Parliamentary questioning turns into public reckoning for Ghannouchi

The 20-hour plenary session highlighted tense polarisation.
Thursday 04/06/2020
Supporters of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) rally against Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi outside the Tunisian parliament in Tunis on June 3. (AFP)
Supporters of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) rally against Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi outside the Tunisian parliament in Tunis on June 3. AFP.

TUNIS –Tunisia’s parliament rejected a draft resolution Tuesday night expressing opposition to any foreign intervention in neighbouring Libya as well as any Tunisian support for any such intervention, after a 20-hour plenary session that turned into a public reckoning for Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi.

Ninety-four MPs voted in favour of the resolution, drafted in response to Ghannouchi’s controversial foray into the conflict in next-door Libya, while 68 voted against and 7 abstained, leaving it 15 short votes of the 109-vote majority needed to pass.

Nevertheless, experts said the fact that the resolution was able to draw the support of 94 members from five parliamentary blocs was a significant development. “Abir Moussi managed to embarrass Ghannouchi,” wrote Thursday the Tunisian daily Le Maghreb, referring to the leader of the anti-Islamist Free Destourian Party (PDL) that sponsored the drive to question Ghannouchi.

The vote highlighted tense polarisation  between Islamists and their opponents within the legislative body and transformed into something of a public trial for Ghannouchi, who heads the Islamist Ennahda party.

Tensions mounted also as PDL supporters gathered outside parliament building shouting slogans for the destituton of the parliamentary speaker.

Tunisian Assembly Speaker Rached Ghannouchi attends the plenary session, on June 3. (AFP)
Tunisian Assembly Speaker Rached Ghannouchi attends the plenary session, on June 3. (AFP)

Numerous legislators waited to take the floor during the session, and many used their time to heap criticism on Ghannouchi and his allies in parliament. Islamist MPs from Ennahda and the more radical Dignity Coalition stood behind Ghannouchi and described his questioning as an “attack on Tunisia’s democratic experience.”

The session devoted to questioning Ghannouchi over his alleged support for Libya’s Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) began around midnight.

Even deputy Parliament Speaker Tarek Fatiti told him he “made a mistake” in calling Sarraj to congratulate him on recapturing al-Watiya airbase. At the end of the session, Ghannouchi conceded he would draw the proper lessons from the criticism he had received but stopped short of offering an apology.

Some of the most heated remarks came from Moussi and leftist MP Mongi Rahoui.

Moussi levelled a 14-minute attack on Ghannouchi, accusing him of extremist ideas and affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. She vowed to work for the removal of Ennahda from the political scene “by law”. Islamist MPs denounced her as an “eradicator.”

Rahoui told Gannouchi that despite his attempts to project a modern image, his “extremist garb will never leave him.”

There were other personal attacks on Ghannouchi. Samia Abbou, from the Democratic Current bloc that is a partner in the government coalition, told Ghannouchi: “You are behaving as a ruling cleric commanding in the name of God and not as a statesman in a civil state, who is supposed to be democratic, and you have failed to transform yourself into a statesman.”

Abbou’s fierce criticism was further indication of strained relations within the ruling alliance.

While criticism first came from leading anti-Islamist parties and figures, they were soon joined by other political groups who are normally more neutral or discrete.

Mohamed Karim Krifa, a MP affiliated with the PDL, told The Arab Weekly that the session went poorly for Ghannouchi, who after deliberately delaying its start for over an hour “in order to disrupt the agenda,” was largely unable to counter his opponents’ arguments.

Earlier in the day, Moussi accused Ghannouchi of being behind “deliberate attempts at delaying” and “a systematic policy relying on apparent confusion” in order to disrupt the plenary session.

Ennahda’s MPs intervened frequently and at length, bringing up a stream of points of order. This added to the delays, even prompting traditional Ennahda allies to bring up the issue.

Observers said Ghannouch’s questioning added to a series of setbacks he has suffered during his short tenure as parliament speaker. Long respected and deferred to within his own party, the Islamist leader seems unaccustomed to being scrutinised as a politician.

Abir Moussi, Tunisian leader of the Free Destourian Party (PDL), attends the parliamentary session of June 3. (AFP)
Abir Moussi, Tunisian leader of the Free Destourian Party (PDL), attends the parliamentary session of June 3. (AFP)

In an attempt to avoid direct criticism in parliament, Ghannouchi has often stayed home from plenary sessions.

Representative Faisal Tebbini told The Arab Weekly that it would be better if Ghannouchi would just “go away” for good, as he seems overwhelmed by his mounting scandals and “is no longer capable of carrying out his duties because of his old age.” Tebbini added that “Ghannouchi was no longer able to differentiate in his performance between his being president of Ennahdha Movement and being Speaker of the Parliament,” a reference to his alleged authoritarian style within the party that he has tried to carry into parliament.

Tebbini urged Ghannouchi to resign and give way to other leaders within his party, pointing out that his attachment to power has driven many prominent figures out, such as Ennahda’s former presidential candidate Abdelfattah Mourou.

Many believe that the parliamentary session delivered a lasting blow to the Islamist leader, who will now be careful to avoid future scandals. As Ghannouchi becomes more reserved, his influence within parliament and his own movement is expected to dwindle, while his opponents will score political points.

“It is the ultimate irony that Ghannouchi winning the position of speaker could end up being the worst political catastrophe for himself and his party,” wrote Le Maghreb columnist Zied Krichen.