Ghannouchi’s short-term victory could spell long-term trouble

The Ennahda leader's newfound role as speaker of parliament will give him greater power to intimidate critics and silence dissident voices within the Islamist movement.
Thursday 14/11/2019
Leader of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahdha movement Rached Ghannouchi (R) chairs the first session of the new parliament, November 13. (AFP)
A dream come true. Leader of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahdha movement Rached Ghannouchi (R) chairs the first session of the new parliament, November 13. (AFP)

What came as a surprise for some Tunisians was expected by others: Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahda Movment, would officially be Tunisia’s parliament speaker.

This was made possible after the rival Qalb Tounes party, surprisingly backed Ghannouchi’s candidacy. Qalb Tounes and Ennahda had both previously pledged not to work together, with Islamists accusing Qalb Tounes and its leader, Nabil Karoui, of obstructing Tunisia’s revolutionary aims and being corrupt to the bone.

Of course, Qalb Tounes, with 38 deputies, was not the only political force that helped Ghannouchi secure the top spot in parliament. The long-time Islamist leader also received 21 votes from the far-right Islamist Karama coalition and 12 from the National Reform coalition headed by Hassouna Nasfi, which includes some independents as well as representatives of four secularist political parties: Nidaa Tounes, Afek Tounes, Al-Badil and Machrouu Tounes.

It would be naive to think Ghannouchi’s victory came for free. It opened the way for his party’s former enemy Qalb Tounes to participate in a coalition government and hurt his credibility with his base.

For Tunisians who put their hopes in Qalb Tounes and other secularist parties that vowed to clip the wings of political Islam, the development was a stunning setback. Ennahda is likely to play a prominent role in parliament and a future cabinet.

Such tactical calculations are not new in Tunisia. Since the 2011 uprising that ousted the regime of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s politicians have engaged in endless bargaining games and manoeuvres after each election. Promises made to constituents are rarely kept and values and principles go to the wayside as parties jockey for power.

This political environment has allowed for “partisan tourism” and division within parties, especially secularist ones, as well as creating a sense of public mistrust towards the political elite. Such mistrust was evident during October’s parliamentary and presidential elections, in which anti-establishment candidates, including Kais Saied, who won the presidential vote, led the pack.

Ironically, Tunisians who hoped for change face a similar political landscape — a coalition government with Islamists and secularists. For some Tunisians, this constitutes a vicious cycle that undermines the future of the country. For others, it is the logical outcome of an electoral system based on proportional representation and a political system that rests on a dysfunctional semi-parliamentary regime in which no winning party could rule without consensus.

As things stand, everyone is a loser, including Ghannouchi. The old Islamist guru turned politician may have secured the position of parliament speaker but he has lost considerable leverage and credibility by cooperating with a party he once described as “corrupt.”

Some would argue Ghannouchi never had credibility to begin with. Long considered an Islamist mastermind in Tunisia, Ghannouchi has time and again been gone back on promises and commitments. This time, however, he might be punished for it. Unlike before, Ghannouchi functions as a political figure. This will expose him to national and international media and place him under greater scrutiny.

As popular disillusionment grows over Ennahda’s power-sharing arrangement, Tunisia’s political future does not appear bright. With public distrust threatening Ghannouchi’s influence as well as the foundations of the political system that emerged after 2011, it is unclear how politicians will solve the lingering social and economic problems facing the country.

Of course, Tunisia’s political and economic stability are not Ghannouchi’s primary concern. The Islamist leader, who was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood even before the founding of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya in 1969, has shown that he is most interested in ensuring benefits for his inner circle, including family members, close confidantes and senior Ennahda members. His inner circle has been key to ensuring his political influence and maintaining control over Ennahda when divisions creep in.

Among the members of Ghannouchi’s inner circle is his son-in-law Rafik Abdessalem, who has been dogged by a financial scandal dating to his days as foreign minister in 2012. The scandal was uncovered by investigative reporter Olfa Riahi, who published hotel receipts revealing that Abdessalem had used a combination of state funds and a personal slush fund of $1 million provided by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce to rent  suites at the Sheraton Hotel and lavishly entertain “guests,” including a woman who was not his wife.

The scandal is one of many that Ghannouchi hopes to keep swept under the rug. Ennahda has blocked investigations into a secret apparatus connected to the party that is suspected of being involved in the assassinations of leftist leaders Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid. Ghannouchi’s new position, which earns him a permanent seat at the National Security Council, could help him to bury that case once and for all. It will also allow him to keep an eye on the security issues discussed at the palace.

Ghannouchi’s newfound role, which provides him with immunity, will also give him greater power to intimidate critics and silence dissident voices within the Islamist movement.

By emerging from the shadows and taking a prominent political role, Ghannouchi is reminding both his supporters and opponents that he is the man who pulls the strings.

Indeed no one doubts the man’s political cunning. This was evident in his deal with Qalb Tounes, whose leader Karoui had been jailed for over a month before the elections, with Ennahda rumoured to be behind his detention.

Over the past eight years, Ennahda has been in control of Tunisian politics, irrespective of whichever secularist party appeared to be in charge. This has not changed, even after thousands mobilised to bring down “the system.”

Ennahda and Ghannouchi may act as though they are not threatened by the popular mobilisation against the “system” but they are indeed part and parcel of the system people are turning against, having played a big role in designing the National Constituent Assembly of 2011.

That being said, Ghannouchi will carry on business as usual, at least for now. He can form all the shaky alliances he wants with recycled faces and parties that claim a secular background. He can build his prestige and explain to supporters how those he deems “corrupt” are still worth working with. He can also play one rival against the other and threaten critics and dissidents.

However, frustration with the political establishment and with Ennahda’s manoeuvres to remain in control will only build among the people.

What will happen and what Tunisians, who put their trust in the political class yet again, might do remains to be seen. The best message for people who feel duped by Ennahda’s discourse and Qalb Tounes’s promises can be summed up in Ghannouchi’s response to his deal with Qalb Tounes: “Only fools never change their minds.”