Tunisia: Ennahda’s Position of Power Is Eroding

The arrest of the vice chairman of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party has shown how perilous the position of the Islamists has become. Frozen out from parliament by the president, the former party of power now also faces a challenge from within. It may yet be early days, but it seems likely that a new grouping will emerge to challenge the old Islamist powerhouse.

Noureddine Bhiri was arrested on Friday by Tunisia’s security forces and faces terrorism-related charges stemming from his time as justice minister during the reign of Ennahda. The arrest is just the latest blow to the Islamist group though, which for years had been the dominant force in Tunisia’s politics after the revolution against ex-dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

It started with what the party claims was a coup d’état in the summer: President Kais Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Michichi and stopped all parliamentary work, effectively barring the elected members of parliament from doing their job. Army vehicles barred the entrance to the parliament in Tunis in a sign of how derailed politics have become in the country hailed for taking the lead in the Arab Spring ten years ago. And, perhaps even much more poignant was the fairly widespread support that President Kais Saied enjoyed for his move.

It may not have come as much of a surprise that Ennahda, the Islamist grouping headed by Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the president of the parliament, was incensed about the president’s decision and took to the streets to protest. Ghannouchi called on the people to defend the revolution against what he called a coup d’état.

Ghannouchi Is the Target of Protests

But instead of being reinstalled by popular will, the ire of the street was in fact directed at the party of Ghannouchi himself. He, his party and the cabinet of prime minister Michichi had long stood accused of failing in its task to contain the spread of the corona virus and to provide economic assistance to those who suffered most from the pandemic. And the move by Saied was linked to the protests against the government supported by Ennahda.

What followed the first move may have come as further surprise for Mr. Ghannouchi and instead of leading the parliament of his country, he now faces an internal struggle that threatens his very position at the head of the Islamic movement of Tunisia. Two months after the president had removed government and parliament, Ennahda was confronted with the decision of 113 of its members to leave the party. And it wasn’t merely some disgruntled grassroot members that left the party, no, this was a conscious decision by high-ranking party leaders. Some had served as ministers and others were members of the parliament dissolved by the president.

Sky-High Unemployment Prompts Young to Leave Tunisia

So, what had gone wrong? Judging from what insiders are saying, things had soured for quite a while, with uneasiness about the course of action of party father Ghannouchi growing among some of the top cadres of his party. It seems that he had failed to rejuvenate the movement after long years in government or at least supporter of the government, making the party vulnerable to criticism about all the ailments of Tunisia. Apart from the issue of the pandemic, which after all has affected most countries, Tunisia seems not to have profited as much as it could have from the conditions that were set ten years ago – with unemployment used as the main index of economic failure. With a rate close to 18.5 percent, the young have seen little in terms of a dividend from the revolution – and are still leaving the country in droves for what they see as a better life in Europe.

Some of the ailments seem closely linked to the endemic corruption and bureaucratic red tape that has driven foreign investors away. In principal, Tunisia has a number of economic and political parameters that speak in its favor, with its proximity to Europe, an educated and young workforce, relative peace and stability (even given the current turmoil, if compared to some of its neighbors), established links to especially Italy and France. All the more frustrating then that the country hasn’t been able to capitalize on the political change in 2011. And it goes to explain why the move by President Saied was initially welcomed by many.

A New Party in the Making

Ghannouchi’s Ennahda has taken much of the blame for the economic problems of Tunisia. And now it has come not only under pressure from the current government of President Saied but also from inside the Islamist movement. One of the defected members of Ennahda’s elite, Abdel Latif Makki, the former minister, said that the group was working on forming a new political party, a new formation that would seek to challenge Ennahda on a more liberal platform.

Many observers agree that Ennahda has become the epitome of a failed political landscape and therefore faces an uphill battle to survive not only the freezing of parliament but the challenge from within the movement. Bhiri, who now is said to be treated in a hospital in Bizerte, last month had personally led demonstrations against the president and called on citizens to restore democracy. He referred to Ennahda’s decades of struggle against the dictatorship of Ben Ali and emphasized his commitment to return the party back to power.

For the moment at least, the winds seem to have changed though. Ennahda is out of power, frozen out from parliament, has seen some top cadres arrested and faces a challenge from disgruntled members. A new group will likely emerge in coming months, and the future of the old Islamic movement clearly is bleaker than it used to be. The comparison with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is tempting, even if of course the situation is much less clear-cut than it is in Kairo.

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