If there is anything positive to be noted about the behavior of Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda since its rise to power, it is the discipline of its troops. From the outside, everybody agrees that the Ennahda family remains united.
But in recent weeks, cracks have started to appear. During a recent Ennahda party congress, differences among various “clans” within the party erupted. However, this has largely remained out of the public eye, and no faction has attacked another in public.
That “silence” has now been broken. The [party's] Ekbess campaign highlighted several disputes between the “clans” and Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali [also the Secretary-General of Ennahda], or at least regarding his policies.
In a response both cryptic and clear enough to be understood by his opponents, a source close to the head of government laid out some of the differences between the different factions in Ennahda. He even revealed the names of several of his brothers-turned-enemies.
A Sept. 10 interview with Najib Karoui in the Tunisian daily Attounissia portrayed the use of a language totally unusual for the Ennahda family. Najib Karoui is the personal physician of Jebali and one of his most trusted men.
Najib Karoui has been an Islamist for decades. He is a sensible man. He weighs his words carefully before speaking. He also knows how to send messages between the lines.
He certainly does not speak for Jebali, but given how close the two are, one can assume that they share certain opinions.
So when Najib Karoui says that Lotfi Zitoun (a minister and counselor to the head of government) is the most hated man in Tunisia or that Minister of Health Abdellatif Mekki is a dangerous man and a future dictator, one should step back for a minute and consider these statements.
It is peculiar when he says that he no longer recognizes his former companions Ali Laarayedh, Noureddine Bhiri (who no longer responds to his calls and text messages), Abdelkrim Harouni and Ajmi Lourimi as such.
When he criticizes the minister of industry (who he says “understands nothing”), the minister of the environment (who “is totally lost”) and the minister of employment (who “does nothing”) and asserts that these ministers do not deserve to be in government, Najib Karoui might be speaking too frankly for his own good.
By saying that Ennahda treats authority as if it were it war booty and lament[ing his] not being able to meet Rachid Ghannouchi (whom he really helped during the difficult years), the prime minister’s friend is touching upon an — almost criminal — taboo.
Is this the start of a war between Brothers? Not yet. Another of Najib Karoui’s statements speaks volumes about the current mood among Islamists and the relationship between the party and the government (Karoui is a member of neither). “Maybe I would have to reveal some dangerous truths and declare war on certain parties. Maybe I would have to use every weapon in my possession to reveal their dirty plans about emergency medical care,” he said.
Regarding the minister of health, he said, “Abdellatif Mekki is a future dictator. He dreams of leading the [Ennahda] Movement and the country. He is Hamadi Jebali’s sworn enemy and wants to appoint other experts than the ones we proposed simply to spite Hamadi Jebali. And we will not accept that. There will soon be a confrontation between us.”
By admitting that he is proposing to appoint experts at certain positions, Najib Karoui is implicitly saying that he is more than the friend and physician of the prime minister — he is also an undeclared advisor.
Indeed, his words take another dimension when he uses words like “war” and “weapons.”
But what is happening inside Ennahda?
Business News contacted a senior member of the Islamist party who spent 15 years in prison [likely a reference to Ali Laarayedh], who said that there have always been disputes and infighting within the party. “Internally, we are 1,000 times more vicious than all the media combined. Lotfi Zitoun, for example, has not been spared by our members after the scandal of his undeclared wealth abroad broke out. But I cannot tell you more, especially about the war of the clans. I am bound by confidentiality and partisan solidarity.”
Sources close to Ennahda (who are not bound by partisan solidarity) have looser lips.
“Indeed, we are told that there is a real clan war within the party. At least three ministers behave like [the cartoon character] Iznogoud who wants to take the Caliph’s place,” they said. So, it seems that Abdellatif Mekki, Abdelkrim Harouni and Lotfi Zitoun all seek to become prime minister. In contrast, Ali Laarayedh is not at all interested in the Kasbah and is apparently content to stay where he is.
One of our interlocutors said, “[The different groups within Ennahda] have not hesitated to take shots at each other. Thus, Zitoun received virtually no support during the media campaign against him. In response, Zitoun did not hesitate to disavow Ali Laarayedh in the latest Ekbess event that took place 10 days ago. Today, [Sept. 11] in La Presse, he admits that the government made mistakes and makes a sort of mea culpa on behalf of his peers. But who is responsible for the mistakes if not Jebali? You just had to follow his gaze and read between the lines.”
The standoff is not only with Hamadi Jebali, but also between ministers. The origin of these differences between the ministers is the incompetence of some who cast a shadow on the expertise of others, hence the poor image of the entire government. “It’s not just the media and the opposition who are demanding changes and the departure of the leaders. But this is being said day and night from within the government also,” he said.
There is discord between the ministers because of how certain issues are being handled and because of personal grievances. For example, one minister wants to get back at another because the latter did not secure a job for one of his relatives.
All these disputes have been taken to the head of government Hamadi Jebali and party leader Rached Ghannouchi for arbitration.
This dual leadership does not happen smoothly and things are not going smoothly between Ghannouchi and Jebali. However, nobody can confirm that—it is one of the secrets of the gods.
Najib Karoui’s words leads one to believe that the conflict is actually between two clans: the one of Ghannouchi (representing those who were abroad during the Ben-Ali era) and the one of Jebali (representing those who were in prison).
Last Sunday, the Jebali gave an interview to the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram, in which he said that his resignation has always been in his pocket, and that he was ready to hand it at any time. The message was clear: either you let me work quietly or I will leave you to struggle alone against the opposition and civil society.
Najib Karoui’s interview was published on Monday. The head of government had to wait until Tuesday afternoon to issue a press release saying that what Karoui said did not reflect his positions. The statement did not deny the strained relations that Karoui spoke of, but instead separated between what is personal and what is government-related.
Despite the reassuring statement published Tuesday afternoon, the two media outlets of Jebali and Karoui have been sending warning signals to each other. Will there be other warnings as Karoui suggested?
“Rached Ghannouchi is clever, very clever. He will calm his troops and make the necessary concessions to not get to that point. He already did that with Moncef Marzouki. He accepted the appointment of Chedly Ayari, who was proposed by Ben Jaafar. It is difficult to believe that he will not give Hamadi Jebali what he wants,” said a senior Ennahda leader.
Such a short time after political season picked up again, the political climate is already very tense.