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Nidaa Tunis tensions come at crucial period for Tunisia

Nidaa Tunis appears to be inching toward a possible split after internal tensions erupted into a brawl.
Hafhed Caid Essebsi (C), son of Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi, arrives for a meeting with leaders of the Nidaa Tounes party in Tunis, Tunisia November 3, 2015. Tensions between two wings of Nidaa Tounes, whose name means Call of Tunis, spilled over into violence last week when a party meeting descended into open fighting with fists and sticks. A split within Nidaa Tounes could trigger political instability in the country that launched the first of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011. Thirty-two of Ni

Tensions between two factions of Nidaa Tunis (Call of Tunisia) are threatening to disrupt the Tunisian parliament’s work at a vulnerable time for the country. The escalating internal conflict spilled over Nov. 1, when a brawl erupted at a party meeting at a luxury hotel in the resort town of Hammamet. The sides are split between supporters of Hafedh Essebsi, son of Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi, and Mohsen Marzouk, a former leftist activist and the party’s secretary-general. After the meeting, the party’s executive bureau accused the young Essebsi and some of the party leadership, including Cabinet director Ridha Belhaj, of inciting violence to “take over the party” and restructure it.

“Today Nidaa Tunis died. The party no longer exists as we know it,” wrote Mamoghli Chokri, a member of the party's executive board, on Facebook after the fight. “There will be a split. The parliamentary group will be divided into two, and the government will likely fall. Ennahda [the rival, Islamist party], by default, will become the [top] party in the country.”

Thirty-two Nidaa Tunis parliamentarians decided to freeze their membership and threatened to leave the party. “We are currently negotiating,” said Olfa Soukri, one such member. She said the 32 members denounced the violence that took place at the Hammamet meeting. According to local media, however, the 32 MPs decided on Nov. 8 to resign from their party parliamentary group. Nidaa Tunis' Walid Jallad told the media that they are still open to debate should there be reason for them to review their decision. Yet the decision of the 32 MPs was made public Nov. 8 during a press conference.

Parliamentarians are protesting what they see as attempts by Hafedh Essebsi to dominate the party. The president’s office denies the accusation, and President Essebsi had called for a reconciliation meeting at the presidential palace in Carthage on Nov. 2. However, Essebsi's call was in vain as several MPs refused to attend.

The liberal Nidaa Tunis holds 86 of the parliament's 217 seats, having won the plurality of the votes in October 2014 in the country’s second democratic election after the revolution that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. If the party splits, it risks losing its parliamentary majority to Ennahda, which holds 67 seats.

Beji Caid Essebsi founded Nidaa Tunis in 2012, mobilizing Tunisians from a broad political spectrum around an anti-Islamist platform primarily aimed at challenging the moderate Islamist Ennahda. The party was quickly called into question for resurrecting former colleagues from Ben Ali’s old party, the Constitutional Rally for Democracy. The 88-year-old Essebsi is a political veteran from the era of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president after gaining independence from France in 1956, and was active under Ben Ali as well.

The current uncertainty is not the first time the party’s unity has been at stake due to internal divisions and leadership doubts. Nidaa Tunis is built around Essebsi, explained Youssef Cherif, a political analyst. “When Caid Essebsi became president, the party was still immature and fragile,” Cherif said. Yet Essebsi was elected president of Tunisia on Dec. 21, 2014, and consequently resigned from the party. Commenting on this, Cherif added, “The almost sudden disappearance of the leader led to a vacuum.” Keeping together a political party with such a diverse membership base has not been easy, especially after the party joined a coalition with Ennahda in February 2015. “It created several rifts, and the lack of leadership to curb divisions exacerbated them,” said Cherif.

The general situation is unlikely to change very much, according to Cherif, and he said, it is difficult to know how many among the grassroots support a possible split. In the event of a split, Nidaa Tunis would, Cherif argued, be “weakened for sure but still powerful on the ground and in parliament.”

According to Ennahda parliamentarian Sayida Ounissi, her party is unaffected by what is going on in Nidaa Tunis. The party’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, told Shems FM radio that Ennahda has no intention of seizing or monopolizing power. He emphasized that the current four-party coalition must remain intact for the government to continue working.

Coalition building has been a recurring element on the political scene since the revolution. In October, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in consensus building during the country’s challenging post-revolutionary period.

Ounissi is nonetheless worried that the Nidaa Tunis schism will contribute to the already low degree of trust the Tunisian public has for the politicians in power. “We call for calm,” she said, hoping that the conflict will be solved as soon as possible. She is also concerned that political disputes are disrupting the parliament’s work at a time when Tunisia could be facing its toughest challenge since the revolution.

“All focus needs to be on [what's best for] the country right now,” she said. In 2015, Tunisia, the birthplace and only success story of the Arab Spring, has faced numerous challenges, including two terrorist attacks, both harsh blows to the country's already struggling tourism-dependent economy. The shaky security situation and strained economy continue to threaten the democratic transition, as Tunisians are beginning to lose patience waiting for economic progress.

Cherif fears that the media, which is largely pro-Nidaa, especially the minority break-out group that has now decided to leave, might revert to smear campaigns, risking the creation of a climate of suspicion and fear similar to the political crisis in 2012-13. In light of the current challenges, it would be, Cherif said, “highly problematic for the future of Tunisia, not only as a democracy but also as a functioning state.”