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Tunisia’s Islamists under siege as Saied rolls back democracy

Islamists are bearing the brunt of President Kais Saied’s "counter revolution" with their leaders facing possible jail time and little public sympathy, as many view them as the principal architects of the economic woes and political gridlock that has long gripped the country.
Tunisia's Speaker of the Parliament Rached Ghannouchi flashes the victory sign as he arrives for questioning at the judicial police headquarters in the capital Tunis, on April 1, 2022.

TUNIS — On a gray December morning, Noureddine Bhiri and his wife Saida slid into the family car outside their home in Tunis’ El Manar neighborhood. With Saida at the wheel, the middle-aged couple was about to set off for work when four blue Ford SUVs screeched around them, blocking their path. “A group of bearded youths in civilian clothes snatched the car keys out of my wife’s hands and forced us to get out,” Bhiri recalled. The men were armed. “They shoved me into the back of one of the jeeps. I thought to myself, ‘They are Islamic State.’ I was terrified,” Bhiri said.

Bhiri, 64, a senior figure in the Islam-oriented Ennahda party, was held incommunicado for three days in a heavily guarded shack in a forest outside Tunis where the howls of wolves and grunts of wild boar filled the air. “Who are you? Why have you kidnapped me?” he asked his captors repeatedly. He was offered no answer. It wasn’t until he was moved to a state hospital after refusing food and drink that Bhiri, a diabetic, discovered he was under “house arrest” because he posed “a threat to Tunisia’s national security.” His ordeal lasted 64 days.

Last week, Ennahda’s 81-year old leader, Rached Ghannouchi, was grilled by counterterrorism police, spending 30 hours in different security units over three days. Ali Laarayedh, a former prime minister and a fellow Nahdaoui, as party members are known, was held for interrogation as well. All three leaders are among some 800 individuals being investigated for supposedly encouraging thousands of Tunisians to take up arms with assorted jihadis in so-called “hotbeds of tension” in Libya and Syria during Ennahda’s first two years at the helm of Tunisia’s first freely elected government that was formed in 2011.

Lawyer Abderrazak Kilani, who is defending Ennahda, labeled the investigation a “disgrace.” “There is nothing in the prosecution's case to prove these absurd claims. The dossier is empty,” Kilani told Al-Monitor. Ghannouchi is due to undergo further questioning on Nov. 28.

The probe is part of a broader campaign targeting the party masterminded by Tunisia’s authoritarian President Kais Saied. The outcome of that campaign will have lasting repercussions for the future of Tunisia’s tottering democracy and will likely resonate with political Islamists across the globe.

“It was the most democratic party in Tunisia. It was the only one where there was a lot of dissent factored into the system, where there was a dialogue between the regions and the national center and there were shifts in policy based on what the rank and file sought,” said William Lawrence, a former US diplomat and nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute with sweeping knowledge of the Maghreb.

“Ennahda was the best model political Islam managed to produce,” said Tarik Celenk, a prominent Muslim intellectual in Turkey, where another Islamist party and a close Ennahda ally, the Justice and Development Party led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been in power for the past two decades.

Riding on a wave of popular fury over endemic corruption and a failing economy, the inscrutable former constitutional law instructor shot to power in a landslide in 2019. (Saied is not a professor, as he is commonly described. He was denied a PhD after refusing in signature stubborn form to make minor tweaks to his thesis that his examiners were asking for.)

Saied has since sacked the government, dissolved the parliament, scrapped judicial oversight and rammed through a new constitution giving him near unfettered power as well as an electoral law which bans political candidates from running on party lists.

Journalists are being put behind bars under draconian new legislation criminalizing free speech. The opposition and civil rights activists label his actions a coup.

“There is a great danger that democracy will be lost,” warned Noureddine Boutar, CEO of Tunisia’s influential first private broadcaster, Mosaique FM.

Even as Saied paints Ennahda as dangerous zealots, Article Five of his new constitution, approved overwhelmingly in a controversial referendum but with less than 30% voter turnout, states that Tunisia is “part of the Islamic Ummah” and that “it is incumbent upon the state alone to work to achieve the purposes of Islam by preserving soul, honor, property, religion and freedom.” 

