Ghannouchi faces double challenge, from parliament and within own party

Ghannouchi to submit to unprecedented parliamentary questioning early June.
Saturday 23/05/2020
Tunisian Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party leader Rached Ghannouchi chairs the first session of the new parliament following October elections, on November 13, 2019.(AFP)
Tunisian Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party leader Rached Ghannouchi chairs the first session of the new parliament following October elections, on November 13, 2019.(AFP)

TUNIS--The Tunisian Parliament Speaker and leader of Ennahda Movement Rached Ghannouchi is coming under unprecedented pressure ahead of parliamentary questioning over his meddling in the country’s foreign diplomacy for the purpose of pushing his partisan agenda.

The parliamentary session, scheduled for early June, could not come at a worse time for Ghannouchi as he also faces a mounting challenge from within his own Islamist party.

In a sign of a simmering feud within the ranks of Ennahdha, an initiative by a number of the party’s leaders, entitled the “Unity and Renewal Group,” has recently circulated on social media.

The initiative presents a seven-point road-map regarding the future role of Ennahdha leader and the date of the party’s eleventh party convention that has been thrown into doubt due to Ghannouchi’s lack of enthusiasm as well as his manoeuvres aimed at shoring up control of the party by promoting only loyalists and members of his inner circle to the executive bureau.

The so-called Unity and Renewal Group includes senior Islamist leaders, notably the speaker of the Shura Council Abdul Karim al-Harouni, head of the external relations office Rafik Abdessalam , also son-in-law of Ghannouchi, the head of the political bureau Noureddine al-Arbawi, head of the election office Mohsen al-Nouwichi, vice-president of the Shura Council Mokhtar al-Lammouchi, the deputy-head of the foreign relations office Souhail Chebbi and others.

According to the document circulating on social media, the initiative calls for “ensuring the transfer of power in a manner that allows the renewal of the party’s elites,” in accordance with “the requirements of the movement’s statute, democratic norms and institutions’ mandates.”

The initiative also seems like a long-shot attempt at reforming Ennahdha’s Movement, “in response to the requirements of reality and the needs of the country,” according to the circulating document that stresses the need for an agreement on deep structural reforms “in a manner that guarantees the movement’s unity.”

Ghannouchi’s exclusion of Islamist rivals and the dissolution of the executive bureau are expected to deepen tensions within the party and lead to more resignations.

Ghannouchi’s ever-shifting policies and alliances have added to his reputation as disloyal and driven by power.

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, Riyadh al-Chouaibi in November 2013 and Zoubair Chehoudi in September 2019.

The old and new divisions within the Ennahda Movement have put Ghannouchi under increasing scrutiny and added to the pressure that the Islamist leader is facing at home, especially following a decision to question him June 3 over his meddling in Tunisia’s foreign diplomacy, his partisan positions on developments in Libya, close relations with Turkey and Qatar as well as his support of the Muslim Brotherhood regional agenda.

The decision to question Ghannouchi comes following a draft motion filed by the Free Destourian Party (PDL), in which the parliamentary bloc rejected any foreign interference in Libyan affairs and denounced Ghannouchi’s utilisation of parliamentary diplomacy and positions on developments in Libya, said a statement by the Bureau of the Tunisian House of Peoples Representatives.

The leader of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi (C) had requested the questioning of the parliamentary speaker. (AFP)
The leader of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi (C) had requested the questioning of the parliamentary speaker. (AFP)

The PDL parliamentary bloc has been staging a sit-in, since May 13, to demand the hearing of Ghannouchi over his unannounced ties and contacts with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Four parliamentary blocs also called in a joint statement May 21 to “respect diplomatic customs,” insisting on the importance of avoiding any interference with other counties and not involving parliament in the politics of axes, in accordance with the constants of Tunisian diplomacy.

The four blocs, the National Reform, Tahya Tounes, Qalb Tounes and Al Mostakbal, said Thursday Ghannouchi’s positions on the Libyan conflict “do not represent, in any way,” those of the legislative branch of government.

The protest statement came after Ghannouchi congratulated Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), on recapturing al-Watiya airbase during a phone call May 19.

Distancing their political parties from Ghannouchi’s statement, the leaders of the four parliamentary blocs said that the parliament speaker has no legal prerogative to communicate  positions of the country’s parliament without consultation with official bodies of the legislative branch.

Earlier this week, seven Tunisian political parties also denounced Ghannouchi’s phone call to Sarraj in a joint statement.

The seven Tunisian political parties — Attayar Echaabi, the Workers’ Party, the Tunisia Forward Movement, the Socialist Party, the National Democratic Socialist Party, Al Qotb and the Ba’ath movement — described Ghannouchi’s move as an attempt to “bypass state institutions and drag the country into the Libyan conflict, in support of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies.”

The statement issued May 20 also regretted the role Ghannouchi has played on behalf of the country’s parliament, accusing him of “behaving like a member of the international organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, through prioritising the interests of Islamists at the expense of those of Tunisia and its people.”

“This poses a threat to the national security of the country,” the press release said.

The seven parties also called on Tunisian President Kais Saied and other national political forces and organisations to “respond to the positions expressed by the parliament speaker, which could corroborate accusations made against Tunisia insinuating that the country has been providing logistical support to Turkey and facilitating its involvement in Libya.”

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 the president 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.