Gulf widens between Ennahdha, Tunisia's president

Tunisian president condemns Ghannouchi’s attempt to hijack Tunisia’s foreign policy agenda.
Tuesday 26/05/2020
A file picture of Tunisia’s President Kais Saied giving a speech at the Carthage Palace. (AFP)
A file picture of Tunisia’s President Kais Saied giving a speech at the Carthage Palace. (AFP)

TUNIS--The question of meddling with Tunisia’s foreign policy agenda has widened the gulf between President Kais Saied and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghanouchi, who also heads the Islamist Ennahda movement, indicating that a political storm could be brewing in the North African country.

Ghannouchi’s support for Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and his alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood agenda in the region has drawn the ire of Saied, who on Eid al-Fitr condemned the Islamist leader’s attempt to hijack Tunisia’s foreign policy.

“Everyone must recognise that there is only one Tunisia and one president both nationally and internationally,” said Tunisian President Kais Saied.

“We could have responded to anyone who wanted to cause trouble, and our response would have been very strong, but we wanted to put ethics and moral values first,” he added.

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

Saied, who is now facing pressure at home to put an end to Ghannouchi’s manoeuvres, doubled down May 25 on his position against the Islamist leader’s meddling in foreign affairs during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Tunisian president not only distanced himself from Ghannouchi’s stance on Libya but also stressed that any solution to the conflict should be based on a peaceful settlement reached between Libyans themselves.

Saied also recalled that Tunisia is one of the countries that has been most affected by the Libyan conflict, adding that the issue is one of the top concerns for Tunisians.

However, in Saied’s battle to distance the state from Ghannouchi, he is also facing off with Ennahda, the leading political party in the Tunisian parliament and a key political player that is largely controlled by Ghannouchi.

In a May 24 statement, Ennahda fully endorsed the stance of its leader in favour of the GNA in its ongoing military showdown with the Libyan National Army (LNA).

In the statement, Ennahda congratulated the GNA for recapturing the strategic al-Watiya airbase and other areas from the eastern-based LNA, headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The open support of Ennahda for the GNA’s military campaign illustrates the polarisation of Tunisia’s political scene, with the Islamist camp supporting the Turkish and Qatari-backed Sarraj camp and the rest of the political class wary of being dragged into the Libyan war.

Ennahda also condemned “campaigns against the party and its leaders,” notably its president and Parliament Speaker Ghannouchi and lashed out at the media and critics for “spreading rumours and lies to disrupt any efforts to tackle main issues in the country.”

Ennahda’s statement is expected to sow further discord within the ranks of Islamists and fuel reservations about the Islamists’ endgame in the Libyan conflict.

Ghannouchi himself is facing unprecedented pressure at home over his alleged ties with Turkey, Qatar and the international Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The Islamist leader is also accused by critics of attempting to sway the country’s foreign policy in favour of Turkey, which is supporting Islamist militias allied to the GNA with weapons and logistics.

He now faces the prospect of being questioned before parliament after a draft motion was filed by the Free Doustourian Party (PDL).

The PDL has staged a sit-in to demand a hearing on Ghannouchi’s alleged unannounced ties and contacts with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On May 21, four Tunisian parliamentary blocs denounced Ghannouchi’s manoeuvres, calling in a joint statement for him to “respect diplomatic customs” and avoid interfering in other countries’ affairs.

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

On May 20, seven Tunisian political parties also denounced Ghannouchi’s phone call to Sarraj in a joint statement.

The seven 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 parties also called on 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.”

The political pressure facing Ghannouchi is set to rekindle old and recent divisions within Ennahda.

In a sign of conflict within the ranks of the party, an initiative by a number of its leaders, entitled the “Unity and Renewal Group,” has begun circulating on social media.

The initiative presents a seven-point roadmap for the future of the party, including a proposed date for the eleventh party convention that Ghannouchi, who is slated to be replaced as party leader, has sought to delay.

Ghannouchi has also attempted to shore up power within the Ennahda Movement, dissolving its executive bureau and promoting loyalists and members of his inner circle. 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 references the need for reform within the movement “in a manner that guarantees the movement’s unity.”

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 spotlight.

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 Ennahdha 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, Riyad al-Shuaibi in November 2013 and Zubair al-Shahoudi in September 2019.