The Battle of Tunisia: What the Ennahda party hopes to achieve

The Battle of Tunisia: What the Ennahda party hopes to achieve

The Ennahda party said it would reconsider its position against the coalition government of Tunisia over the alleged corruption scandal involving Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh.

They have not made public details of what the party will do, but sources close to it have commented in the media that the party could suspend seven of its ministers, which would in fact block the normal functioning of the government.

The Elyes Fakhfakh government has been the government of Tunisia since February 27, 2020 . It succeeds that of Youssef Chahed. It was formed from the representatives of the following parties: Ennahdha, Democratic Current, People’s Movement (Achaab Movement), Tahya Tounes, Al Badil Ettounsi, Nidaa Tounes and Ettakatol.

Corruption scandal

Elyes Fakhfakh is accused of corruption. Last month, an independent MP published documents indicating that companies in which the Prime Minister holds shares have won deals worth 15 million US dollars from the state.

Fakhfakh told parliament that it was prepared to resign if any irregularities were proven, but said it had sold its shares in the companies. Thus, the Prime Minister denied all these accusations, but was still under the strong pressure from the opposition, which forced him to resign.

The judge has opened an investigation into the allegations against Fakhfakh, and the Anti-Corruption Minister has appointed a public observer who will examine the matter and report back on the results within three weeks.

The State Anti-Corruption Commission said Fakhfakh had not told it that the companies in which it held shares had commercial deals with the state. Its head told parliament that the companies’ contracts with the state should be cancelled.

Such issues are especially painful against the background of the economic consequences of COVID-19 – the country is already in a budget deficit, while public debt has seriously increased.

The scandal has given rise to criticism of the Prime Minister – in particular, the Ennahda party – to make statements that such incidents cast a shadow over the entire coalition.

“The suspicion of a conflict of interest by the prime minister … has harmed the image of the governing coalition, and requires a reevaluation of the (party’s) position about the government,” he said in a statement.

Fragile government

According to expert estimates, such statements by Ennahda will increase pressure on the fragile government formed in February after the elections in September last year, and the situation is gradually approaching a split, and possibly the dissolution of parliament.

Recent years have witnessed a series of scandals in which either Ennahda has blamed the president/premier on a variety of issues.

Opponents have responded to Ennahda with a strategy of reciprocity: the main argument against the party is an accusation of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (although the movement itself officially denies this), as well as too close contacts with Ankara, Doha and Tripoli.

For example, MP Abir Moussi accused Ennahda of ties to terrorism. Moussi, who heads the Free Constitutional Party (also known as The Free Destourian Party), called on the Ministry of Justice to conduct a transparent investigation into Ennahda’s activities and called on Tunisians to gain the courage to oppose the movement.

“Ennahda has been lying to Tunisians since 2011, and we want to reveal the fact that Ennahda is linked to terrorism,” she said during a live press conference in Tunis.

Abir Moussi has also accused the Ministry of Justice of corruption and that it is controlled by members of Ennahda.

She also claims that prison structures facilitate visits by Ennahda party members to detained terrorists.

However, the Free Constitutional Party bloc announced its decision to submit a new draft resolution classifying “Muslim Brotherhood” as a “terrorist organization”.

Another media conflict resulted from an attempt by Parliament Speaker Rashid Gannouchi, part-time leader of Ennahda, to conduct parallel diplomacy with Libya (including talks with GNA head Fayez Saraj) and Turkey.

The Tunisian rift: US’ gateway into Libya

This has already sparked the anger of President Kais Saied himself, since traditionally in Tunisia, foreign policy is handled by the leader of the state and the direct foreign ministry.

The Libyan factor

It is important to mention another scandal that brought closer the internal division in Tunisia: the battle in Parliament on June 3. Gannouchi called for the removal of the two parties from the coalition government amid growing calls to resign due to his “interference in the international affairs of the country”.

