Tunisia’s Islamist party’s chief resigns, exposing rifts within Ennahda leadership

Dissonant voices within Islamist ranks have amplified since Ghannouchi has tried to steer cabinet formation while serving as the first Islamist speaker of parliament in 64 years.
Sunday 01/12/2019
Former Secretary-General of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party Zied Laadhari. (Reuters)
Patience running thin. Former Secretary-General of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party Zied Laadhari. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party’s top official stepped down in protest of the ruling party’s policies amid fierce jockeying for control of the movement’s decision-making process.

Zied Laadhari’s decision to step down as secretary-general of the party follows his resignation as a minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. The moves exposed rifts within a disciplined party that is usually mum about internal differences. Dissonant voices within Islamist ranks have amplified since Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi has tried to steer cabinet formation while serving as the first Islamist speaker of parliament in 64 years.

“I have been all the time committed to and respectful of the party’s choices even when I disagreed… But at the end I find myself really helpless to carry on with any leadership responsibility whether in the party or in the government in the current climate,” said Laadhari in his resignation letter made public November 28.

Laadhari faulted the party for nominating agriculture expert Habib Jemli as the next prime minister, casting doubts on the competence of the nominee for the top job. The choice of Jemli, he said, “is putting the Islamist movement and the country on a path fraught with risks we do not know the repercussions and costs of.”

Laadhari’s resignation showed Islamists had failed to regroup after their differences were exposed before the presidential and parliamentary elections in September and October.

With the resignation of Laadhari, 44, the infighting has extended to the party’s successor generation on which Ennahda was counting to broaden its base among the urban and highly skilled middle class.

With the fissures in leadership and the rise of a more radical Islamist group, Al Karama Coalition, that has 21 seats in parliament and is both an ally and rival of Ennahda, the latter faces hard choices. A rightward shift would discredit its narrative of being a moderate “Muslim Democratic” movement.

Ennahda has so far boasted an appearance of stability and discipline, as well as an ability to attract all conservative segments of the population to its carefully crafted political plank.

Ennahda came first in the parliamentary elections, winning 52 seats and earning the right to nominate the prime minister, who will select the next cabinet.

Ghannouchi was elected speaker after the party got the vote of the liberal Qalb Tounes party. Both parties backtracked on their pledges to “never ally” with each other.

Ghannouchi and other leaders in the Islamist movement had said Qalb Tounes “is clouded with corruption suspicions” after its leader Nabil Karoui was jailed for money laundering and tax evasion before the second round of the presidential elections October 13.

Laadhari said he would have preferred for Ennahda to have nominated for prime minister an “independent personality… renowned for their competence, fairness and boldness to unify the largest spectrum of Tunisians and able to restore trust at home and enhance the image of the country abroad.”

“I was not convinced by the decisions and choices taken by the party’s institutions, the latest of these decisions involving the case of the formation of the next cabinet that I see has failed to meet the expectations of the Tunisians and their message during the latest elections,” Laadhari added.

“I feel that we are repeating the same mistakes of the past at a moment when I believe the next government could be the government of the last chance for the country. We have no margin for error because any mistake will come with heavy prices.”

Laadhari did not name who among the party’s leaders is or are behind the policies he criticises.

But other party leaders point to Ghannouchi for designing Ennahda’s strategy for the elections and managing its aftermath.

Disgruntled activists assailed Ghannouchi after Ennahda’s candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou, failed to win the presidency.

Mourou, as the party’s presidential candidate, won 434,530 votes, an indication that Ennahda’s electorate had fallen from 1.5 million in 2011 and 1 million in 2014.

Unprecedented challenges to Ghannouchi’s leadership surged after the first round of  the presidential elections, which many Islamists viewed as a defeat for the party and the policies of its leader.

Ghannouchi was asked for the first time publicly to step down.

The protest mood then spread. The first salvo emanated from Zoubeir Shehoudi, a senior Ennahda official who was for a while Ghannouchi’s chief-of-staff.

“I ask him (Ghannouchi) to resign from politics and stay home,” Shehoudi said. He accused Ghannouchi of being surrounded by “a corrupt and corrupting minority in the party’s leadership.”

Tunisian analysts argued that the nomination of Jemli, a former junior minister in the Ennahda-led government in 2012-2013 who lacks a party base or broad support among the public, would make it easy for Ennahda to control both the parliament and the government.

According to experts, Ghannouchi is trying to be the kingmaker behind a safe choice for prime minister as he competes for power and influence with President Kais Saied, who won a resounding 73% of the popular vote.

“The choice of Jemli to lead the next government was not sound based on considerations of political independence and competence. Although Jemli has no party activity within Ennahda, no one can deny he is close to the movement. That perception is widespread among the public,” Laadhari told a local television station after his resignation.

“As for the competence, I estimate that the country is saturated with economic competences more recognised than Habib Jemli,” added Laadhari.

“However, for the record, Ghannouchi was not enthusiastic about Jemli. He leaned towards a more open and independent personality,” he said.

“I’m not convinced of the whole ongoing process. When I see Jemli holding two meetings with Said Jaziri (head of the ultraconservative Errahma party) and when I see these folkloric encounters and when I look at the list of his advisers I say to myself the country is not going in the right direction,” added Laadhari.