Islamists’ power play prompts soul searching in Tunisia

Ennahda’s political jockeying cast doubt on its commitment to addressing Tunisia’s major challenges.
Friday 22/11/2019
Tunisia's President Kais Saied (R) receives Ennahdha leader and parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi at the presidential palace in Tunis, November 15. (Tunisian Presidency via AFP)
Tunisia's President Kais Saied (R) receives Ennahdha leader and parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi at the presidential palace in Tunis, November 15. (Tunisian Presidency via AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisians are more optimistic following presidential and legislative elections, surveys indicate, but secularists are voicing concern that a government dominated by the Islamist Ennahda Movement and its allies could reverse years of social progress and increase instability.

A survey by Tunisian polling company Sigma Conseil said that 61.5% of respondents said the “country was moving in the right direction,” up from 11% in March.

The proportion of “pessimistic” responders slumped to 30%, compared to 89% in March, marking the highest degree of “optimism” displayed by Tunisians since January 2015, the first month after the previous legislative elections.

Analysts said the trend was mostly because of the election of Kais Saied, a retired university professor who advocates decentralisation and rule of law, as president. Saied, who ran without a party, won 72.7% of the vote in the run-off election, the highest mark of any freely elected leader since the country’s independence.

Saied’s supporters, an unorthodox mix of Islamists, revolutionary leftists, young people and Tunisians who say they admire him for his “integrity,” “humility” and commitment to law and order, underscored the deep rifts — and contradictions — in Tunisian society.

However, Tunisia’s parliament and government control most domestic policy, while the president’s prerogatives include defence and diplomacy.

Ennahda, despite losing seats in parliament, shored up power by striking a surprise alliance with the secularist Qalb Tounes party. Ennahda, which won 52 seats in parliament, and Qalb Tounes, which won 38, had pledged not to ally with each other.

Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi was elected parliament speaker through that deal and Ennahda nominated Habib Jemli, an independent former Agriculture official said to be close with the party, as prime minister.

Ennahda’s political jockeying cast doubt on its commitment to addressing Tunisia’s major challenges, including economic stagnation and security.

Many Tunisians raised concerns that an Ennahda-dominated political scene would change the country’s general “political culture” and have a negative effect on future generations.

“I never sensed such feelings of strangeness as I did today in the opening session of the parliament,” said newly elected deputy Safi Said. “I went there brimming with hope and optimism. I’m leaving the place burdened with sadness and pessimism.”

“I might have lost my way when I thought about the state and the parliament. I found everything there except the homeland and myself,” he said, adding that “lies and disloyalty filled the atmosphere in parliament.”

Political writer Synda Tajine asked what Ennahda’s ascendancy would teach the country’s future generations. “What are we striving to teach to our children?” she asked. “Are we giving them the good examples? Certainly not.”

Ennahda insists it is being unfairly maligned and that the party’s first-place finish in legislative elections gave it the right to play a prominent role in governance. The party has gone to great lengths to put on a friendly face for international media, adopting the image of a dove under a blue sky — symbolising peace and love — and referring to its members as “Muslim democrats” rather than Islamists.

However, the party and its allies are not trusted by a large number of Tunisians, polls indicate. Half of respondents said they view the party negatively, the Sigma Conseil poll states, and two-thirds voiced the “highest degree of distrust” towards Ghannouchi.

“Despite its relative victory in the parliamentary elections, Ennahda remains the party most despised by Tunisians, first as a party and secondly as leaders,” said political analyst Zied Krichene.

“Correct, decades have passed since the incipiency of the Islamist current with the Islamists no longer seeking in their speeches to destroy the pillars of the common cultural and religious identity of the Tunisians as they do their utmost to claim they are part of it but the arrogance displayed by the Islamist movement, especially when it dominated power from 2011-13, revived tensions not only among the elite but among the general public.”

Secularist intellectuals said Tunisia’s Islamists remain a strong force that includes extremist and fundamentalist elements. They point out that, besides Ennahda’s 52 seats, the far-right Karama coalition, viewed by some as the fundamentalist wing of Ennahda, has 21 seats in parliament.

Karama is more popular than Ennahda, the poll results said, suggesting the Islamist movement has continued to spread its influence.

Former Information Minister and Jeune Afrique founder Bechir Ben Yahmed said he feared that “by electing Ghannouchi as speaker, Tunisia has turned backward an entire century.”

“The policy and behaviour of the Islamists in Tunisia over the last nine years and their plots and intrigues after the latest polls, whether the known ones or the ones suspected by Tunisians, confirm the perception among most observers that Tunisia will be better if ruled by others,” he said.