Party politics challenge Tunisia’s secularists

There are still bridges and common ground between the two camps, the most important being the Islamist challenge they will face in next elections.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Tunisia’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi  arrive for a meeting in the Carthage Palace on the outskirts of Tunis. (AFP)
Critical juncture. Tunisia’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi arrive for a meeting in the Carthage Palace on the outskirts of Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s supporters are preparing to launch a new political party, a move that risks dividing the country’s secularist camp just months ahead of elections.

The potential confrontation is fraught with uncertainties, analysts said. Many secularists fear the split could allow Islamists to regain control of the government in presidential and parliamentary elections in November and December.

Problems in Tunisia’s secularist camp have been compounded by internal Nidaa Tounes disputes that pit Chahed against party Executive Director Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who is the son of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. Divisions in the secularist camp could make it no match for the electoral machine of the Islamists, who can rely on a well-disciplined voter base.

Chahed and Hafedh Caid Essebsi last year engaged in a public war of words, each accusing the other of political ineptitude and failing the party.

Hafedh Caid Essebsi recently dismissed Chahed’s efforts to create a new political project, saying: “There is no alternative to Nidaa Tounes. Tunisia has two choices: Nidaa Tounes or Ennahda.”

However, Nidaa Tounes has been crippled by defections, with leading figures abandoning the party, which cost it its parliamentary majority. Nidaa Tounes now has 44 deputies in the 217-member parliament. The Islamist Ennahda Movement has 69 seats.

The troubles of Nidaa Tounes have added to citizens’ frustrations with the country’s political elite. Distrust of politicians has complicated the government’s efforts to manage the country’s acute social and economic crisis. It has also undone much of Beji Caid Essebsi’s success in forging a broad anti-Islamist coalition.

Hafedh Caid Essebsi, at a recent meeting of party officials, slammed former party members who have pursued a different political path. “Those who left Nidaa Tounes achieved nothing. They have done no good for the country,” he said.

Nidaa Tounes is planning a convention aimed at reunifying the party for March 2, shortly after Chahed’s supporters are to launch their new party.

Boujemaa Rmili, a close political ally of the president, warned that “if Nidaa were to fail to succeed in having its congress on March 2, there is nothing to be expected from its participation in the parliamentary and presidential elections.”

“President Beji [Caid Essebsi], who will attend the opening of the convention, looks at the event as a decisive moment for the salvation of the party and the country,” he added.

Chahed’s supporters are adamant that Tunisian politics is entering a new era.

“Nidaa Tounes is over,” said former party member Leila Chettaoui in comments directed at Hafedh Caid Essebsi. “You destroyed the party and now you are ruining the life of Tunisians.”

“I’m one of the deputies who made the most visits to Tunisia’s regions to witness the support of local officials and members of the civic society who back the new political project of Youssef Chahed,” Chettaoui added.

Leading figures of Chahed’s movement said the party’s’ first convention would be January 27 in Monastir, the hometown of late President Habib Bourguiba.

“The new political project aims at avoiding the mistakes of Nidaa Tounes,” said Selim Azzabi, the former chief of staff of President Beji Caid Essebsi and who now coordinates activities for Chahed’s movement. “It seeks to prepare a solid ground to launch a centrist party as a democratic constitutional popular force that will be ready for the next political deadlines.”

“Tunisians are fully behind Chahed as president of the government because they feel his sincerity despite the criticism fallen upon him from all sides since he decided to launch his campaign against corruption,” he added.

Many Tunisians, however, fear that a break between Chahed and Caid Essebsi camp would compound the country’s instability.

Experts in Tunis, however, said that break is neither full nor final. There are still bridges and common ground between the two camps, the most important being the Islamist challenge they will face in next elections.

“Both Chahed and President Beji [Caid Essebsi] need their time and energy to fight their true rivals,” said Nizar Bahloul, editor of Business News magazine. “It is stupid — very stupid — for them to waste their energy outside the fight against their common rival.”

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