Ghannouchi congratulates Sarraj for takeover of al-Watiya airbase, provokes outcry

Move criticised as infringing on president’s prerogatives.
Wednesday 20/05/2020
A file picture of Tunisian parliamentary speaker Rached Ghannouchi attending a plenary session last February. (AFP)
A file picture of Tunisian parliamentary speaker Rached Ghannouchi attending a plenary session last February. (AFP)

TUNIS – The leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement (who also happens to be Tunisia's parliament speaker) may have breathed a sigh of relief as the Libyan National Army (LNA) withdrew from the strategic al-Watiya airbase near the Tunisian border last Monday. But his ostentatious expression of satisfaction earned him vehement attacks by Tunisian critics who went as far as to accuse him of breaching the constitution by infringing upon the president's prerogatives.

Rached Ghannouchi’s move to congratulate Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), on recapturing al-Watiya airbase reflected the happiness of most Tunisian Islamists at the military development next-door but it failed to take into consideration the foreign policy obligations that come with assuming the top legislative position held by Ennahda's chief.

A statement published by the GNA stated that Sarraj received "a phone call from Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi to discuss the developments in Libya."

"During the call, Ghannouchi extended his congratulation to al-Sarraj for the GNA's recapture of the strategic al-Watiya airbase," revealed the statement.

Ghannouchi's message to Sarraj is likely to openly challenge a number of Arab countries that are opposed to the rise of political Islam in the region, notably Egypt. But Cairo has come under fire for failing to provide adequate military support to the LNA in its battle against Islamist militias loyal to the Turkish and Qatari backed GNA.

Ghannouchi’s attempts to leverage his position as speaker of parliament into foreign policy clout into foreign policy was criticised as confusing his different roles at the helm of the party and parliament and ignoring the risks inherent in involving Tunisia in Libya’s conflict.

"Once again, news about Ghannouchi’s activities are carried by foreign media and sources, with no trace of such news on the page of the Tunisian House of People's Representatives or Ghannouchi's page," said Mourad Allala, a Tunisian reporter and rights activist.

"This a dangerous turning point that requires the intervention of the President of the Republic as head of state, who is in charge of overseeing foreign affairs," Allala added, noting that there are serious concerns about the fact that "Ghannouchi has been acting as the President of Ennahda rather than as Speaker of parliament."

Tunisian journalist Mokhtar Kammoun said Ennahdha's leader “is exceeding his powers and violating the constitution that exclusively charges the President of the Republic with overseeing the foreign policy of the state."

Ghannouchi’s activities carried out under the justification of “parliamentary diplomacy” carries “an abuse of power and a violation of diplomatic protocols,” Kammoun added.

Ghannouchi, according to critics, should choose between his role as parliamentary speaker and the presidency of Ennahdha.

"As President of Ennahdha movement, Ghannouchi can do whatever he wants, but as parliament speaker, he should tread carefully," said Tunisian journalist and political activist Borhan Bsais.

The Tunisian parliament is politically "diverse, and Ghannouchi is not entitled to speak in the name of deputies when tackling such a controversial file," Bsais added, in reference to the Libyan conflict.

Tunisia has traditionally followed the diplomatic principle of non-interference in foreign conflicts, especially concerning next-door neighbours.

Ghannouchi's remarks to Sarraj also added to suspicions about the government’s orientation towards the Libyan conflict, after President Kais Saied authorised a Turkish plane carrying medical aid en route to Libya to stop and refuel in Tunisia.

The plane’s landing was widely criticised as a move towards involvement in Libya’s conflict.

Numerous leftist and pan-Arabist parties condemned any “Turkish activity on Tunisian soil” aimed at lending support “to militias and terrorists” in Libya and denounced what they described as “the continuation of the ambiguous approach by Tunisian authorities towards Turkish activities in the region.”

The parties, which included Attayar Ach-Chaabi (Popular Current), the Labour Party, the Socialist Party, the Baath Party, the Tounes al-Amam movement and the Pole Party, “denounced any attempt at dragging Tunisia in the game of regional alliances at the expense of the country’s national security interests and the security and stability of the Libyan people.”

They called on the Tunisian president to clarify the country’s stance on Turkey’s growing interference in Libya, whether “through the dispatching of mercenaries from Syria or other forms of direct military involvement.”

The Free Destourian Party, led by anti-Islamist lawyer Abir Moussi, raised questions about the nature of the Turkish shipment given that it “originated in a country that is not neutral and whose parliament has voted for military intervention in Libya.”