Ennahda to hold next convention by end of the year, keeps PM on probation

Meeting highlighted tensions with President Saied over Libya.
Monday 29/06/2020
Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Movement held a two-day Shura Council meeting from Saturday-Sunday discussing major, sensitive files, most prominently the organisation of the party’s eleventh convention
A file picture shows the leader of the Islamist Ennahda Movement Rached Ghannouchi speaking during a meeting with the members of his party in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS –Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Movement held a two-day Shura Council meeting from Saturday-Sunday discussing major, sensitive files, most prominently the organisation of the party’s eleventh convention, which had been postponed due to disputes over the future of the movement and its leadership.

The meeting is said to have rejected a manoeuvre by party leader Rached Ghannouchi to postpone the convention till next year and hence leave the door open for him to explore with his allies  the prospect of serving third term in office, as president of the party, despite term limitations imposed by Ennahda’s statutes.

The meeting also assessed the Islamist movement’s position regarding the presidency and the government of Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh. In recent months, Ennahda’s relationship with power powers have deteriorated. The Islamist party has insisted on expanding the ruling coalition, but the idea was rejected by Fakhakh and Tunisian President Kais Saied. While visiting Paris last week, Saied said in a statement that expanding the coalition could lead to its collapse.

The Tunisian president is at odds with Ghannouchi, who is also parliament speaker, over a number of issues including the Libyan crisis. According to Saied, Ghannouchi made a mistake when he congratulated Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, for retaking al-Watiya airbase earlier in May.

Tensions with the president 

In recent months, Libya has been a sticking point in the relationship between Ennahda and the president, exacerbating political tensions in the country and eventually leading to a parliamentary debate in early June about Ghannouchi’s brand of so-called “parliamentary diplomacy.”

The issue of Libya and diplomacy was revisited by Ennahda during its Shura Council meeting last week. Shura Council president Abdulkarim Harouni said that the movement “rejects any interference in Libya,” in a news conference on Monday.

Harouni indicated that Ennahda supports a political solution for the Libyan conflict and called on the president and parliament to back Ennahda’s pro-GNA stance.

Harouni expressed his “surprise” at Saied’s recent statements on the legitimacy of Libya’s GNA, which is backed by Turkey in its fight against the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

During his visit to France last week, Saied said “the existing authority in Libya is based on international legitimacy, and it is a temporary legitimacy that cannot continue and should be replaced with a new legitimacy stemming from the will of the Libyan people.”

In further statements to the media June 23, the Tunisian president added: “We must search for a new legitimacy in Libya that rises from within Libya, and is based on electoral legitimacy.”

Saied’s views provoked angry reactions from Libyan Islamists, as illustrated by the statements of Mohamed Sawan, head of the Libyan Justice and Development Party, who described the Tunisian president’s position as misguided.

Islamists in Tunisia are not happy, either. This was quite evident in Harouni’s statements, which centred on the need to unify positions at the level of all state institutions, on one hand, and adopt Ennahda’s stance in supporting the GNA, on the other hand.

“The president of the republic must provide an explanation when it comes to the foreign policy of Tunisia,” Harouni said.

Ennahda, according to Harouni, “supports the GNA because it has international legitimacy.”

However, observers believe that that Ennahda is actually supporting the regional goals of the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Turkey and sponsored by Qatar, which include dragging Libya into their axis and expanding their influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Such a project has frequently been condemned by Tunisian opposition figures and parties, which have grown increasingly suspicious of Ennahda’s ambitions and seriously concerned about Ghannouchi’s manoeuvres that could compromise the country’s interests in favour of foreign agendas.

For critics of the Islamists, Ennahda’s position on Libya contradicts that of the president, who is the only official responsible for directing the state’s foreign policy agenda. This, of course, has led to questions over whether the Islamists’ interference in diplomatic affairs is a legal violation.

Ennahda and Saeid’s competing views on Libya have been clear for a while and are set to fuel further tensions, triggering a power battle between the president and parliament speaker, and furthering political tensions between the parties in power and the opposition.

Tensions with the prime minister

On Sunday, Ennahda’s Shura Council reviewed the political, economic and social situation of the country, according to the party’s deputy head, Ali Laarayadh.

Ennahda announced its continued support for Fakhfakh’s government, but said its support was conditional. Laarayadh said Ennahda’s backing  hinges on the results of an investigation over the prime minister’s alleged involvement in a case of corruption and conflict of interest.

“Ennahda will follow up on the investigation and will later present its final position regarding the government of Fakhfakh,” Laarayadh said in a statement to local media.

A scandal dubbed “Fakhfakh Gate” references the prime minister’s alleged conflict of interest in a private company he owned that was awarded two public tenders.

