The rise and imminent fall of Ennahda in Tunisia
Almost nine years after it re-emerged to become the dominant political force in Tunisia, Ennahda is experiencing its most significant political and cultural crisis. The Islamist party has been losing support, seats and influence for years. From a high of 1.5 million votes and 89 seats in 2011, it received 947,034 votes and 69 seats in 2014, but only 561,132 votes and 53 seats in 2019. It has lost massively to newly formed political parties, including Heart of Tunisia, which was the second-most popular party in 2019 with 38 seats, followed by the Democratic Current with 22. At the roots of this steady decline lie a number of factors.
The Islamist movement in Tunisia based its political stance on democratic values it claimed to share with secular political forces in the country. It rightly said that the only protections against dictatorship are democracy and the rule of law. Many political parties, including the Congress for the Republic (El-Mottamar) and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (Ettakatol), both of which are secular parties, trusted the leaders of Ennahda and agreed to work with them. They formed a strong coalition with the aim of preventing a possible return of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), the party that ruled the country from 1956 until 2011. That was the theoretical political platform that cemented a deal between the three parties after the revolution.
Signs of disagreement soon began to surface, however, as Ennahda began to reveal its hegemonic attitudes and stopped hiding its true agenda. Not only did it welcome many high-ranking figures from the former regime into its political structure, it even adopted the ousted regime’s strategy of placing a stranglehold on the main state institutions.
A process of political infiltration of public services and state-owned companies began as soon as Ennahda appointed Hamadi Jebali as prime minister. Police forces, the judiciary, the army, the administration, the trade unions — almost every vital political and trade body — were swiftly and systematically infiltrated under the Islamist principle of “Tamkine” — first control and then impose.
Thousands of Islamists have been appointed to state-run institutions, testifying to Ennahda’s interpretation of the “rule of law” to mean “rule of the party.” The Islamist alignment on universal values was all on the surface, and less the result of any commitment to said values than a strategy based on the principle “accept today what you can undo tomorrow.”
The preamble to the constitution states that Islam is the official religion of Tunisia. It enshrines the bond between the state and religious institutions, and opens the door for a possible reinterpretation of the constitution sooner or later. Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, believed that a strategy of infiltration, combined with “clientelism” on one hand and the weakness of the major secular parties on the other, would secure the party an enduring tight grip on the state and permanent domination of the political arena.
Corruption, incompetence, and regional and international geopolitical changes undermined this strategy. Signs of internal feuds began to show, fueled by the hegemonic stance of Ghannouchi and his inner circle, which was built around his family and a few other Islamist leaders whose reputations had been tarnished by allegations of suspicious financial dealings and political corruption.
Links with terrorist groups in the Middle East are continually alluded to but are not yet proven. These allegations have been made by journalists and lawyers investigating political assassinations and the financing and exporting of extremists to Syria and Libya.
On the social and moral levels, the Islamist movement has managed to hinder the further development of modernist Bourguibism (named after Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s hero of independence and the country’s first president).
On top of that, it has spread its supporters and extremists through numerous Islamist organizations, most of which benefit from subsidies the origins of which are a matter of deep concern. These organizations have created “proselyte tents” to recruit young people and advocate for the implementation of their version of Islamic values that stand high above the country's constitution.
The party's main aim is the revival of a deep conservatism that was buried under decades of the forced modernist layers of Bourguibist policies. In addition, the party aims to clear the way for the establishment of a Islamist society despite the secular universal values enshrined in Tunisia's constitution. Islamists argue that the constitution was written by elected parliamentarians and so could be rewritten.
On a moral level, the popularity of the Islamist movement was built on the fact that it was persecuted during the regimes of both Bourguiba and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Therefore its followers believe they deserve payback; some kind of moral reparation for the mistreatment of their supporters and their families. This was at first political in nature, as Ennahda was lifted to power and granted the opportunity to have the honor of its members restored as part of a moral reparation.
Nine years later, however, Ennahda is losing its popularity and its moral high ground. The election numbers testify to the erosion of their political power. That the party managed to maintain its position as the leading political party in last year’s election is more the result of the other parties’ weaknesses than its own popularity or performance.
Ennahda will be compelled either to implement profound changes that accept the principle of the rule of law in a secular, democratic country, or face being wiped from the political arena.
Dr. Hedi Ben Abbes
As a consequence of the political and moral decay, Ennahda is experiencing a major crisis. Its secretary-general, Zied Ladhari, a young, promising, savvy politician, resigned and voiced open disagreement with — even hostility to — Ghannouchi and his inner circle.
Lotfi Zitoun, the party’s political adviser and most liberal figure, also resigned after declaring it to be on the brink of collapse. Other prominent members, such as Abdellatif Mekki and Mohammed Ben Salem, are no less hostile and have strongly criticized Ghannouchi in public, calling for his resignation as party leader. Abdelhamid Jlassi, another leading figure in the party, resigned on March 5, accusing Ghannouchi and his supporters of plundering Tunisia’s resources and finances.
A wave of panic is engulfing the party. Its internal elections, which are due to take place before the end of the year, represent a litmus test. The party will be compelled either to implement profound changes that accept the principle of the rule of law in a secular, democratic country, or face being wiped from the political arena.
- Dr. Hedi Ben Abbes is Tunisia's former minister of state for foreign affairs.