Tunisian Islamist figure resigns from party in widening split in Ennahda’s leadership

Jelassi’s resignation from Ennahda signals mounting tensions that could trigger a bitter family feud during the party congress.
Sunday 08/03/2020
A 2014 file picture shows former member of the Islamist Ennahda Party Abdelhamid Jelassi speaking to journalists. (AFP)
Dissensions. A 2014 file picture shows former member of the Islamist Ennahda Party Abdelhamid Jelassi speaking to journalists. (AFP)

TUNIS - Abdelhamid Jelassi, a leading figure in Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Movement, resigned from the party, citing a “cleansing” of dissent by Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi.

Jelassi, who once said “Ennahda is all my life. I did learn no trade except being its advocate,” resigned March 6, joining Zied Laadhari, who stepped down in November as party secretary-general, as part of the widening split in the Islamist movement’s leadership.

The party meets in May to decide on a replacement for Ghannouchi as Ennahda president. Jelassi’s resignation signals mounting tensions that could trigger a bitter feud during the party congress.

“I belonged to Ennahda for 40 years to defend a set of values and principles. I believe that continuing in Ennahda is not useful to advance these values,” said Jelassi, a former party vice-president.

Jelassi and other party figures said they counted on the party congress to shift the movement from Ghannouchi’s tight control but Jelassi said he now expects the congress to be stacked with Ghannouchi’s loyalists.

“Democracy inside Ennahda has become impossible,” he said. “Some friends inside Ennahda still gamble on reforming the party from inside. For me that is not possible anymore.”

Jelassi, before his resignation, said Ennahda had experienced “genuine internal labour of change” to decide its future.

Jelassi and other party figures, such as Mohamed Ben Salem, disagreed with Ghannouchi over party management and decision making as well as its shifting alliances with other parties.

“It is crucial for Ennahda to find solutions to its problems before its congress. Failing in that, Ennahda risks meeting the same fate as Nidaa Tounes,” Jelassi warned before his resignation.

Nidaa Tounes, founded by Beji Caid Essebsi in 2012 as a counterweight to Ennahda, won parliamentary elections and the presidency in 2015 for Caid Essebsi, who died in office last year.

Nidaa Tounes has since splintered amid leadership infighting and sank into political irrelevance. While it once had 89 seats in parliament, it did not win a seat in last year’s elections.

Ennahda has also been losing voter support, the trust of potential allies and the loyalty of party officials. The poor performance of successive coalition governments, of which it was a member, and the perception of lack of internal democratic practices caused disaffection among its traditional constituencies and fuelled dissent in its leadership.

Former Ghannouchi Chief-of-Staff Zouheir Chehoudi resigned last September, asking in an open letter that Ghannouchi “resign from politics and stay home.” He accused Ghannouchi of being surrounded by “a corrupt and corrupting minority in the party’s leadership.”

Additional party resignations came in January when Hichem Laarayedh, the son of former Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, and Zied Boumekhla, a member of the decision-making Choura Council, announced their departure.

Jelassi contrasted his beliefs with the party’s leadership saying: “I will remain faithful and committed to my convictions and values, including belief in social democracy, a political life ruled by the respect of moral values, keeping our commitments and upholding clarity.”

Zigzags by Ghannouchi in his policies and alliances and the suspicion of a power grab being behind his exclusion of important figures from Ennahda’s list of candidates during the latest elections deepened distrust within the party.

Public distrust of Ennahda has also deepened, polls indicate, over the perception of ineptitude in government and accusations of a secret apparatus involved in the assassination of two leftist leaders in 2013. Ennahda vehemently rejected the accusations.

Before last October’s elections, Ennahda pledged not to align itself with Qalb Tounes, saying its leader, Nabil Karoui, was “dogged by suspicions of corruption.” However, Ennahda later worked to convince Qalb Tounes to support Ghannouchi, 78, in the vote for parliamentary speaker.

Ghannouchi voiced support for Tunisian President Kais Saied before his election in October, saying Saied and Ennahda would bolster the government’s stability because they belong to the same “revolutionary” bloc. However, Ghannouchi is now locked in a fight with Saied over who holds the most power and influence over government and diplomacy.

“Tunisia’s new government and new president represent political forces stirring up populism, polarisation and tensions,” said the International Crisis Group in an assessment of the situation in Tunisia. It urged “compromise on the country’s major long-term national strategic orientation.”

“This would make it possible to mitigate ideological conflicts and reduce the populist surge that could weaken the country’s ability to deal with either an external shock caused by a worsening security context at the regional level or the deterioration of its macro-economic stability,” the International Crisis Group added.