Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decision to sack the government and dissolve parliament two weeks ago triggered what experts see as an existential crisis for his nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party.
Although it remained the most influential party in the decade since the revolution of the North African country, Ennahdha was already rocked by internal divisions before the “earthquake” of last month.
So can he survive, and how?
– How did July 25 affect Ennahdha? –
Ennahdha was founded four decades ago by Rached Ghannouchi, who has remained at the helm ever since despite years of exile under the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
After the fall of Ben Ali during the Tunisian revolution of 2011, Ennahdha made a comeback in politics and has since been part of all parliamentary coalitions supporting the country’s series of ephemeral governments.
Ennahdha is the most organized party in the country and the largest bloc in the deeply fragmented 217-seat legislature, which is also led by Ghannouchi.
But since 2014, the party’s share of votes has fallen.
In the election two years ago, it lost 36 of its 89 seats.
In total, since Tunisia’s first democratic elections in 2011, it has lost more than a million votes across the country.
The party has also experienced internal fractures in recent years, with young members demanding changes at the top, including the replacement of 80-year-old Ghannouchi himself.
These divisions erupted into the limelight when Saied, a harsh critic of the party system, on July 25 sacked the Ennahdha-backed government and suspended parliament.
After months of public outrage at the government’s mismanagement of Tunisia’s economic and health crisis, Saied’s decision was a blow to Ennahdha.
Some party members have since accused its leadership of endangering its existence for lack of political vision.
Ennahdha had been weakened by an “earthquake” which deepened “internal divisions between those who support Ghannouchi and those who call for his departure,” said analyst and history professor Abdellatif Hannachi.
Some Tunisians opposed to Ennahdha have expressed optimism that Saied’s measures will mark the end of the party, a rare example of a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired political movement that has achieved – and remains – in power in a democracy.
Many within the party, which has seen decades of repression under Ben Ali, fear a campaign of mass arrests or a total ban.
But analyst Mohamed Sahbi Khalfaoui said Ennahdha’s “popular base” could help prevent his demise.
“Excluding him completely from the political scene would be difficult,” he told AFP.
– Can the party come back? –
But Ennahdha has certain strengths that mean it’s still too early to reverse it, Hannachi said.
It has the experience and “the capacity to adapt and absorb crises, because it is organized and structured,” he said.
The party has repeatedly proven its ability to get out of difficult situations.
In 2013, facing charges related to the assassinations of two prominent left-wing activists, Ennahdha left the government and joined a historic national dialogue.
The following year, he guaranteed his political survival by forming a coalition with the supposedly secular party Nidaa Tounes.
In 2019, he succeeded in a similar movement, allying with the Qalb Tounes party of businessman Nabil Karoui.
Since Saied’s explosive announcement on July 25, which Ennahdha initially condemned as “a coup against the revolution and the constitution,” the party’s rhetoric has changed dramatically.
On Thursday, its board of directors admitted the need for “a deep internal self-criticism of its policies” and said it understood “the growing popular anger, especially among young people, over economic and social failures” a decade after the revolution.
Hannachi said that Ennahdha “was bending to weather the storm”.
Saied ruled out any reversal of his movements.
“What happened with the president showed Ennahdha in a state of great weakness,” Khalfaoui said.
“Unlike in the past, he no longer holds the reins of (Tunisian) politics. “
– And Ghannouchi? –
The leader of Ennahdha, who wanted to create a “Muslim democratic” party, remains a key figure in political Islam in the only country whose democracy has survived a decade since the uprisings of the Arab Spring.
Some members of Ennahdha attribute to him the re-emergence of the party on the political scene since 2011 and a major role in the negotiated democratic transition of the country.
For others, the aging leader exercises an authoritarian hold over the party, claiming that he has become his personal stronghold.
The 11th Congress of Ennahdha, which had been scheduled for 2020 to elect a new leader, was postponed to the end of the year due to strong differences over the fate of Ghannouchi.
The leader, who has already exceeded his maximum authorized term, was now “seen as a burden by part of Ennahdha and its leaders,” Hannachi said.
Some want to overthrow him to save the party.
“His future as a political actor (…) is over,” said Khalfaoui.
It remains to be seen whether the party he founded will be able to revive without him.
© 2021 AFP