Fakhfakh, who has relinquished his shares in all companies dealing with the state, faces investigations by the judiciary and parliament.

Making its support for Fakhfakh conditional on the progress of the investigations, Ennahda is likely to maintain destabilising leverage over Fakhfakh at a time when the Islamist party is increasing its pressure for an expansion of the ruling coalition to include the Qalb Tounes party.

Qalb Tounes, led by Tunisian businessman Nabil Karoui, holds the second largest bloc in parliament. Previously a rival to Ennahda, Qalb Tounes has nudged closer to the Islamist party, especially in its voting of draft resolutions in parliament.

The call for expanding the ruling coalition was reiterated by Harouni on Monday, when he said the expansion of the government’s political belt has become “a condition and a necessity.”

“The government in its current state cannot deal with challenges facing the country.  For this reason, the expansion of governmental and parliamentary coalition has become a condition and a necessity,” Harouni said.

The prime minister has previously said that he would not concede to Ennahda’s demands to reshape the governing coalition to include in it Qalb Tounes and exclude the pan-Arabist People’s Movement party, which has often refused to cooperate with Ennahda on parliamentary initiatives.

Ghannouchi earlier told Fakhfakh that if the conditions were not met, Ennahda could withdraw confidence from the government.

For now, Fakhfakh appears to be politically weakened. However, he is betting on Ennahda’s fear of creating a power vacuum at a difficult juncture marked by social, economic and regional challenges.

Struggling for control over Ennahda

Responding to a question about Ghannouchi’s prospects after the Shura Council meeting, Harouni said, “Tunisia still needs Ghannouchi.”

“Ghannouchi is still present,” Harouni added, stressing that the decision about the president of the movement will be made during the next convention.

“The party’s 11th convention will be the culmination of a dialogue within the movement,” he said, noting that Ennahda is “keen on reaching an agreement when it comes to its leadership.”

In its meeting, the Shura Council stressed that the movement’s convention will be held before the end of the year, according to senior Ennahda leader Noureddine Bhiri.

“Ennahdha is a democratic movement,” Bhiri said during an interview with a local radio station on Monday, in attempt to reassure the party’s supporters who have been wary of Ghannouchi’s manoeuvres to maintain his control over the party despite its statutes which limit the tenure of the president to only two consecutive terms.

However, Bhiri is perceived as a Ghannouchi loyalist. His statements do not echo whispers behind the scenes.

Ghannouchi is said to have manoeuvred without success for the postponement of the convention to next year using as a pretext the difficulty of preparing for the event amid the circumstances of the pandemic.

Tunisian news website Tunisie Numerique said Ghannouchi’s proposal for a postponement of the convention was rejected by 55% of the votes.

Statements made by Harouni to Tunisian media Monday afternoon reflected a trend within Ennahda to offer Ghannouchi an honorary position or some other function as a consolation prize for relinquishing the top leadership of the party. But Ghannouchi is said not to be enthusiastic about any honorary position and has not totally given up on finding a way to secure a third term.

Earlier in May, Ennahda’s senior leader Samir Dilou confirmed that there are several conflicts within the party.

“If a congress is held, the president of the party will be replaced,” said Dilou at that time, adding that Ghanouchi may not be opposed to the meeting.

“The party, since its creation, has always fought against the concept of a single leader. We are also against a coerced revision of laws,” he added.

Ghannouchi has been reportedly looking to promote loyalists and members of his inner circle to Ennahda’s executive bureau, which would allow him to lead the key body with an iron fist.

There have also been rumours of an internal power struggle within Ennahda as members jostle for future control of the party, but Ghannouchi, who founded Ennahda some 40 years ago, now seems to have decided to remain in control, political analysts say.

To pave the way for a smooth succession, Ghannouchi has apparently been removing historical leaders and dissenting voices from within the party.

Ghannouchi’s exclusion of Islamist rivals and the dissolution of the executive bureau last May deepened tensions within the party and lead to more resignations.

Divisions within Ennahda began to surface last year when Ghannouchi announced his candidacy for parliamentary elections while the movement’s vice-president, Abdelfattah Mourou, ran for presidential elections. Both candidacies were widely rejected within the party, which has long sought to avoid the political limelight.

Ennahda, which has long been accused of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood — an affiliation it denies as it tries to present itself as a “Muslim Democratic” formation to the outside world — has been hit by a number of high-level resignations in recent years.

In March 2019, Abdelhamid Jelassi, a leading Ennahda figure, resigned, joining Zied Ladhari, who stepped down in November as party secretary-general, an indication of a widening leadership split. Other prominent resignations included those of Hamadi Jebali in March 2014, Riyad al-Shuaibi in November 2013 and Zubair al-Shahoudi in September 2019.