Leap of Tunisia’s prime minister to party leadership brings ties to Islamists to a head

Chahed and Tahya Tounes face the difficult task of repelling criticism by secularists and leftists according to which Ennahda only consolidated in the shadows of the government led by Chahed.
Sunday 09/06/2019
At a crossroads. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed delivers a speech during a news conference at the end of the foundational congress of Tahya Tunis, May 1.  (AFP)
At a crossroads. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed delivers a speech during a news conference at the end of the foundational congress of Tahya Tunis, May 1. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s formal entrance into party politics could end his political alliance with Islamists in the country.

Chahed is the longest-serving Tunisian prime minister since the country’s political and social turmoil early in 2011. The Islamist Ennahda Movement has shored up Chahed’s stay in power.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi selected Chahed to be prime minister in August 2016 to improve the electoral fortunes of Nidaa Tounes, the party he founded. Chahed, however, soon chose an independent path.

He won a bruising political battle with the president’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who leads Nidaa Tounes, and he joined Tahya Tounes, founded in January by disgruntled secularists, ambitious technocrats and calculating Islamists. Chahed became president of Tahya Tounes on June 1.

For Ennahda’s leaders, support for Chahed in parliament was an opportunity to fuel division in their rival political camp while guaranteeing their party a presence in the government.

Analysts said Chahed is at a crossroads as president of Tahya Tounes with the ambition to reshape the fractured secularist camp and beat the Islamists in elections late this year.

Election analysts said Chahed must highlight his differences with Ennahda to maximise his electoral chances. Outside Ennahda’s support base, most Tunisians tend to perceive the Islamist party as seeking to advance its power-driven agenda rather than save the country from its socio-economic morass.

By potentially distancing himself from Ennahda, Chahed would be taking the political risk of antagonising Islamist leaders who are said to describe Chahed as a “dictator in the waiting” who would eventually turn against the Islamists.

“Ennahda is still a partner of Chahed’s government as long as he is not a candidate for the (Tunisian) presidential elections,” said Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi following Chahed’s nomination as Tahya Tounes president. “If Chahed were to announce his candidacy, then a new situation would arise needing examination.”

If his experience with Tahya Tounes is a guide, Chahed would unveil his candidacy at the last moment when there is a minimum political risk. The deadline for a presidential candidacy to be submitted is September 3.

Chahed, 43, who broke with Nidaa Tounes last year, could lose his position as head of government if he failed before that to retain Ennahda’s support. Ennahda, which has the most seats of any party in parliament, thwarted repeated efforts by Nidaa Tounes to oust Chahed as prime minister.

Chahed’s supporters formed Tahya Tounes in January. The founding members did not shy from displaying their backing of Chahed. The prime minister has faced criticism from political opponents and Islamist allies who claim he was forging a “state party” to overwhelm the legislative and presidential elections.

To ward off such critics, Tahya Tounes Secretary-General Selim Azzabi, stressed then that “the head of government has not taken part in a single meeting or activity of Tahya Tounes.” Chahed waited for the right moment before taking the presidency of the secularist Tahya Tounes party months after it was established.

Chahed’s hold on the government cannot be threatened for now by his rivals in the secularist camp or Ennahda, even if they were to overcome their ideological divide and joined forces against him. The law shields the prime minister from a no-confidence vote a few months before elections.

However, Chahed needs to draw ideological and political lines with Ennahda if he is to claim the role of standard bearer of the secularist and liberal camp and secure his political future in a fractured political landscape.

“Ennahda backs Youssef Chahed the way a rope supports the one to be hanged,” said Nizar Bahloul, editor of Business News online magazine. “Ennahda’s and Chahed’s secularist rivals share the same belief that anyone who is Ennahda’s friend must give up any hope to win the presidency.”

“Ennahda will never vote for him and the secularists will move away from him to back a candidate opposed to Ennahda,” Bahloul added.

Chahed and Tahya Tounes face the difficult task of repelling criticism by secularists and leftists according to which Ennahda only consolidated in the shadows of the government led by Chahed. Ennahda has been in coalition governments with secularists since 2011.

Secularists and other anti-Islamists see Ennahda having expanded its influence since 2016 when Chahed became head of a national unity government. Expanded clout involves Ennahda’s rising number of representatives in senior positions in public administration and other government agencies as well as state-owned companies and concerns.

This is likely to give Islamists more political power because patronage and influence in the administration tend to guarantee voting returns.

As a result of the power struggle within Nidaa Tounes, Ennahda won the most seats during municipal elections in May 2018, winning control of 36% of local governments, compared to 22% for Nidaa Tounes.

Such gains in elections and state structures shattered an unwritten entente, begun in 2014 by Beji Caid Essebsi and Ghannouchi before the president abandoned it last year, that Ennahda restrains its political ambitions to match its role as junior government partner.

While Ennahda officials suggested the party would extend its outreach in this year’s elections, analysts said Ennahda would lower its ambitions and keep good ties with potential allies such as Chahed out of its political calculus.

“Ennahda fears reactions against political Islam in the United States and Europe now and tensions and changing the political environment in the Arab region,” said political analyst Slaheddine Jourchi.

“Ennahda aims at winning 70-78 seats in the 217-member parliament to possibly negotiate an alliance with Tahya Tounes,” he added. Although much will depend on what Chahed’s followers manage to clinch.

8