Tunisian president, Islamist party end 5-year 'entente'

Their de facto alliance grew strained due to differences on societal issues, the latest being Caid Essebsi's call for gender equality in inheritance.
Tuesday 25/09/2018
A picture dated on July 13, 2016 shows Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) walking the opposite direction from the leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party, Rached Ghannouchi. (AFP)
A picture dated on July 13, 2016 shows Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) walking the opposite direction from the leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party, Rached Ghannouchi. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi announced that his "entente" with the Islamist Ennahda Movement party has ended, adding further uncertainty to the country’s shaky political and economic climate.

“Now, we enter a new adventure,” Caid Essebsi said in a live television interview September 24. He said it was Ennahda, not him, that severed ties.

"I’m not responsible for entering into uncharted territory... It is them (Ennahda leaders) who took the initiative to end the entente with me,” Caid Essebsi said.

Ennahda entered a de facto alliance with Caid Essebsi five years ago, gaining considerable influence in governance and policymaking while the country’s secularist camp battled fierce internal divisions.

The entente helped Ennahda gain international legitimacy, with its leaders being welcomed by powerful institutions and government bodies such as the World Economic Forum and the European Union.

At the time, Ennahda leaders and Caid Essebsi touted their relationship as a “strategic path” of compromise needed to put “the homeland first.”

Recently, however, their association grew strained due to differences on societal issues, the latest being Caid Essebsi's call for gender equality in inheritance. Ennahda's consultative body rejected the initiative on religious grounds.

Wariness about Ennahda's ambition to sweep the next general elections worsened by divisions in the secularist camp and the splintering of Nidaa Tounes into various factions.

Relations seemed more strained with Caid Essebsi as Ennahda sided with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed in a face-off against Nidaa Tounes Executive Director Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president’s son.

Hafedh Caid Essebsi called on Chahed, who is also a Nidaa Tounes member and is seen as a possible strong contender for the presidency next year, to resign as prime minister, citing the government’s failure to revive the economy.

However, without Ennahda’s support, Hafedh Caid Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes failed to push Chahed out.

A new balance of power could emerge. Chahed seems to be striking an alliance with the Islamists and Beji Caid Essebsi is moving closer to the trade unions, which oppose Chahed's austerity and privatisation measures pushed for by international lenders.

At stake are not only the controversial reforms Chahed wants to implement but also the 2019 presidential and legislative elections. Ennahda could support Chahed for president if it does not field its own candidate.

It is unclear whether Beji Caid Essebsi, 91, plans to run for re-election next year. While he indicated he was unlikely to seek another term during his latest media interview, he failed to rule himself out.

Beji Caid Essebsi, addressing the recent controversy, said: “They (Ennahda) changed their alliance to go with (Prime Minister Youssef) Chahed." 

“We had defended the inclusion of Ennahda and that came with a high cost,” Caid Essebsi said alluding to criticism he faced from secularists who disagreed with the entente he struck with Islamists after his accession to the presidency.

However, the president was more measured with his statements on Chahed than he had been previously, admitting: “I cannot fire Youssef Chahed. I give him advice but I have no power to bear on him.”

Instead, Beji Caid Essebsi suggested that both Chahed and his son Hafed Caid Essebsi could depart from their respective positions in government and party leadership.

“If they were both to quit, the country would not suffer from their departure,” Beji Caid Essebsi said. “If Hafedh Caid Essebsi steps down from Nidaa, I will shed no tears.”

Contrary to previous speculation, Beji Caid Essebsi said he would not, "at least for now," invoke Article 99 of the Constitution to ask for a parliamentary vote of no confidence regarding the prime minister. Should he ask for such a vote, he has no guarantee of support in parliament, which is dominated by Ennahda and his son’s rivals.

The constitution permits the president such a move but, were he to fail, it would be a major embarrassment on the last lap of his 60-year political life.

Nidaa Tounes earlier froze Chahed’s membership in the party, a move that backfired because it worsened the disaffection of Nidaa deputies and the splintering of the party.

Beji Caid Essebsi said: “It is not me who will appoint the next head of government. It is up to the next president, not me. He will name the new head of government, as I did when I was elected.”

“I advise the Tunisians to change the constitution after my presidency," he said. “I’m for changing the constitution and the elections law. I refused to change them out of principle. If I change them now, some people will accuse me of seeking to stay in power.”

The president added that “contrary to the demands of certain political parties, the elections will be by their normal deadline of December 2019.”