The central theme that day was the situation in Libya. Parliament rejected a draft proposal submitted by the Free Constitutional Party (PDL), a proposal for the country to renounce any intervention in Libya. The vote was 94 in favour, 68 against and 7 abstentions in the plenary, which led to deep divisions within Parliament. It requires an absolute majority of 109 votes in order to take a decision.

Opposition parties called for the dissolution of Parliament. According to Gannouchi, however, such dissolution is “unconstitutional”. Two days after this plenary session, the Ennahda party refused to sign the “Stability and Solidarity Pact” proposed by Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh.

In an interview with Nessma TV, Rashid Gannouchi called for the removal of the Achaab Movement and Tahya Tounes parties from coalition government after the two parties voted against Ennahda in a plenary session.

In his view, it would be absurd to sign a government commitment of solidarity with the parties that voted against him in parliament.

He called for the replacement of ministers from the Achaab Movement and Tahya Tounes parties with the Qalb Tounes party, which came second in the last legislative elections.

The conflict between the President and Government of Tunisia and Ennahda is largely related to the attempt to conduct parallel diplomacy in the Libyan direction.

The Ennahda party, like the Turkish government, supports the government of GNA Fayez Sarraj.

On the other hand, the Constitutional Liberal Party, most commonly known as Destour, is rather on the side of Haftar, and in this logic rejects any intervention in Libya.

Tunisia’s official position is non-interference in the Libyan conflict and rejection of foreign intervention in Libya.  Ennahda, on the other hand, believes that the position of neutrality is inappropriate and requires more active action (which is not publicly stated, but we can assume that it is a direct support on an equal footing with Turkish GNA forces).

To understand the importance of the topic – the June 3 meeting with fierce arguments lasted about 20 hours and ended only the next day.  Gannouchi was also asked to report on the “ambiguous” relationship with Sarraj and Erdogan.

The opinion of the opponents of the Islamic Party is that the situation may subsequently create problems for diplomacy: it may turn out that Tunisia is biased against the Libyan conflict, while the official position of the country is neutral.

The plenary session was tumultuous and the tone was strong, bordering on the insults of Gannouchi.

Ennahda’s geopolitical interests

There is reason to believe that Ennahda has links with the Muslim Brotherhood – the movement, founded in 1981, was largely inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and after the Tunisian revolution in 2011, an official party was formed.

For a long time, the party remained marginal, especially after the events of the 1980s. Many of the leaders served time in prison. But after the Arab Spring, when the party gained influence and came into power, it had been balancing between “democracy” and political Islam for years.

In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2011, Ganucci confirmed that he opposes the Islamic Caliphate and supports “democracy”, “unlike Hizb Tahrir” (the last Ganucci accused of exporting a misunderstood version f Islam).

The leaders of Ennahda were aware that the Tunisian people were not ready for an Islamic revolution and the adoption of political Islam, so they found a middle way, finding more and more contacts with the rulers of the Gulf countries, Turkey (putting the Justice and Development Party as their political model), and in general, orienting themselves towards Islamic regimes, while claiming to be adherents of democracy (in this, according to the party, orienting themselves towards Christian democrats in Europe).

According to spokesman Samir Dilou, Tunisia doesn`t want a theocracy: “We want a democratic state, that is characterised by the idea of liberty. The people are to decide themselves how they live. … We are not an Islamist party, we are an Islamic party, that also gets its bearings by the principles of the Quran.”

Harouni stated that “the peaceful revolution started from Tunisia, and we do not export or import the revolution. Tunisia has chosen its path, and it has achieved an agreed democratic transition without exception …”

“Over the past 10 years, anti-revolutionary forces in the Arab world have tried to disrupt the Arab Spring and the aspirations of our peoples for democracy, from Syria to Yemen, Egypt and Libya”.

He added: “Tunisia is not a land of coups; our army… is committed to democracy, and our fight against terrorism is moving forward and is respected by all Tunisians”.

