Fraying ties between secularist and Islamist parties, a new factor in Tunisian politics

By inching away from Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes is hoping to solidify its electoral base, drawing from liberals, secularists and women.
Sunday 21/01/2018
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (C) attends a meeting with political parties, unions and employers in Tunis, on January 13

Tunis - Leaders of Tunisia’s secu­larist Nidaa Tounes party are attempting to distance themselves from Ennah­da, their Islamist coalition partners in government, a move that analysts said was to shore up sup­port ahead of the upcoming election cycle.

After an early January meeting of senior Nidaa Tounes officials, the party announced it would compete against Ennahda in municipal elec­tions in May.

Presidential and legislative elec­tions are scheduled for 2019.

Nidaa Tounes will defend “the project of a civil and modern state against the Islamist project of En­nahda,” party leaders said in a state­ment.

By inching away from Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes is hoping to solidify its electoral base drawing from lib­erals, secularists and women, many of whom are wary of the Islamist movement and its attitude towards women’s rights.

Women accounted for more than half of Nidaa Tounes’s support in parliamentary and presidential elec­tions in 2014.

Nidaa Tounes was founded by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in 2012 as a counterweight to Ennahda but the two parties have worked together since 2015. Their partnership is widely credited for maintaining stability during a dif­ficult transition but is also blamed for political deadlock that has pre­vented implementation of needed reforms.

“The ongoing efforts to maintain the parliamentary and government coalition between the nationalist Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist En­nahda are delaying the implemen­tation of Tunisia’s constitution and weakening its institutions,” said a report by the International Crisis Group.

“As former enemies turned part­ners, they (Nidaa Tounes and En­nahda) are struggling to conserve their political identity and internal cohesion… The resulting tensions, against a backdrop of mutual mis­trust, are contributing to an indefi­nite postponement of the reforms promised by the constitution,” the report stated.

“As the economy falters, nostalgia is spreading for a strong state mod­elled on the former regime.”

Despite such criticism, Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi has re­portedly sought to preserve the al­liance at any cost, arguing during internal party meetings that the Nidaa Tounes-Ennahda partnership is the only way to keep secularists from “eradicating” Islamism in the country.

The two parties found them­selves increasingly isolated after four minor coalition partners aban­doned the coalition government this month.

“We have decided not only to quit Carthage Accord but also end our backing of the national unity gov­ernment,” said Mohsen Marzouk, leader of the left-wing Machrou Tounes (Tunisia Project).

Machrou was one of 15 civil soci­ety groups and political parties in 2016 to sign the Carthage Accord, a document that outlines policy pri­orities for the unity government.

Marzouk, a former Caid Essebsi aide, said “the unity government had become an Ennahda-Nidaa government and has unity only in name.”

The liberal AFAK Tounes (Tunisia Horizons), headed by former Devel­opment, Investment and Interna­tional Cooperation Minister Yassine Ibrahim, issued a similar statement, assailing Ennahda and secularist parties for “monopolising power and policy decision-making.”

“AFAK would no longer be a part of the government coalition or the Carthage agreement,” the statement added.

Following the announcement, four AFAK government ministers ended their ties with the party to re­tain their cabinet positions.

Neither Machrou Tounes nor AFAK have representatives in the government, though both previous­ly lent parliamentary support to the government.

The centre-left Joumhouri (Re­publican) Party and the Movement of the People, a small Pan-Arab leftist group, also pulled out of the Carthage Agreement and withdrew support for the government.

The four parties leaving the ac­cord have more than 30 seats in the 217-member parliament. Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda have a large majority in parliament.

The political moves are further in­dication of the governing coalition’s dysfunction but are unlikely to sig­nificantly affect the stability of the current government, which recently weathered mass protests across the country. Demonstrators were pro­testing tax hikes that caused the prices of basic goods to increase.

Ties between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes will be strained un­til municipal elections in May but the two parties’ unorthodox coali­tion is likely to be unavoidable in the short term as the government presses ahead with its 2018 legisla­tive agenda.