Tunisian secularists compete for Bourguiba’s mantle

The courtyard of the Bourguiba mausoleum will turn into a political arena where the fiercest and most ruthless political battle will take place.
Sunday 13/01/2019
A statue of Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba in central Tunis. (Reuters)
Secularist legacy. A statue of Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba in central Tunis. (Reuters)

On January 27, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed is expected to announce his new political project from the coastal city of Monastir in front of the tomb of the country’s historic leader — former President Habib Bourguiba. In early March, that same city is to host the general assembly of Nidaa Tounes.

In March 2012, Nidaa Tounes’s founder, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, announced the formation of his party from the same spot. Caid Essebsi said then that his main objective was to establish a political balance in the country after the sweeping victory of the Islamist Ennahda Movement in the elections of 2011. He declared his adherence to the legacy of Bourguiba, especially to the values of a civil democracy, modernity and women’s emancipation.

Sure enough, Nidaa Tounes won overwhelming victory in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2014 and Caid Essebsi, carried by the votes of 1 million Tunisian women, got to fill Bourguiba’s seat at the presidential palace in Carthage.

A couple of weeks after that great victory, however, it was revealed that a deal had been struck between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda. Observers confirmed that the terms of the agreement had been settled during a meeting between Caid Essebsi and Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi in the summer of 2013 in Paris.

With the beginning of 2015, Nidaa Tounes began to lose the support of many of its members, especially among intellectuals, modernists, women and young people. Dozens of prominent cadres left and some of its elected members of parliament resigned from the party. Consequently, Ennahda gained a parliamentary majority.

In 2016, Caid Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes decided to remove the head of the government at that time, Habib Essid, and replace him with Chahed. Chahed was hardly a public figure but Caid Essebsi was determined to appoint him prime minister.

Observers noted that Caid Essebsi was interfering too much in the executive branch, rather beyond his constitutional privileges, as if he believed that the government palace in La Kasbah was going to be an annex of the presidential palace in Carthage. He was to be proven wrong when Chahed rebelled against his benefactor and Ennahda was happy to lend him a hand.

Today, Chahed is preparing to announce the birth of a new political party. His close associates said the party was going to be modernist, progressive and “Bourguibian” in soul. Meetings are being scheduled in all 24 governorates in Tunisia to lure the diehard Destourians, a reference to the followers of Bourguiba’s former political party.

The Destour party was founded by Bourguiba in March 1934. It led the country’s battle for independence and, later, the battle for building an independent state.

During the rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Destour became the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) before being dissolved by a court decision in March 2011. The RCD was the party that everybody in the post-revolution political class publicly disavowed while secretly seeking to win over its supporters and its electoral machine. That was exactly what had happened during the 2014 elections.

Today, when this party or the other declares that it is trying to win over the Destourians, it is referring essentially to former members of the RCD. The majority of the first generation of Bourguiba’s party leaders are either deceased or politically retired. The original Destour party was not an ideological party per se. It was driven by Bourguiba’s pragmatic vision. Ben Ali’s regime also did not deviate from that path.

The strength of the Bourguibian approach lies in the fact that it has become synonymous with modernity and state secularism in contrast to the Islamist political vision. It regained popularity after the rise of the Islamist tide eight years ago. Vote-hungry politicians, or anyone wishing to find a spot on the political map in Tunisia, will rush to adopt it. Nidaa Tounes did that seven years ago and, presumably, Chahed’s new party will not fail to adopt it.

Going back to the city of Monastir, the courtyard of the Bourguiba mausoleum will be transformed into a political arena where the fiercest and most ruthless political battle will take place. It is going to be a battle between Caid Essebsi’s party and Chahed’s party. Both claim to belong to the same political legacy and share the same vision, orientations and goals.

However, the rivalry between these two parties will only result in the fragmentation of the voting mass that was crucial to the win of the Bourguibian spirit in the 2014 elections. That fragmentation will surely serve the interests of the Islamists in the elections of 2019.

Caid Essebsi could easily bring order to the Bourguibian house. He could push towards having Chahed, take the leadership of Nidaa Tounes and force his son, party leader Hafedh Caid Essebsi, to step down, even temporarily.

Beji Caid Essebsi would be doing that not just for the sake of Nidaa Tounes but for the sake of Tunisia and for the sake of safeguarding Bourguiba’s legacy.

After all, Caid Essebsi considers himself the guardian of that legacy and therefore has a duty to block those who stand to benefit from the political dispersion of the larger family of modernists in Tunisia for whom Bourguiba is a spiritual father.