Tunisian president displays frustration with Islamists, urges constitutional change
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.