Tunisia’s fractured secularists scramble to consolidate ranks

With the country mired in an economic crisis, compounded by government instability, Tunisia’s secularist forces are split.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed speaks during a meeting of Tahya Tounes party in Tunis, May 1. (Reuters)
Too divided to win? Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed speaks during a meeting of Tahya Tounes party in Tunis, May 1. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s secularist parties are struggling to overcome deep-seated divisions ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections late this year.

With the country mired in an economic crisis, compounded by government instability, Tunisia’s secularist forces are split.

Nidaa Tounes, the country’s leading secularist party that took control of the presidency and parliament in 2014, is especially fractured. The party split into offshoots and divergent wings that have few concrete achievements or policy objectives to put before voters.

Many former top Nidaa Tounes members, including Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and former party Executive Committee member Mohsen Marzouk, left the party to pursue their own political paths.

Marzouk, a former top aide to Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, heads Machrouu Tounes, a break off from Nidaa Tounes that includes centre-right and centre-left factions. The movement has stepped up efforts to bring in other secularist factions, including Nidaa Tounes’s “Hammamet wing.”

The Hammamet faction is led by Soufiene Toubal, who fell out with Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president’s son and Nidaa Tounes’s executive director, after the party’s convention in May.

“This unification initiative aims at restoring political stability in the country and forming a government able to undertake reforms in the country,” said Marzouk, “including changing the political system while helping the grouping of centrist and progressive forces.”

Machrouu Tounes has reportedly talked with Al Badil Ettounsi, a faction headed by former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa.

Chahed’s supporters launched their own movement — Tahya Tounes — which signed a unification deal with Al Moubadara, headed by Kamel Morjane, a minister in Chahed’s cabinet and a foreign minister during the Ben Ali regime.

Al Moubadara includes top figures of the former ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally and has a significant influence in the Sahel region. It tries to position itself as the party of “Destourians” — sympathisers of the post-independent ruling party who are willing to accept Islamists as part of the democratic process, unlike Abir Moussi’s Destourian Liberal Party.

Tahya Tounes is widely described as “Chahed’s party” but the prime minister, a secularist who broke from Nidaa Tounes last year after a bitter dispute with Hafedh Caid Essebsi, could lose his position as head of government if he fails to retain support from the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

Ennahda, which has the largest bloc in parliament, thwarted Nidaa Tounes’s efforts to remove Chahed as prime minister.

Ennahda official Rafik Abdessalem said: “Chahed could be a presidential candidate for Ennahda,” indicating a possible alliance of convenience that would bolster Chahed’s chances in elections.

However, Beji Caid Essebsi has also indicated a willingness to return Chahed to the Nidaa Tounes fold, advising supporters to reach out to the prime minister to reunify the party.

There is also word that Machrouu Tounes has sought to include Tahya Tounes in its coalition.

Political writer Hassan Ayadi said those in favour of unifying “the rival factions that emerged from the old fold of Nidaa to recreate the historical Nidaa seek to pull out a surprise victory in the upcoming elections like the one Nidaa achieved in 2014.”

“To attain (this goal),” he added, “they have to convince and win back the support of the former backers of Nidaa. The latest opinion polls showed two-thirds of these supporters angry with Nidaa and have intentions of not voting for Nidaa in the upcoming vote.”

Analysts said attempts to rebrand a party that has spent years embroiled in internal disputes while the country dealt with unprecedented social and economic crises would be a great challenge.

“What is most important is to tell people what they have done to the country in the past five years and what guarantees they offer of not repeating the same mistakes,” said political analyst Zied Krichene.

Other political observers said, “political opportunism” was threatening the secularist camp.

“I saw a lot of opportunists who claim to belong to Tahya Tounes but when they do not achieve their own interests they walk away from… the party,” said Hatem El Euchi, a leading figure in Tahya Tounes.