdraw some proposed ministers suspected of involvement in corruption and conflicts of interest.

By accepting the president’s conditions, Ennahda hopes Saied will reduce his pressure on the party.. The initiative was put forward by Tunisian politician Samir Dilo on Thursday.

In presenting his proposal, Dilo said, “The initiative will start with the concerned ministers confirming that the suspicions related to them are flimsy and untrue, while they announce their withdrawal for two reasons: to spare the prime minister embarrassment and devote themselves to defending their honour and reputation.”

Mechichi, who said Friday that he refuses to resign, may announce a mini-government, with the disputed ministers appointed as advisers to the prime minister in charge of the files they have been nominated for but without holding the status of ministers. This would not require them to be sworn in at Carthage Palace.

According to local media reports, Mechichi sent a new letter to Saied on Thursday asking him to provide him with the names of ministers the president suspects of corruption.

On Wednesday evening, President Said criticised efforts to look for what he described as an “impossible legal solution” to the “constitutional oath” crisis.

This came in an official statement from the presidency’s office after Saied’s meeting in the Carthage Palace with parliament members to discuss the reasons why the president did not agree with the PM that some ministers should take the oath of office.

The meeting was attended by MPs Samia Abbou, Mohammad Ammar and Hichem el-Ajbouni from the Democratic Current, Zuhair al-Maghzawi and Haykel al-Makki from the People’s Movement, Hatem al-Maliki (independent), Samir Dilo and Nawfel al-Jamali from the Ennahda movement, and Marwan Felfal and Mustafa bin Ahmed from the Tahya Tounes party.

Saied reiterated that “the ministerial reshuffle is tainted by many violations” and that he is “keen to implement the constitution.”

He continued, “We are in a free country” and the crisis caused by the cabinet reshuffle must be solved in accordance with the constitution rather than through efforts to search for “an impossible legal outcome or interpretations and fatwas that transgress the provisions of Law.”

The president also stressed that the cabinet reshuffle has been marred by irregularities.

The application of the parliament’s rules of procedure “must not cross the threshold of the hemicycle,” Saied pointed out, adding, “the rules of procedure of parliament cannot be made into law.”

In an indication of just how complex the crisis is, Mechichi met Wednesday with a group of experts and professors of constitutional law, who emphasised, that “the issue is political and therefore needs political solutions,” according to a statement from the prime ministry.

The prime minister warned that Tunisia is witnessing one of the most difficult periods in its history at the economic, social, constitutional and institutional levels.

 Mobilising supporters 

As Ennahda’s political concerns and fears of losing its grip on power mount, the party announced it is consulting with a number of other parties to take to the streets in support of parliament and Mechichi’s government.

The party’s executive bureau issued a statement including calls for its supporters to prepare to take to the streets.

Ennahda’s executive bureau said: “We call on our supporters, our people and all the free people to stand by our democratic experience.”

In many of Saied’s statements, he has hinted at his desire to amend the current political system from a modified parliamentary system to a presidential system with expanded powers for local government.

Ghannouchi, on the other hand, has gone the complete opposite direction, saying it would be better to move to a full parliamentary system.

Ennahda continues to challenge the Tunisian president’s authority by threatening to approve the new cabinet without ministers taking their constitutional oath before Saied.

Ennahda spokesman Fathi al-Ayadi told local media that his movement “will call on its supporters to take to the streets, on a day that will be determined later in support of the democratic experience in the country.”

He stressed that “the executive bureau of the Ennahda Movement decided to call for rallies in support of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, and to consult with the parties and all the forces that support the democratic experience, the parliament and the constitution.”

Ayadi stressed that his movement “rejects the option of government’s resignation,” which he said would threaten “the Tunisian experience and the general situation in the country.”

Due to deep political tensions and divisions, Tunisia’s parties have failed for six years to establish a constitutional court, which has the exclusive right to examine disputes that arise between the authorities.

Earlier this week, Mechichi resorted to the administrative judiciary, which announced that its opinion would only be “advisory” and not binding.

The task of forming a government has become more difficult since elections in October 2019 resulted in a parliament split between myriad parties and fragile alliances.

Ennahdha came out on top of the polls but fell far short of a majority and eventually agreed to join a coalition government.

Mechichi’s outgoing cabinet was sworn in in September after the previous executive, the second since the polls, resigned in July.

Mechichi had initially put together a team including civil servants and academics, some close to the president.

But he gradually moved away from Saied, and made changes with the support of Ennahda.

Tunisia has often been praised as a rare success story for its democratic transition after the “Arab spring” mass protests sparked by its 2011 uprising.

But many Tunisians are angered by a political class seen as disconnected from the suffering of the poor, amid high unemployment and spiralling prices.

Recent police repression of protests and mass arrests have raised questions about the intentions of Ennahda and about whether Tunisia was sliding back towards heavy-handed security practices to silence dissent and intimidate protesters.

Some leftist activists have even warned about “a return of the police state,” which they say has been co-opted by Islamists to reinforce their grab on power.