Tunisia is at the crossroads of other people’s interests

Tunisia is the sphere of interest of many other States. The country has a strategic position between Algeria and Libya. It is a convenient platform for influencing (military, political and economic) neighbouring Libya, where the internationally recognized Government of National Unity (GNA) continues to actively oppose the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar (LNA).

Among the stakeholders, the Arab States (Gulf States) can be singled out. After the death of former Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi, Ennahda party published information that Arab states offered him a large sum of money to exclude the party “from the democratic process” in the country.  This was reported by Abdelkarim Harouni, chairman of Ennahda’s Consultative Council.

According to Harouni, “The Emirates tried to lure the late president, Beji Caid Essebsi, with an alluring financial offer in return for excluding Ennahda from government and political life and ending the democratic experience.”

But Essebsi, Harouni added, refused the offer and said Tunisia was not for sale, adding that it was an independent country and its people were free and knew their interests.

Another country interested in the internal affairs of Tunisia is France, Tunisia’s colonial master until 1956, as the patriotic part of the parliament has repeatedly reminded everyone.

For example, this year the parliament discussed a proposal calling on France, which occupied the country in 1881-1956, to apologize for crimes committed “during and after colonization. In particular, the MPs called on Paris to apologize for “the killings… …rape… pillaging of natural resources” and a list of “other crimes committed since 1881”, including in support of the former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

However, only 77 parliamentarians voted in favour of the proposal, far short of the 109 votes that were to be obtained.

At such moments, the geopolitical orientations of different parties manifest themselves: Ennahda, represented by former Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Al-Areed, strangely enough, stood up for Paris: he said that he wanted France to apologize for its occupation “harms Tunisians’ interests” and called France an ally and investor.

Thus, the party is not radically opposed to Western hegemony – as it once was in the old days, when Ennahda could criticize the United States for intervention.

Further, another country interested in contacts with Ennahda is Turkey. Ganucci had direct talks with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which caused, to put it mildly, misunderstanding and dissatisfaction of the president.

The rift in Ennahda

The problem is aggravated by the fact that not only parties in parliament, but also that members within Ennahda, are facing an irreversible ideological and communicative crisis.

The Ennahda Shura Council (the main consultative body of the Islamist party) has decided on the date of its next congress – at the end of 2020 (which was to take place in May). The conference, which obviously will not re-elect the historic leader of his party, Rashid Gannouchi, because according to the regulations his term of presidency in the party has officially come to an end (according to Article 31).

Many note that despite this, Gannouchi will do his best to maintain his influence, both party and parliament. The problem is that he has strong opponents within the party – for example, the current Health Minister Abdellatif Mekki, who considers himself a legitimate heir to Gannouchi, former vice president of the party Abdelhamid Jelassi and a member of parliament Samir Dilu.  Among the supporters of Gannouchi remain the head of the Shura Council Abdelkarim Harouni, a member of the executive bureau and son-in-law of Gannouchi Rafiq Abdul Salam and president of the political bureau Noureddine Arbaoui.

The disagreements concern issues of preserving the coalition and maximizing concessions – they manifested themselves, for example, on June 5, when a part of the party refused to sign the Solidarity and Stability Pact – although other party members had previously initiated the pact to preserve the coalition.

In addition, the party began calling for the expansion of the ruling coalition by integrating Qalb Tounes and the Coalition of Dignity. On the one hand, they are relatively opposed (to the government), while on the other they remain Ennahda’s allies.

Gannouchi only exacerbated the situation when he voiced the idea of reformatting the government so that it would now consist of the parties that won the 2019 parliamentary elections, namely Ennahda, Qalb Tounes, Democratic Current and Dignity Coalition, which, in his opinion, would have made it possible to do without the hateful Achaab Movement and Tahya Tounes.

The party itself is already split from the inside – two important political players – Hichem Laarayedh (son of Ali Laarayedh, former premier) and Zien Boumakhla left in January. The secretary general, Zied Ladhari (also Minister of Development and International Cooperation) left the party in November 2019 to protest against the election of Habib Gemli as party candidate for prime minister.

