Power struggles rocking Tunisia’s Islamist party ahead of elections

We will soon be witnessing important resignations from Ennahda.
Friday 19/07/2019
Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist party Ennahda, speaks during an interview with Reuters journalists in Tunis, Tunisia, April 25, 2018. (Reuters)
Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist party Ennahda, speaks during an interview with Reuters journalists in Tunis, Tunisia, April 25, 2018. (Reuters)

It has been a little more than eight years that the Islamist Ennahda Movement in Tunisia has been active in the open and it is undergoing some expected fundamental changes.

Before 2011, the Islamists had drawn their strength from being politically oppressed and persecuted by Tunisia’s security apparatus. Working in plain sight and under the public eye confuses them. This is leading them to inevitable divisions and position wars that are publicly displayed for the first time.

The cause of their internal turmoil is that they suddenly found themselves to be a party competing for power, with its members fighting for high positions in parliament and state institutions to enable them to regain prestige and influence. The days of the "divinely" inspired party were over.

The party that never ceased to stuff people’s ears with "Islam is the solution" and demanded the application of sharia and the spread of Islamic values ​​in society had turned into a civil party with internal struggles for power.

If the Ennahda leadership had contained the storm that rose during the movement’s congress following a wave of political assassinations in Tunisia, it has not been able during times of political peace to smother the internal divisions in the name of religion or brotherhood.

The wider public has been and is being treated to dissenting opinions and fiery statements by familiar and influential Ennahda figures, such as Abdellatif Mekki, who is said to be heading the internal opposition to Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi; Abdelhamid Jlassi, one of the architects of the return of the movement to secret activity during the last years of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime; and Samir Dilou, an Ennahda minister during the Troika regime, who said he was suffocating and was considering quitting.

The story behind the storm inside Ennahda goes back to what happened in preparation for legislative elections in Tunisia. Ennahda conducted free and democratic internal elections to select its candidates for the elections but Ennahda’s executive committee, which is known to be Ghannouchi's arm, cancelled the results of the internal elections.

It drew its own candidate lists and appointed as heads of the lists members who meet Ghannouchi’s desire to open the lists to competencies outside the movement, particularly women not wearing the veil.

Here, it is useful to recall the famous incident of how Ennahda’s executive committee was formed.

The movement’s Shura Council, its highest authority, recommended establishing the executive committee through elections but Ghannouchi opposed that procedure and threatened to resign from the movement if he did not get to personally select the committee’s members. Ghannouchi got what he wanted.

The internal elections ahead of the legislative elections placed Jlassi and Mekki at the top of the movement’s lists in Tunis but the executive committee defied the voters’ choice and ordered Jlassi to head the list of the district of Nabeul and Mekki to head the list of the district of El Kef. Both men rejected the decision and withdrew from the elections.

This case was not unique. Hayat Amri, the female representative of the district of Sidi Bouzid, is an internationally known scholar and scientist and very popular in her district. She, too, was removed from her district’s list by the executive committee.

Regardless of details and angry reactions, the important thing to keep in mind is that Ennahda has transformed into an ogre in Tunisia’s political scene. Everyone who is anyone is rushing to seek its blessing and alliance.

The movement is becoming a party very similar to Nidaa Tounes and, as in the latter’s case, we will soon be witnessing important resignations from Ennahda. Those resignations may be secret at first but will quickly get out of control, especially because of the overwhelming presence of Islamists on social media where leaks, rumours and announcements have a field day.

What is happening was expected because Ennahda was formed as a pragmatic organisation grouping a range of different and sometimes contradictory Islamist identities, such as figures and scholars belonging to the local Zeituna School and figures belonging to the external Muslim Brotherhood School.

The internal battle will be decisive for the movement. It’s a battle between those who adhere to the ideology of the Islamist group and Ghannouchi, who is digging deep to undermine the old identity of the group and to get rid of its old symbolic figures.

For example, the activities of the movement’s former hard-line "emirs" Sadok Chourou and Habib Ellouz were restricted to proselytising. They were relegated to the background and no longer have any presence in the media, let alone any political influence.

The result is that the road is wide open for the number one man of the movement, who has decided to run for parliament. It is not known whether the move is an internal manoeuvre or whether the man really wants to step further into the limelight.

It won’t be surprising that he may become speaker of the parliament within the context of future deals with the current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s party or other partisan blocs.

What is becoming noticeable is that the “Ghannouchi machine” wants to get rid of the old faces of the movement and to bring in faces with a clean past and able to penetrate society and take up positions and offices without raising doubts or objections.

It has been leaked that the head of the movement is focusing on including on Ennahda’s election lists figures known for their activities in other fields, such as athletes, artists and technocrats who are offspring of influential figures from business or sports.

For example, Ennahda’s candidate for mayor and head of the municipal council of the suburb of Bardo in Tunis is the daughter of the president of a popular sports association and that was enough to give her an edge to win the position. Her predecessor was a woman who was a former member of the Central Committee of the dissolved Democratic Constitutional Rally and who had joined Ennahda.

Circles close to the “New Ennahda” being put together by Ghannouchi agree that the movement’s former rhetoric based on it being the victim of injustice no longer convinces anyone. In fact, Ennahda needs to penetrate the “Tunisianing” socially successful individuals.

The latter must be recruited to the party’s ideology then nominated for elections and strongly supported to win. That way, Ennahda will make sure to win a new base different from the old, outdated base. It is exactly the symbols of this old base that are rebelling against “Sheikh” Ghannouchi.

The leader of Ennahda is hoping that the internal protest will end when debate on the movement’s candidates is closed. That’s when “his” lists become a reality. Something similar happened after the movement’s tenth congress, when the uproar created by Ghannouchi’s moves quickly passed, then turned into discrediting debates on social media until it died out.

One question remains unanswered: Will Ennahda’s internal democratic uprising end up being accepted by the movement’s Shura Council? This is where the movement’s cadres and wise men and women give advice and make suggestions and decide what they like.

The “general public” -- party members, local and intermediate leaderships -- will have to be content with formal democracy in which they can run for elections and compete, knowing that the movement’s guru will blatantly disregard the results and redo the lists according to his own agenda and to his personal relations and promises he made to businessmen and influential people to put their children on the party’s lists in exchange for moral support within the deep state and the hope that they would finally embrace the movement, which continues to suffer from suspicion and apprehension despite all the concessions it had made.

Ghannouchi is probably going to lose some feathers after this insurrection inside his movement. This time, the pill is too hard to swallow because he has robbed voters of their voices and undermined the internal democratic system that party members have long boasted about.

This time, the battle is not about a transitional tactical choice; it is about a complete reversal of the movement’s basic values and traditions and about its transition to a civil party that is ready to make deals in order to foray inside the wider society and persuade its detractors that it has no dubious past, no dubious current relations and no colour.

Will Ennahda’s base accept this game and will Ghannouchi succeed in persuading influential circles of the deep state that he has changed personally, that he is building a “new Ennahda” that is ready to serve their interests and especially convince the West that Ennahda is changing and ready for greater concessions?