Ennahda fighting – and losing – a political battle on two fronts

According to the Tunisian president, Ennahda has sought to influence a number of his decisions but he has so far resisted its pressure. "I don't like being kicked," he warned.
Wednesday 24/06/2020
President Kais Saied (C) meets with Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi (L) and Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh at Carthage Palace. (AFP)
President Kais Saied (C) meets with Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi (L) and Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh at Carthage Palace. (AFP)

TUNIS – A dispute between Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party and Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh deepened after the Islamist movement doubled down on its demands for a new coalition that would maximise its influence.

The latest salvo in the Islamists’ pressure campaign came late Tuesday, when Ennahda released a statement reiterating its demand for the government to expand its parliamentary belt.

In the statement, which followed a meeting between Ennahda deputies and the prime minister on Monday, the Islamist party insisted that while its parliamentary bloc remains committed to “supporting the government” and is aware of the country’s challenges, it should expand to include more social and political forces.

In a veiled snipe at Fakhfakh’s cabinet, Ennahda also said there is a greater need for “openness, an actual and balanced partnership as well as mutual respect to build trust between all players.”

“The ruling system today needs stability in all institutions and at all levels,” the statement said, adding that “the interest of the country and the government requires the integration of all parties in the management of public affairs to overcome divisions and polarisation.”

By insinuating that Fakhfakh’s government has failed to ensure stability “in all institutions and at all levels,” Ennahda hopes to increase pressure on the prime minister, forcing him to integrate more political players of its choosing into the government to expand its influence.

Ennahda’s double discourse – oscillating between support and criticism of Fakhfakh – made clear its intentions.

Ennahda previously lashed out at Fakhfakh over the premiere’s criticism of Parliament Speaker and Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi.

In an interview with private channel Attessia earlier this month, Fakhfakh said he would not concede to Ennahda’s conditions, which include introducing the Qalb Tounes party into the government lineup and ousting the National People’s Movement. Ghannouchi previously told Fakhfakh that if the conditions were not met, Ennahda would withdraw confidence from the government.

Qalb Tounes, led by Tunisian businessman Nabil Karoui, holds the second largest bloc in parliament. Previously a rival to Ennahda, Qalb Tounes has shown a degree of rapprochement with the Islamist party, especially with its voting record on draft resolutions in parliament.

Fakhfakh, who said he will not submit to the conditions of Ghannouchi, noted that his main mission is to defend Tunisia’s national interests, stressing that his name was proposed by President Kais Saied to head the government with the aim of achieving people’s demands, not engaging in partisanship.

Sources close to Fakhfakh’s government view Ghannouchi’s pressure campaign as driven by his frustration with the positions of the National People’s Movement, which is part of the government coalition, especially after the latter’s vote in favour of a draft resolution condemning foreign meddling in Libya that singled out Turkish interference.

Ghannouchi, who has been accused of engaging in parallel diplomacy on the Libyan conflict by voicing support for the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), has also been at odds with Saied, who has issued strong warnings against him.

"There is only one state and one head of state (...) and there is only one Tunisian diplomacy, led by the head of state," Saied said in his most recent interview with France 24 on Tuesday.

According to Saied, Ennahda has sought to influence a number of his decisions but he has so far resisted its pressure. "I don't like being kicked," he warned.

Fighting on two fronts -- targeting the presidency on one hand and criticising the government on the other -- Ennahda seems more frustrated and cornered than ever, desperately seeking to find new plans to exert greater control over the two state institutions.

This comes at a time when the Islamist movement faces staunch opposition in parliament and significant public frustration with its moves on the national and regional levels.

On Tuesday, the leader of the People's Movement, Haykel Mekki, said Ennahda was working in overdrive to exert leverage over Fakhfakh’s government.

In comments to Attessia, Mekki said that Ennahda was working to take advantage of ongoing unrest in southern Tataouine to impose the changes it wants on the ruling government coalition.

Mekki also accused Ennahda of being behind a “conflict of interest" case brought against the premiere.

The case involves a private company owned by Fakhfakh that he allegedly awarded two public tenders to.

Leader of the far-right Al Karama Coalition Seifeddine Makhlouf, a notorious ally of Ennahda, announced the submission of a notice to the parliament bureau to create a parliamentary commission to examine the case.

Makhlouf, whose positions always echo Ennahda's, said that once Fakhfakh is implicated, he will be asked to resign or face a withdrawal of confidence.

Makhlouf’s move confirmed what Mekki suggestion in his interview with Attessia that Ennahda is unwilling to accept a role as a simple partner in the government coalition.

This explains, according to Mekki, why the Islamist movement and its allies are constantly seeking to topple Fakhfakh’s government.

Tunisian political activist Mohamed Serag al-Fadhlawi said that Ennahda "is using the case of ‘conflict of interests’ to blackmail Fakhfakh. He added that Islamists will not drop such card if the prime minister refuses to accept their terms.

"Ennahda is not dealing with the government by logic of participation and solidarity, but rather with the premise of obtaining partisan gains," Fadhlawi said

Earlier this month, People's Movement representative Salem Labiadh said that the government is not a pastime in the hands of Ghannouchi in a post on his official Facebook page.

Ghannouchi’s pressure on Fakhfakh’s government could also be an attempt to intimidate the parties in power into voting against a new draft resolution submitted by Abir Moussi, head of the anti-Islamist Free Destourian party, to classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organisation.”

The differences between Ennahda, Fakhfakh and some of other parties supporting the government mean that Tunisia’s political situation is increasingly unstable, spelling trouble for leaders’ ability to deal with urgent social and economic challenges.