Saied hits at Islamists after high profile visit to Cairo

Verbal sniping continues between the Tunisian president and Islamist rivals, mostly through hints and allusions.
Thursday 15/04/2021
Tunisian President Kais Saied (R), Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (L) and Assembly (parliament) speaker Rached Ghannouchi (C) commemorate Martyrs’ Day in the capital Tunis, April 9, 2021. (AFP)
Tunisian President Kais Saied (R), Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (L) and Assembly (parliament) speaker Rached Ghannouchi (C) commemorate Martyrs’ Day in the capital Tunis, April 9, 2021. (AFP)

TUNIS--Tunisian President Kais Saied used his Ramadan address to the nation to show more resolve against Islamist rivals.

In a speech he delivered on the occasion of the start of the holy month, Saied pounded Islamists with sharp criticism, at a time when Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahda movement, sought to appease tensions with statements about the need for tolerance and national reconciliation.

Ghannouchi’s attempt at deescalating the tensions, observers said, came after his movement’s supporters mounted a fierce campaign against the president over his recent visit to Egypt.

In statements made at the Zaytuna Mosque, a landmark in the history of Islam in the North African nation, Saied said “the Qur’an was directed to Muslims, not to Islamists,” in his clearest tirade against Islamists.

During Saied’s three-day visit to Egypt, Islamists in Tunisia mobilised to turn public opinion against the presidency, casting doubt about the motives and results of Saied’s  Cairo trip and accusing him of aligning himself to a regional anti-Islamist axis.

In his statements, the Tunisian president hinted at Ennahda’s use of Islam for political purposes, slamming the duplicitous behaviour of some people during the holy month of Ramadan.

“Some of the actions are religious in appearance. However, they are not without political purposes,” he said.

The Tunisian president also employed a vocabulary that has often been used to criticise Islamists, denouncing “political epidemics” and the need to “stone these devils.”

Never did Saied, however, mention Ennahda by name. Ennahda officials also did not speak on the record about Saied’s tirade against Islamists.  Verbal sniping continues between the Tunisian president and Islamist rivals, mostly through hints and allusions.

In his angry broadside, Saied went as far as to accuse some of his opponents of “lies, insults and slander,” in a clear reference to the attacks that targeted him personally during and before his visit to Egypt.

Social media speculation was rife with claims that Egyptian officials may have provided the president with some details on the activities and plans of the Ennahda movement.

These details, activists said, could have been obtained by Egypt during the investigation of leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement.

These activists were responding to the hostility of Islamists towards Saied, especially during and following his visit to Cairo.

They said Ennahda’s supporters were quick to denounce Saied’s visit, decrying a conspiracy and secret agreements between Saied and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to counter the movement and “hold it accountable” for the Tunisia’s crises.

The concerns of Tunisia’s Islamists rose significantly  after Sisi’ statements about the necessity of confronting terror, the activists said.

Sisi spoke of “the need for boosting mutual cooperation against all forms of terrorism, and urging the international community to adopt a holistic approach to deal with this phenomenon, taking into account its security, economic, social, development, intellectual and ideological dimensions.”

Tunisia’s Islamists apparently interpreted these statements and concluded that by “all forms of terrorism,” Sisi meant the Muslim Brotherhood and its various branches in the region.

On Tuesday, the Tunisian Presidency responded to the Islamists’ offensive campaign, noting that Sisi is “the president of a brotherly state, who is welcome in Tunisia as a dear guest and a brother to the country’s President Kais Saied.”

The fiercest response to Saied’s recent statements came from Rafik Abdessalem, former minister of foreign affairs and Ghannouchi’s son-in-law.

He said, “Heads of Islamic states usually congratulate their people on the start of the holy month, and share messages of joy and hopefulness, with calls for harmony and purity of hearts. Our president, however, tried to hijack religion, insisting on spreading rumours with the aim of exacerbating an atmosphere of hatred and resentment.”

Abdessalem, despite his family links to Ghannouchi, claims to speak independently from the Islamist movement.

Prominent Islamist MP Noureddine Bhiri had a different spin on the president’s visit to Cairo.  He said Egypt’s showdown with the Muslim Brotherhood is a “domestic” issue that is of no concern to Ennahda.

But in a Facebook post, Bhiri seemed to criticise Saied without naming him. He called for confronting “the advocates of fascism, backward authoritarian autocracy and destructive populism.”

He also urged “all national forces to form a massive bloc that believes in democracy and pluralism,” in what was understood as a call for a broad coalition against Saied and Abir Moussi, the head of the Free Destourian Party.

In recent months, Saied’s use of religious references, such as Quranic verses and hadiths, has raised concerns among Islamists, who have long exploited religion for political purposes, that the president may be using religion to rob them of part of their constituency.

Over the past few days, Islamists and their supporters have  ratcheted up their campaign against the president on social media, accusing him of violating the principle of freeing mosques and places of worship from political influence.

Despite his attempt to maintain a calm demeanor, the head of the Ennahda movement did not succeed in hiding his concerns about the implications of Saied’s visit to Cairo.

Ghannouchi said, “Tunisia is fine and not threatened.” He sought to defend stability, as a positive background for his movement to thrive as a government partner.

Stability has so far served Ghannouchi in strengthening his role as Parliament Speaker and as a central political figure in managing the country’s affairs, observers say.

Ghannouchi stressed that Ramadan is a “month of reconciliation” for all, including “political parties and all the state authorities.”

Published on his Facebook page, the Islamist leader’s statements came as part of a speech in which he offered congratulations to the Tunisian people on the occasion of the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

Ghannouchi said, “Tunisia is fine and is not threatened as long as we commit to our religion, our national unity, our democracy and our freedoms.”

“The month of Ramadan is a month of reconciliation between people … and this includes families, regions, political parties and all authorities,” he added.

“During this month, we expect Tunisians to come together and witness important developments that will change their lives,” he added.

Ghannouchi’s statements, however, are not aimed at easing the tensions with the presidency, analysts said; noting that that the Islamist leader is once again hoping to avoid the Tunisian public’s blame for the political crisis by acting as “a wise man.”