Tunisian president displays frustration with Islamists, urges constitutional change

September 10, 2017
Revisiting the alliance. President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) meets with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, prior to cabinet reshuffle, on September 6. (Tunisian Presidency’s website)

Tunis- Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has kept quiet for almost two years about his dissatisfaction over his party’s de facto alliance with the Islamist Ennahda party in government.

The show of patience with Islam­ists was extraordinary from a man who has described himself as a spir­itual son of the modern country’s founder, Habib Bourguiba, a lifelong nemesis of Islamists.

Caid Essebsi has had kind words for the Ennahda co-founder Rached Ghannouchi, leading many Tuni­sians to believe the country was being jointly managed by the two “sheikhs” — one secularist and one religious.

However, on September 6, Caid Essebsi publicly voiced disappoint­ment with Ennahda for the failure of its leaders to embrace principles of a secular and civic republican state.

In an interview with state-owned Assahafa newspaper, Caid Essebsi appeared to blame the country’s problems, including political insta­bility, on Ennahda’s engineering of a political order that led to the distri­bution of power between the presi­dent, the head of the government and the parliament and left the most vital prerogatives in the hands of parliament.

The constitution, adopted in 2014 by an Ennahda-dominated assem­bly after the fall of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali seemed to provide Islamists with protection against the risks inherent in political shifts in the country.

For constitutional experts close to the ruling party, the fundamental text proved to be a legal straight­jacket limiting the ability of the ex­ecutive branch to tackle the coun­try’s main woes: Jihadist terrorism, economic stagnation and unem­ployment among young Tunisians. The emergence of independent bod­ies added to the constraints on the president and the prime minister.

“This order of things has contrib­uted to the weakness of the ruling institutions and the erosion of the state in a manner that threatens the existence and continuity of the state itself,” Caid Essebsi said.

The Tunisian president recog­nised that it was “wrong” presume he could goad the Islamists into em­bracing the secular identity of a pre­dominantly Muslim republic.

In August, Caid Essebsi became the first leader in the Arab world to publicly back equality between men and women in terms of inheritance, still a taboo for most Islamists and other religious conservatives.

While many Islamists across the region spurned the proposal as “un-Islamic,” Ennahda’s top lead­ers were conspicuously silent. How­ever, in an oblique answer to Caid Essebsi’s bold move, Ghannouchi resurrected an Ennahda initiative to revive the Islamic endowments sys­tem, (known as “Habous” in Tunisia and as “Awqaf” in the Middle East.

The system was scrapped in 1956 by Bourguiba in his drive to build a modern country after independ­ence.

Secularist intellectuals and reli­gious leaders opposing Ennahda’s brand of Islamism attacked Ghan­nouchi’s defence of the Habous sys­tem as an attempt to create a well-heeled clergy.

Caid Essebsi indirectly assailed the alliance with Ennahda, which is still a partner of Caid Essebsi’s party, Nidaa Tounes, in the govern­ment led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

“The situation is difficult and fragile even if it does not reach the embarrassing stage of impasse,” Caid Essebsi said.

The president added that Tunisia needs a “new social contract” to further economic and social devel­opment, political stability and de­mocracy.

“We see things are not going on that way,” he said. “Therefore, re­adjustment must be undertaken be­cause reversing course when going the wrong way is better than con­tinuing on the same path.”

Chahed reshuffled his cabinet on September 6, selecting new defence and interior ministers, among other changes, despite Ennahda’s lobby­ing to keep both unchanged. The Islamist party, represented by eight members in the Chahed cabinet (against 13 for Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes), has pledged to support the new government in the parliament’s vote of confidence.

Caid Essebsi said he was forced to forge an alliance with Ennahda in 2014 to prevent the “worsening of the situation” and because other groups dismissed his offer of rap­prochement.

“We thought we could at least draw Ennahda to the civic arena but it seems that we were wrong in our assessment,” he said.

“In any way, my constitutional duties in both regards are limited but my conviction is that the situa­tion must be rolled back because the system does not allow the country to bolster stability and spur growth and economic development.”

In his interview, Caid Essebsi sug­gested municipal elections due in December could be postponed.

Many political parties in Tunisia support the postponement of the lo­cal polls, which could be the flash­point in a showdown in which Caid Essebsi would likely be backed by most political factions.