Tunisian parliamentary debate shows Libya conflict to be major polarisation factor

Ghannouchi may not have predicted the chain of reactions he unleashed following his congratulatory phone call to Sarraj on May 19.
Thursday 04/06/2020
Tunisian MPs argue during a plenary session devoted to discussing a motion tabled by the Free Destourian Party (PDL) on the situation in Libya, June 3. (AFP)
Tunisian MPs argue during a plenary session devoted to discussing a motion tabled by the Free Destourian Party (PDL) on the situation in Libya, June 3. (AFP)

TUNIS--Tunisia’s parliamentary debate Wednesday about Ghannouchi’s brand of “parliamentary diplomacy” put the spotlight on the country’s contentious foreign policy-making process and its impact on the country’s political tensions.

The hearing itself was aimed at discussing the implications of the support expressed by Parliament Speaker and leader of the Islamist Ennahda party Rached Ghannouchi for Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) after forces loyal to the GNA recaptured al Watiya airbase on May 18. The parliamentary session ended up being a debate on Tunisia’s stance amid rising regional and global jockeying for influence in Libya.

Ghannouchi may not have predicted the chain of reactions he unleashed following his congratulatory phone call to Sarraj on May 19. Wednesday’s debate in parliament should have shown him the extent of his overreach, as well as the political risks involved in taking sides in the conflict next-door.

The debate has demonstrated beyond any doubt that stances on the conflict are now among the factors of political polarisation between Islamists and secularists, both within and outside parliament.

“We are witnessing an advanced case of Lebanonisation of Tunisian politics with political parties and local groups aligning themselves with regional military axes and becoming quasi-spokespeople for these axes on the national scene,” wrote columnist Zied Krichen in the Tunisian daily Le Maghreb on Thursday.

According to Krichen, Ennahda and its ally the Dignity Coalition now “belong to the Turkish-Qatari axis,” while many secularists back whichever force opposes this camp. A good segment of the political scene is unsure of whom to back within the fog of regional wars.

During the parliamentary session, Seifeddine Makhlouf, leader of the Dignity Coalition bloc, defended Ghannouchi’s support for Sarraj as “the right thing to do” to support “the camp of freedom” in Libya. Secularist MPs denounced the gesture as an expression of  alignment with “the Muslim Brotherhood agenda.”

Legislators questioned Ghannouchi on his Turkish-Qatari connections and the suspected use of his position as parliamentary speaker to promote Ennahda’s Islamist agenda driven by its alleged sympathies for the Muslim-Brotherhood-connected governments of Ankara and Tripoli.

Before and during the parliamentary session, Ghannouchi defended his pro-GNA gesture as an expression of “active neutrality.” His sympathisers sounded convinced, but many other members of parliament and numerous experts remained wary that his moves could drag Tunisia into taking sides in the Libyan war.

Tunisian constitutional jurist Salsabil Klibi told Tunisian television Wednesday that the argument of “active neutrality” can be used to justify risk-laden intervention in foreign civil wars and lead to “dangerous consequences,” as was the case with Western powers intervening in the Balkan war.

Ghannouchi’s Libyan foray also raises the issue of constitutional prerogatives. Foreign policy is “among the prerogatives of the president” and is hence outside those of the speaker, said Klibi, who argued that parliamentary diplomacy should be undertaken by MPs with their parliamentary peers and not with governments.

The relatively low-key attitude of the president and foreign minister on regional and international issues compared to Ghannouchi’s high profile posture has added to the blur of diplomatic lines. It has also given the impression that Islamists control the country’s diplomatic agenda and its stance on regional issues, including the Libyan conflict.

Mehdi Ben Gharbia, an MP with the Tahya Tounes party, expressed concern Tuesday over the impact Ghannouchi’s moves will have on Tunisia’s diplomatic credibility. Tunisia’s parliament he said, “should be discussing more important issues that affect Tunisian citizens and leave foreign policy issues to the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he said.

“Now, and because of what happened, this ministry will have to increase its efforts to correct the wrongdoings of this assembly.”

Like many in parliament, Ben Gharbia regretted how Ghannouchi’s move had distracted Tunisia amid a public health challenge and a looming economic crisis.

By delving into foreign policy issues from a partisan perspective, Ghannouchi is likely to suffer further erosion of public trust.

An early June opinion survey showed that a staggering 82% of Tunisians surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with Ghannouchi’s performance. Unhappiness with President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh is increasing but nowhere near that level of Ghannouchi’s reputational deficit.

The impression that the parliamentary speaker has a conflict of interest on his handling of the Libyan issue is hard to dispel. Khaled Krichi, an MP with the pan-Arab al-Shaab Movement,  said it was “a mistake for Ghannouchi to lead the Ennahdha movement and be the Speaker of the Parliament at the same time.”

Hamza Medded, an expert with the Carnegie Middle East Center, told AFP that “Rached Ghannouchi has never concealed his alignment with Turkey and Qatar. But he is now the speaker of Parliament and Tunisian institutions are now dragged into this axis.”

More importantly, as noted by a Tunisian political analyst who spoke to The Arab Weekly, “Ghannouchi has thrust Tunisia in the middle of a geo-strategic vortex which the country does not need and which Ghannouchi himself may not be able to see for what it is.”

For most observers, the Wednesday debate showed that a large part of the political class, as represented by members of parliament, is more interested in the partisan sniping than in the regional and international complexities of the Libyan conflict itself.

Besides the security risks inherent in any such alignment, political parties risk  being totally distracted from the urgent economic crisis looming on the country’s horizon. Tunisia faces a projected 10% drop in GNP growth this year as a result of the pandemic and other chronic slowdown factors. The fallout from Libya’s war and Ghannouchi’s risky manoeuvres could make the situation worse.