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Tunisia’s Ennahda faces critical choices as it seeks to form new government

Ennahda is still grappling with how, and if, to form a parliamentary coalition in Tunisia.
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda, speaks to supporters after the party gained most votes in Sunday's parliamentary election, according to an exit poll by Sigma Conseil broadcasted by state television, in Tunis, Tunisia October 6, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi - RC1AEA2A12F0

Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections announced the formal results of the Oct. 6 parliamentary elections today, with the conservative Ennahda or “Renaissance” party confirmed as the winner of the most seats, with 52 in the 217-member legislative body. 

All eyes are now turned to Rachid Ghannouchi, the 78-year-old leader of Ennahda.

Will Ghannouchi continue on a path of compromise and pragmatism, or will he insist on the premiership for his party and perhaps, some speculate, even for himself. Is there finally room to strike a balance between the two?

The course he and his lieutenants chart is poised to have a profound impact on the country’s future and on the decidedly spotty legacy of Islam-inspired political parties across the Muslim world.

More prosaically, though, parliamentary arithmetic remains a big factor. Ennahda is well short of the 109 seats required to govern alone. It says it won’t partner with Qalb Tounes or Heart of Tunisia, the newly formed populist grouping led by scandal-spattered media magnate Nabil Karoui, which pulled in second with 38 seats.

Ennahda has also ruled out a government with the fiercely anti-Islamist Free Constitutional Party, which came third with 22 seats, on the grounds that it too is corrupt and “anti-Revolution.” But Ennahda's potential allies, including current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, refuse to grant Ennahda the premiership, at least for now. 

Sharan Grewal, an assistant professor at the College of William & Mary and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor that Ennahda may yet be forced “to propose a neutral technocrat as head of government, but still place one of their own, such as Rachid Ghannouchi, as speaker of the House.” Zied Ladhari, Ennahda’s secretary-general who just stepped down as minister for development, has also been touted as a contender for prime minister.

Should Ennahda fail to form a government within 60 days of being mandated by the country’s new president, Kais Saied, he can task another party to try form a governing coalition. If that failed, fresh elections would be called.

It's still early in the game. A slew of independents who were ushered in on the back of voter disgust with the status quo could break ranks with their existing coalitions to help Ennahda forge its own.

If none of the established parties play along, they risk losing further ground in new elections, and likely in Ennahda’s favor. 

But the cost to the country’s wobbly economy, hit by high youth unemployment and runaway food prices, could make for even lower voter turnout — 41% of voters cast their ballots Oct. 6 — with even less predictable results. The menace posed by local iterations of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda has thinned but not been eradicated.

Western governments, and the International Monetary Fund — Tunisia owes the IMF over $2 billion— are jittery. 

History suggests, however, that Ennahda will make the necessary compromises to remain in power and to protect Tunisia’s democracy as the party sees it.

Monica Marks, a leading expert on Tunisia who has studied Ennahda closely, told Al-Monitor in a recent interview, “They very much want to stay at the table. That’s a real priority for them. Pragmatism and a dogged determination have been at the fore of their approach to politics since the revolution, which makes perfect sense when you consider the level of political repression and isolation that they have faced and how crucial and rare the window of opportunity of that opened after the revolution was for them.” 

Marks, who teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi, said, “The percentage of Ennahda members who were tortured, imprisoned, sexually abused, banned from employment, it was massive. For Ennahda, the scariest thing is to be put back in prison, to have the democratic experiment exploded. Ennahda is so obsessed with political normalization it kind of neutered itself. It's become a castrated giant.”

The fate of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and fellow Muslim Brotherhood traveler, Mohammed Morsi, who was violently ousted in 2013 and died in custody June 17, amplified Ennahda's fears. There was a popular backlash when the assassinations of two prominent leftist politicians in Tunisia in 2013 were blamed on Ennahda by its secular opponents, and this proved a tipping point. Ennahda voluntarily relinquished power in January 2014 two years after becoming the country’s first democratically elected government. 

The party has since 2014 settled for the back seat in a coalition with its secularist adversaries. Paradoxically, this meant governing with holdovers from the “ancien regime” who refined corruption to new levels while doing little to alleviate poverty, unemployment and social inequality, which sparked the revolution. By going into consensus politics, “Ennahda got its hands dirty,” Marks said. “Ennahda thought that was a safe approach because you are distributing the blame for what goes on. But what ended up happening was that they got tarred.”

Voters took note, walloping Nidaa Tounes, and its spinoff, Tahya Tounes led by Chahed, which finished 12th and 7th, respectively, in the parliamentary voting. Myriad obscure independents won dozens of seats.

Ennahda led with 19%, well below the 27% it received in 2014 when it came second. Its candidate for the Sept. 15 presidential election finished third behind Saied and Karoui, both newcomers to the political scene. 

The vote outcome has prompted a flurry of debate and soul searching within the party’s ranks.

Some Ennahda lawmakers saw the results as a clear message from the party’s base that compromise had gone too far. Atiq Sahbi, a veteran Ennahda lawmaker who was locked up and tortured for 17 years under the old regime, told Al-Monitor in a recent interview, “In the eyes of the people we are too close to the [old] system. We should have punished those who committed crimes.” Sahbi was referring to a 2017 bill that exonerated thousands of crooked officials who were supposed to be prosecuted on the basis of the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission set up in 2013 to investigate the dictatorship’s abuses.

Naoufel Jammali, an Ennahda lawmaker from Sidi Bouzid, said, “It's better for us if we stay out of government to regenerate, refresh ourselves.”

More recently, Ennahda backed Chahed when he sought to ram through legislation this summer that would have effectively barred Karoui from running for office. It said nothing when the billionaire was jailed Aug. 23 on fraud and money laundering charges, in what his supporters say was a brazen bid to prevent his victory. Bad blood between Karaoui and Ennahda dates to October 2011, when a week before the elections Nessma TV broadcast "Persepolis," an animated film based on Marjan Satrapi’s eponymous novel about life under Iran’s clerical regime. Karaoui’s house was stormed by Salafists. Karaoui blamed Ennahda.

The meltdown within the pro-secular and left-wing camp will have left freewheeling urbanites nervous, and the entrenched elites even more so. Karoui will use Nessma to play on their worries.

But the audience for fearmongering is shrinking, argues Leila Chettaoui, a former lawmaker for Tahya Tounes, who bitterly criticizes her party and fellow secularists for falling out of touch with the people.

Many young people of all political hues voted in droves for Saied, a former constitutional law professor with decidedly conservative views on women’s inheritance laws and gay rights. “One must not fear him. He defies categorization. For example, his wife is a judge who does not cover her head,” Chettaoui said. The president speaks to the common denominator of Tunisian society as a whole, “one that rejects extremes be they conservative or liberal,” she told Al-Monitor.

Sensing an opportunity, the ever-pragmatic Ennahda endorsed Saied in the Oct. 13 runoff against Karoui, which Saied won in a landslide. If Ennahda’s policy program accords with Saied, “we could see a good deal of cooperation,” Grewal said. 

Chettaoui agrees. “Ennahda understands that its survival is pinned on positioning itself in line with themes that are of the most important for Tunisians at any given time.” 

And Saeid’s passion for probity and his lack of political baggage offers millions of Tunisians hope for the kind of fresh start that Jammali dreams of for Ennahda. Grewal said, “I think all political parties have an interest in being seen as working with and facilitating Kais Saied’s agenda.”

Marks said Saied’s victory makes it more probable that “a sort of conservative coalition is going to form” and “that one of these parties that previously vowed not to work with Ennahda is going to cave.”

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