Tunisian lawyers release documents claiming ‘secret’ Islamist organisation

While the court documents provide no smoking gun about Ennahda’s involvement in political assassinations, they are likely to create further mistrust between Islamists and the country’s secularist camp.
Sunday 07/10/2018
Tunisian lawyer Ridha Raddaoui (C-L) speaks during a news conference in Tunis, on October 2. (Tayyar Chaabi)
Serious accusations. Tunisian lawyer Ridha Raddaoui (C-L) speaks during a news conference in Tunis, on October 2. (Tayyar Chaabi)

TUNIS - Lawyers representing two assassinated Tunisian opposition leaders disclosed court documents claiming the Islamist Ennahda Movement developed a sprawling “secret organisation” aimed at cementing its covert dominance of Tunisia’s political scene.

The documents, released during a news conference October 2 in Tunis, alleged that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood sent operatives to Tunis to train Ennahda members to run a clandestine, multifaceted operation in parallel to the party’s open organisation.

“The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was the technical adviser to set up the secret organisation of Ennahda,” said Ridha Raddaoui, the lawyers’ spokesman. “The Brotherhood of Egypt dispatched two of their experts on the issue to train Ennahda’s officials on how to build a secret arm.”

“The training session was disguised as a workshop on farming,” he said, reading from court documents from 2012 and 2013 when Ennahda was the country’s ruling party and controlled the judiciary and the powerful Interior Ministry.

“These are documents from the court. There is no doubt about their truth and the veracity of the details emerging about the secret organisation,” Raddaoui said.

Ennahda released a statement categorically rejecting that it had engaged in political activity outside the framework of the law.

Islamist figures said the accusations levelled at Ennahda reflected the “bankruptcy” of the radical leftist formations that sponsored the news conference. However, the lawyers said the documents were among a “trove” of papers seized by authorities at what appeared to be an Islamist covert operation site disguised as a driving school.

One of the operation’s leaders was alleged to be Mustapha Khedher, a former army officer who was jailed with other military officers in the 1990s for plotting to overthrow the government.

While the court documents provide no smoking gun about Ennahda’s involvement in political assassinations, they are likely to create further mistrust between Islamists and the country’s secularist camp.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, the most influential secularist leader, in September said his “entente” with Ennahda had ended. Ennahda had established a de facto alliance with Caid Essebsi five years ago, gaining considerable influence in governance and policymaking and gaining international legitimacy.

Recently, however, that partnership became strained due to divergent electoral calculations and conflicting views on societal issues, including Caid Essebsi’s call for gender equality in inheritance.

Many Ennahda leaders expressed concern that the two camps’ fraying ties could have dangerous political consequences and advised the party’s leader to “return to the politics of entente.”

In an open letter to Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi, leading figures in the Islamist party warned that the end of “entente” could result in “mounting tensions” and could endanger the democratic transition.

“There is no way out of the current political crisis except through a return to the politics of entente and the safeguarding of the balance between constitutionally ordained institutions,” Ennahda members, led by former Ghannouchi aide Lotfi Zitoun, wrote in the open letter.

“This requires the movement to stop taking sides in the dispute [between the president and the prime minister] and to take the initiative, from your end, of repairing ties with the president.”

Secular activist Boujemaa R’mili, a close friend of Caid Essebsi, warned that “Ennahda losing its entente could expose its leaders for prosecution about their roles in recruiting jihadists for war zones in Syria, Iraq and Libya and in fostering terrorism at home.”

Some of the revealed court documents alleged Ennahda had contact with extremist groups overseas. One document detailed how Khedher helped secure the release of Domenico Quirico, an Italian captured by jihadists in Syria, in September 2013.

“Khedher was on the Turkish border with Syria to receive him and hand him over to Italian intelligence services,” said Raddaoui, reading from one of the documents. “Khedher’s action was in return for secret information from the Italian services about the details of a meeting of Beji Caid Essebsi with a representative of the Italian services.”

“In a trade-off with the Italians, Khedher received secret information about a gas deal between Algeria and Italy,” he added.

Raddaoui also claimed the “secret organisation’s” activity included “intelligence eavesdropping” with sophisticated tools such as “recording pens.”

Other documents claimed the organisation had an “extensive database with detailed names and family ties of the leading criminals in Tunis.” Another provided “intimate details” of leading businessmen, military officers and former and current police officers. The document included recommendations on which figures to promote based on their perceived friendliness to Ennahda.

Another document detailed a training session for Islamists on how to effectively utilise “wiretapping” for intelligence purposes.

The lawyers said the documents were “a very small part of the troves (relating to) the secret organisation” that were seized by the police but long kept “in a dark room” by the Interior Ministry, which was previously controlled by Ennahda.

Zied Lakhdar, secretary-general of the leftist Democratic Patriots’ Movement, whose leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated in 2013, said: “The facts are before your eyes. They substantiate what we have been saying about Ennahda. It is not a party like the others.”

Zouheir Hamdi, head of the pan-Arab nationalist Popular Current party whose leader Mohamed Brahmi was also killed by suspected Islamist extremists, claimed: “The documents provide facts not analyses that Ennahda has a secret organisation. They display its genuine political identity of violence and its role in the bloodshed in Syria and Libya and other parts of the Arab nation.”