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