Tunisia ponders uncertainties as president declares end of ‘entente’ with Islamists

Wariness about Ennahda’s ambition to sweep next year’s general elections sharpened following the splintering of Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party.
Sunday 30/09/2018
A file picture shows Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi arriving for a cabinet meeting in Carthage Palace.                        (AFP)
Tensions mounting. A file picture shows Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi arriving for a cabinet meeting in Carthage Palace. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi triggered shock waves with an announcement that his 5-year “entente” with the Islamist Ennahda Movement was over.

The announcement, which came amid a contentious political battle that has pitted some of the country’s major political players against each other, prompted speculation over Caid Essebsi’s plans to revamp a fractured secularist camp ahead of elections next year.

Caid Essebsi, 91, is seen as the most influential leader among secularists, who will face a resurgent Ennahda party in legislative and presidential elections.

Caid Essebsi pointed out, in a live television interview September 24, that it was Ennahda, not him, that had severed ties. “I’m not responsible for entering into uncharted territory… It is they (Ennahda leaders) who took the initiative to end the entente with me,” Caid Essebsi said.

It did not ease concerns that Caid Essebsi left many questions unanswered over his future political course amid a lingering economic crisis.

“In the interview, I did not recognise the president I used to know,” said MP Walid Jallad, a supporter of the president.

Political analyst Zied Krichene said Caid Essebsi “has yet to answer the main question: What is his future action plan?”

Ennahda entered a de facto alliance with Caid Essebsi in 2013. It consolidated its domestic base and gained international legitimacy, while the country’s secularist camp was beset by internal divisions.

Relations between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes became strained due to differences on societal issues, including Caid Essebsi’s call for gender equality regarding inheritance. Ennahda’s consultative body rejected the initiative on religious grounds.

Wariness about Ennahda’s ambition to sweep next year’s general elections sharpened following the splintering of Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party.

The divisions played out publicly when Ennahda sided with Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed in a face-off against Nidaa Tounes Executive Director Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president’s son.

“They (Ennahda leaders) changed their alliance to go with (Prime Minister Youssef) Chahed,” said Beji Caid Essebsi.

There could be a shift in the balance of power. Chahed appears to be striking an alliance with the Islamists and Beji Caid Essebsi is moving closer to the trade unions, which oppose Chahed’s austerity and privatisation measures pushed for by international lenders.

This could have implications for the 2019 elections, especially if Ennahda does not field its own candidate and supports Chahed. Nidaa Tounes and other secularist formations could shift to clearly anti-Islamist stands to woo their traditional constituencies back.

It is unclear whether Beji Caid Essebsi plans to run for re-election next year.

An opinion poll by Emrhod Consulting, released September 28, indicated that more than 70% of respondents felt the economic situation has declined and that two-thirds were unsure for whom they will vote.

It is unclear how Caid Essebsi sees the next phase. He has voiced bitterness over the “high costs” incurred from entering a de facto alliance with Ennahda following the 2014 elections, saying his voters had felt a sense of “betrayal of… confidence and trust.” For now, the Tunisian president seems to be reshuffling the cards.

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