Ennahda will hold its ninth party congress at a crucial time: the country is going through the worst economic, political and social crisis in its history, and this has provided plenty of challenges for the ruling party. Will this session lead to a re-evaluation of the party’s direction? Or will it lead to a strengthening of its ranks that will enable it to move forward on its current course?
The upcoming Ennahda congress will be held between July 12 and July 15 under the slogan “Our future is in our hands.” It will take place at the convention center in Tunis. The slogan itself is very expressive; it portrays a party that is looking toward the future more than ever before. The party, however, is still identifying a working strategy and vision that will help it increase its popularity and strength, and become more modern.
The congress was initially scheduled to be held next year. However, the elections prompted Ennahda’s leadership to push it up to this year, in the middle of Tunisia’s second transitional phase.
“We are aware of what stage the country is in, as well as its expectations. We must offer [the country] a new democratic political system, a government vision and a social project that embodies the goals of the revolution,” said Riadh Chouaibi, president of the congress’s organizing committee.
A historic congress
The 261 local congresses that were held between April 20 to May 20 were followed by the regional and sectional congresses at the end of June. A total of 1,103 representatives will participate in the national congress and take part in the elections. The candidates represent various regions, students, cadres, governmental and parliamentary members and Ennahda party members abroad.
Ennahda has one golden rule: to give every party member the right to participate in this kind of electoral meeting, and to allow all to be represented in the constituent committee and executive board. A special place is to be reserved for those abroad, who are represented by 103 elected officials. These officials held their regional congresses with the help of the conference’s organizers in Tunis via Skype.
Ennahda is represented in 41 countries, which are sometimes grouped together by region. In areas with few party members, voting was done by mail. According to Chouaibi, the party now has approximately 60,000 members inside and outside Tunisia.
This congress will be a historic event not merely because it is the first to be held after the revolution. Its importance also lies in the fact that the party has come from persecution to the head of government, with several challenges to manage.
Ennahda members are aware that the time to think about the future is now. After the revolution, the party suddenly found itself at the center of the political scene, and was forced to build its institutions (such as political bureaus and the constituent committee) quickly in order to prepare for the elections. Many of its members living abroad were able to return to the country and gradually find their place within the party’s structure. Indeed, key party leaders such as Hamadi Jebali, Ali Laariyadh, Noureddine Bhiri and Samir Dilou are now part of the government.
The time has come to discuss the strategic vision of the party in-depth, especially given that elections are scheduled for next year. Four policy platforms will be debated during the congress: general policy, political policy, economic policy and social policy.
A heated debate
The party’s policies have already been discussed in local and regional congresses. The debate was heated since everyone was allowed to express their views. And God knows how many disagreements there were!
Many disagreed over which form the Ennahda party should take. Should there be a separation between the movement (which would be responsible for the religious and ideological project) and the party (which would be restricted to politics), like the Muslim Brotherhood and Justice and Development Party in Egypt? Or should there be a single entity unifying them both, as it stands now?
Another topic of debate centered on Ennahda’s proposed social project for the Tunisians. Should it strictly apply Islamic tenets? Or should it seek to strike a balance with modern values while taking guidance from Islamists?
The debate over this last question is revealing of the various movements within the party’s structure. Disagreements over the party's direction in this regard can be observed on several levels: a radical base and a more-or-less moderate leadership, the new generation (those active in the 1980s at the universities) and the older generation (those who were part of the movement’s organizational apparatus since its inception), those who spent time in Ben Ali’s prisons and those who were in exile.
Some observers have spoken of major disagreements within the party, something which Riadh Chouaibi denies while recognizing the existence of differences: “Many on the political scene wish to see Ennahda split up, but what they do not understand is that the party is democratic and it allows everyone to express their opinion and make criticisms. But in the end, everyone adopts the majority’s opinion.” Discipline is the golden rule!
In any case, it is not in the movement’s interest to show signs of division at this time. Now is the time to unite behind a party that is being challenged from within. The government has few accomplishments to boast of, and its hegemony within the Constituent Assembly is being called into question. In addition, the US and the Europeans expect the party to respect its promises of openness and moderation.
On top of all of this are the recent al-Qaeda attacks. Seeing as how al-Qaeda is starting to criticize Ennahda, and continues to insist on having a foothold in the country, we can conclude that Ennahda is not in a particularly comfortable position.
Strengthening party unity
“The congress will mark the closing of the ranks and the strengthening of cohesion within the party, setting aside the divisive issues for the moment,” said Alaya Alani, an expert on Islamism in North Africa.
The guarantor for this unity will be no other than Rachid Ghannouchi, who seems to benefit from a consensus that would reelect him at the head of Ennahda. He is both the political and spiritual leader of the movement. He is also its strategist and has strong internal and external networks. At this sensitive stage, his presence will be crucial in guiding the ship safely to port. His power within Ennahda is unparalleled. We all witnessed how he was able to settle the issue of introducing Sharia into the constitution after that issue had divided the party for two months. He is the one who has the final say in all controversies.
The question now is what direction will Ennahda take in the next congress. “It is certain that [Ennahda] will be asked to clarify its views with regard to the civil character of the state and democracy. If it manages to revise its founding text and do away with that ideological vision close to the Salafist thought, then its aim to build a modern state will succeed. Otherwise, it will fail to establish the long-coveted Turkish model,” said Alani.