Opposition leader predicts president would be re-elected if he runs against Ennahdha candidate

Khelil Zaouia’s analysis was based on the mood in Tunisia towards the Islamist Ennahda party.
Friday 01/02/2019
 Khelil Zaouia, chairman of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, known as Ettakatol. (AFP)
Khelil Zaouia, chairman of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, known as Ettakatol. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi will win re-election if he faces a candidate from the Islamist Ennahda Movement party, the leader of the opposition Ettakatol party predicted.

“Beji [Caid Essebsi] will win if his challenger is from Ennahda or backed by Ennahda,” said Khelil Zaouia, chairman of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, known as Ettakatol.

Zaouia served as minister of social affairs in a three-party coalition government led by Ennahda in 2012-13.

“If he faces a contender in the second round of the elections who is a candidate who is fielded or endorsed by Ennahda, Beji Caid Essebsi will win for sure,” said Zaouia.

Zaouia’s analysis, based on the mood in Tunisia towards the Islamist party, follows Ennahda’s announcement that it could either field party President Rached Ghannouchi as a candidate in the presidential election or back a contender close to the party.

In an interview with The Arab Weekly and Al Arab, Caid Essebsi said Ennahda was “secretly” priming Prime Minister Youssef Chahed to be a candidate for president.

Caid Essebsi described the Chahed government as an “Ennahda government” because it was sworn-in into office based on support of the Islamist party and cannot stay in power without that support. “Without Ennahda’s confidence, it would fall,” said Caid Essebsi.

Ennahda’s declared interest in the presidential elections is a break from its official position of neutrality in the 2014 elections when Caid Essebsi, a leading secularist figure in the mould of former President Habib Bourguiba, was elected.

Caid Essebsi, 92, has yet to announce whether he will run for re-election. In the interview, he said he has yet to make up his mind but he would decide based on “the interest of Tunisia.”

High-level supporters are increasingly floating the idea of his re-election.

“President Beji [Caid Essebsi] is our candidate,” said Raouf Khamassi, a leader of the secularist Nidaa Tounes party, which was founded by the president and is led by his son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi.

“No one else can challenge him. He is the only candidate of our party. We do not have a Plan B for the party’s candidate for the presidential elections,” Khamassi said.

“No politician in the country can do better than [Caid Essebsi] for the interests of Tunisia now and in the future,” added Khamassi, who is a close friend of the president.

Another confidant of the president, Boujemaa Rmili, after meeting with Caid Essebsi, quoted him as saying: “I have no intention to stand as candidate for the presidential elections unless the upcoming elective congress of Nidaa Tounes is crowned with success and the proposal of my candidacy comes from the congress’s delegates.”

In 2012, Caid Essebsi became the first leader to unite the country’s diverse liberal and secularist factions under Nidaa Tounes, rallying around their shared opposition to Ennahda. The party’s success grew before presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, placing Caid Essebsi in the presidency and giving Nidaa Tounes a dominant position in parliament and government.

Nidaa Tounes, however, has since been weakened by internal power struggles and competing visions, with many opposing the party’s strategic “detente” with the rival Ennahda party.

Nidaa Tounes is now the third strongest group in parliament, behind a splinter group backing Chahed, who was formerly with Nidaa Tounes, and Ennahda, which is represented in parliament by 68 members.

Chahed’s departure from Nidaa Tounes was among splintering that weakened Tunisia’s secularist camp. Chahed’s followers have established their own party — Tahiya Tounes (Long Live Tunisia).

Rmili quoted Caid Essebsi as saying: “The issue of Nidaa Tounes is a national issue. The party belongs to all Tunisians.”

He said the president has three goals for the convention: Rebuilding the shape of the party, bringing back all its members and officials who left it and opening it up to all skilled professionals and competences.

While some analysts said they doubted that Nidaa Tounes could return as a powerful force, Zaouia said Tunisians’ antipathy for Ennahda could help Caid Essebsi.

“That is because there is a majority in Tunisia who back anyone who is against Ennahda,” said Zaouya. “They prefer anyone facing Ennahda.”

“Ennahda has failed to change its image,” he added.

Ennahda, which grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sahwa movement that swept the Arab region in the 1970s, has built its support network mostly in rural areas that are predominately conservative. The party won support by standing in opposition to reforms sought by the country’s post-independence leaders, including Bourguiba and former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

While Ennahda’s leadership presents itself as “Muslim Democratic,” rather than Islamist, often citing the example of the German Christian Democracy party, there remains deep mistrust of the movement throughout Tunisia, Zaouia argued.

“They have not been able to achieve their aimed change because Rached Ghannouchi, even when wearing a tie, remains the same… in the eyes of most Tunisians,” he said.

“He remains the man who likes to be called Sidi-cheikh and the Islamist leader whose (former) positions most people still remember. The truth is that Ennahda remains for most Tunisians in the image and likeness of its chief Rached Ghannouchi,” he added.

“Ghannouchi changed in style but the substance remains the same…

“(Ennahda) remains an ideological party like all other ideological parties but their ideology is based on is religion…

“Perhaps they need more time, perhaps generations, to realise a change for themselves and to convince others of that change.”