Ghannouchi’s silence, Mourou’s exit mean trouble for Ennahda party

Ennahda’s unprecedented internal disputes reflect the clash of different trends fighting for the ideological orientation and political positioning of Ennahda in Tunisia’s tumultous political scene.
Friday 29/05/2020
Then-interim parliament speaker, Abdelfattah Mourou (L) greets Tunisian Ennahdha party leader Rached Ghannouchi as hands him the chair at the first session of the new parliament following October elections, last November. (AFP)
Then-interim parliament speaker, Abdelfattah Mourou (L) greets Tunisian Ennahdha party leader Rached Ghannouchi as hands him the chair at the first session of the new parliament following October elections, last November. (AFP)

TUNIS - The silence of Tunisian parliament speaker and leader of the Islamist Ennahda party Rached Ghannouchi about the political pressure he is facing at home before his scheduled appearance to be questioned by parliament June 3 over his Libyan connections has raised concerns among his detractors and supporters alike.

There are varying interpretations of Ghannouchi’s silence. Some believe he is staying quiet in the hope that the political controversy blows over. Others, however, believe he may have a surprise in store that could allow him to emerge from the controversy a winner.

Ghannouchi has faced political backlash after he congratulated Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), on recapturing al-Watiya airbase during a phone call on May 19.

Ghannouchi’s critics accused him of meddling in the country’s foreign policy agenda, bypassing state institutions, notably the presidency, and dragging the country into the Libyan conflict in support of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies.

As concerns about the growing influence of Ghannouchi mount, a barely-veiled political rift has developed between the Islamist leader and President Kais Saied, with Tunisian political parties and figures largely rallying behind the president.

There are now rumours that Ghannouchi is flustered and struggling even to retain popular support from within his own Islamist movement, which is also wracked by internal divisions.

Tussles within Ennahda

In recent months, there have been growing calls for Ghannouchi to be removed as Ennahda’s leader. In response, Ghannouchi has taken steps to expand and mobilise his inner circle, and silence critics within the movement who are calling for the empowerment of new, younger members.

Ennahda’s rules stipulate that the party’s president is limited to two terms, but Ghannouchi seems to hope he can extend his mandate to a third and possibly fourth term. This means the rules would have to be reviewed before the party’s 11th convention to be held this year.

Ghannouchi has gone to great lengths to mobilise loyal supporters that could back him in advocating his cause.

Ajmi Lourimi, an outgoing member of the Ennahda’s executive bureau, said that he “supports Ghannouchi’s candidacy for the movement’s leadership.”

Lourimi added in a statement to local media that "the movement still needs him, and the party’s rules of procedure can be revised to enable Ghannouchi to run for a third term."

Lourimi was not alone in rushing to support Ghannouchi. Mohamed Khalil Baroumi, head of Ennahda’s media department, attacked some of the longtime leaders in the Islamist movement who have demanded that Ghannouchi step down.

 Regarding an initiative put forward by some Ennahda leaders called “The Unity and Renewal Group,” Baroumi said: “If the news of the initiative are true, we need to issue a reminder that Ennahda has its institutions, such as the Shura Council and the Executive Bureau. If those members of Ennahda are proposing something outside the official institutions, this poses a real problem that must be discussed and examined within the party’s political bodies.”

 The so-called Unity and Renewal Group includes senior Islamist leaders, notably the speaker of the Shura Council Abdelkarim Harouni, head of the external relations office Rafik Abdessalam, who is also Ghannouchi’s son in law, head of the political bureau Noureddine Arbaoui, head of the election office Mohsen Nouichi, vice-president of the Shura Council Mokhtar Lammouchi and deputy-head of the foreign relations office Souhail Chebbi, among 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 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 shifting policies and alliances have added to his reputation as being solely driven by the quest for 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 Chouaibi in November 2013 and Zoubair Chehoudi in September 2019.

Mourou, the fall of an iconic figure

 The withdrawal from politics of Abdelfattah Mourou, a co-founder of Ennahda and a former deputy speaker of Tunisia’s parliament, confirms the party’s internal crisis.

Mourou announced his decision to leave politics during a local radio interview May 26.

 In new statements May 28, Mourou insisted that his decision to retire permanently from political life is due to his self-respect and respect for Tunisian citizens, saying, "I am not eligible to continue with politics on the current evolving political scene."

 "I will not leave one party to join another, and I will not create a party. I will not even practice politics as an independent ... Politicians should not stay forever," he said. 

As Ennahda faces increasing leadership disputes, Mourou’s remarks about politicians needing to step down and make way for “younger leaders” were viewed as a message to Ghannouchi, who is 78.

 “My relationship with Ennahda was that of protest. I froze my membership in 1991, following the incident of Bab Souika,” Mourou said, recalling the attack that was blamed on Islamists and that targeted the office of the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally that year, killing one guard.

 “I threatened to leave and I called on them [Ennahda] to turn to the right path and that their path was wrong,” Mourou said, noting “This was my approach. I, however, submitted a resignation more than a year ago but this resignation has been so far ignored.”

 “I did not get a satisfactory answer and I was not active within the party. This led me to wonder about what I was doing within Ennahda,” Mourou added.

 Political expert Khaled Abid, however, said it was likely Mourou’s "fragile position" within the Islamist movement that prompted him to step back.

 In recent years, Mourou’s "position within the party was marginalised in favour of Ghannouchi, who has monopolised the authority within the movement for his benefit," Abid said.

 "Division has become a feature within the Ennahda Movement," in light of repeated and successive resignations, said Abid, adding that "whether the movement's conference is held or not, divisions will mark the party’s future."

 Mourou’s lacklustre performance in last year’s presidential election was viewed as a disappointment for him and the party.

 The two top contenders were Kais Saied, who ran with no party affiliation, and media tycoon Nabil Karoui, who had been jailed on charges of money laundering and tax evasion just days before the first-round poll. They defeated 24 other candidates, including those with major party backing like Mourou.

 Despite his colourful, urbane reputation, Mourou has also had to deal with accusations of ultraconservative sympathies. Mourou’s critics say he often holds different positions on the same issues.

 The push to nominate Mourou as Ennahda’s first candidate for the presidency at a time when support for the Islamist movement was waning put him on a downward orbit.

Mourou received just 12.9% of the votes in the first round represented about 435,000 ballots cast. The party claimed 1.5 million votes in 2011 parliamentary elections and 1 million in 2014.

His defeat was a source of distress for many rank-and-file Ennahda members across the country.

Mourou was elected to lead Ennahda in the party’s 2012 convention, before taking the positions of vice-president and head of external relations in 2017.

 Ennahda’s unprecedented internal disputes reflect the clash of different trends fighting for the ideological orientation and political positioning of Ennahda in Tunisia’s tumultous political scene.

Ghannouchi's June 3 parliamentary questioning will add a foreign policy dimension to the party's contentious politics.