In the legislative elections held on October 6, Ennahda won the largest group in Parliament and is therefore responsible for appointing the Prime Minister. The party thus controlled the agenda in a much calmer environment than in 2011, when it was attacked from all sides during its first electoral triumph. However, it has not been able to increase political capital since then: since 2011, the number of deputies has been decreasing and the relative majority has forced Ennahda to join an alliance with parties that for the most part do not trust them.

This isolation, the absence of a natural ally, and an atmosphere of distrust or hostility compel the party to negotiate and thus to maintain its position through an unstable combination of concessions and pressure/ blackmail tactics. All these games for the throne are not understood by the average voter, who has been forgotten, and therefore support has gradually faded away.

The party has begun to split up for various reasons. An example of this is the situation with Qalb Tounes. Ennahada has repeatedly called this political force a party of corruption during the election campaign, and then in 2019 Rashid Gannouchi was elected Speaker of Parliament thanks to a deal with the founders of Qalb Tounes Nabil Karoui, media magnate, founder of Nessma TV.

The next split came after Gannouchi threw Habib Gemli over the political board and made a deal with Nabil Karoui to support Fadhel Abdelkefi, who was once a minister under the leadership of Bedja Qaeda Essebsi and whom Qalb Tounes planned to make prime minister so that Nabil Karoui won the presidential election.

As a result, the party – with constant resignations, shortcuts, behind-the-scenes games and changes of allies – began to fall apart.

The opportunity to come to power was also missed. The long and painstaking work of 2016, when the party sought mutual concessions with the government and the former president, ended in the gradual loss of its own program and identity, and then Gannouchi himself spoiled these efforts in 2018 when he joined Youssef Chahed.

Thus, what had been gained from the party’s modest success in local elections was wasted on the game of power instead of being used for more ambitious reforms.

In July 2019, the divorce between the government and the party was a fait accompli.

The party chased two birds – and eventually lost both its common language with other members of parliament and lost its electorate.

Foreign Policy Betting: the Libyan Game

Thus, it is not yet clear whether Ennahda will finally be able to expand. But it is precisely because of this deep internal and parliamentary split that Ennahda is trying to conduct its own foreign diplomacy in parallel – so that in case of a change of power, it will be supported financially and politically by rich and influential external players. And to do so, it is trying to put an active Islam-Arab agenda into circulation. The party also tries to make its active position on Libya more popular, while official Tunisia continues to talk about “neutrality” and in practice balances between the support of the GNA and loyalty to France.

The fact is that President Saied just met with Emmanuel Macron at the Elysian Palace on Monday and discussed Libya, saying that “the Libyan problem can only be solved by the Libyans themselves” (i.e. by confirming “neutrality”). Hinting at the international ambitions of Ennahda, he said that Tunisia has only “one state, one head of state and one diplomacy”.

Saied expressed his satisfaction that he had found a new vision of Franco-Tunisian relations. He said he is seeking agreement that international financial support will indeed go to the sectors that need it most.

Answering a question about France’s colonial past, Saied did not raise the issue.

While French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Ankara’s “dangerous game” in Libya on Monday, Saied also condemned foreign intervention in Libya, believing that only a political solution coming from the Libyans themselves could end the chaos.

According to a number of analysts, Saied’s invitation to visit France is an attempt to push the president to take action against the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus against Ennahda, which he believes is close to them:

“Saied’s visit to France sparked a wave of criticism, as many political analysts saw it as a failed attempt by Ennahda supporters who are pushing for a change in the Tuninsian official stance toward supporting Turkey, which is throwing its weight behind the GNA”.

To sum up: everything that occurs in the domestic sphere of Tunisian politics has a direct impact on the foreign policy vector of the country. The talks between Saied and Macron are obviously not a coincidence: Tunisia is trying to take advantage of different parties and countries for its own interests in the region and Libya.

United World International

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June 2022