“Saied’s constitution goes [much farther] in establishing what you could call political Islam and quite a patriarchal, retrogressive interpretation of it than Ennahda ever proposed in their wildest dreams,” noted Monica Marks, an American academic who closely studies Ennahda, during a panel organized by the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington think tank.

In June, the 64-year-old president sacked 57 judges on the grounds that they were “changing the course of cases” and “disrupting investigations” — in other words, for failing to indict Ennahda members.

“Kais Saied is in contradiction with the ideals he claims to be embracing. He is walking straight into a wall,” senior Ennahda official Ajmi Lourimi told Al-Monitor.

A devout Muslim, Saied has justified the moves on the grounds that the old rotten system is unfixable, while casting the Islamists as the chief culprits of Tunisia’s ills. Deservedly or not, a large number of Tunisians seem to agree. “People don’t care about Ennahda’s problems. There is almost a sense of relief over Ennahda getting what people see as just desserts,” Boutar said in an interview with Al-Monitor.

Perhaps the most telling indictment of all is that the Free Destourian Party led by Abir Moussi, an unabashed advocate of toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is currently leading the polls. “The Muslim Brothers, we no longer want them and we never want them ever again,” Moussi told Al-Monitor during an interview at her party’s headquarters. “They should be banned.”

Ghannouchi’s last hurrah?

Even before Saied’s auto-golpe, the knives were out for Ennahda.

“Over the years their failures in governance, which were only dwarfed by the failure of other parties, became apparent and their popularity dropped. So every time you have unrest in Tunisia, which is frequent, protesting crowds are as likely to attack the local police station as they are likely to attack local Ennahda headquarters to vent their anger,” Lawrence noted.

The death in July 2019 of Beji Cais Essebsi, the secular former president whose cohabitation with Ghannouchi marked a period of relative calm, gave Ennahda’s enemies fresh life.

Within the party itself, opponents of Ghannouchi’s compromising stance grew more vocal.

Last year over 100 members, including several senior figures, called for his resignation in a joint petition and quit the party when he refused.

“After the coup we went to Ghannouchi and said we need to reform. I asked him to step down. He refused,” said Abdellatif Mekki, a former health minister who signed the petition and left to form his own party. “We were supposed to have a congress in 2020 to elect a new leader. His mandate had ended. But he held onto power. Tens of people have left. If there is no reform, there can be no future,” Mekki told Al-Monitor.

“I want deep change, not just window dressing,” said Lourimi, who also signed the petition.

“As a political party we elected him and in the same way we will choose a new leader. Any political party needs new blood,” said Ennahda official Mariam Binnour as she stood outside the security building where Ghannouchi was being held.

In truth, by the neighborhood’s standards, Ghannouchi is anything but a despot. Noureddine Arbaoui, who was among the 100 petitioners, continues to retain his position as head of the political bureau. “As you can see I am here sitting before you saying it’s time for Sheikh Ghannouchi to step aside and I still have my job,” Arbaoui acknowledged with a grin.

Through his hounding of Ghannouchi, Saied may unwittingly or not have thrown his bete noir something of a lifeline. The party has rallied behind his calls to prioritize Tunisia’s democracy and resist Saied, who is “the face of the counter-revolution.”

Emerging from his last interrogation session at the counterterrorism headquarters near Tunis’ Carthage International Airport on Sept. 21, Ghannouchi looked crumpled but erect as he flashed victory signs at supporters gathered to greet him. “Freedom, Freedom! The police state is over! Down with the coup,” they chanted as police in riot gear looked on.

In a Sept. 23 interview at Ennahda’s headquarters in Tunis’ Montplaisir neighborhood, Ghannouchi seemed a diminished man, his head bowed as he sat at his desk. His voice was faltering, his hands were trembling, yet his message was clear. He had no intention of stepping down. “I will carry out my duties until June 2023,” when Ennahda’s next party congress is set to be held, he told Al-Monitor, mustering the broad engaging smile that swayed thousands of Tunisians for long years.

Dirty deals

The story of how Tunisia’s biggest and most influential party went from winning power with around 1.5 million votes in 2011 — that’s four times as many as the first runner-up — to scraping roughly a third as many in the last parliamentary elections in 2019, is tightly intertwined with how the country’s democracy went from being the envy of the post-Arab Spring world to a phantom on life support.

Two themes dominate the hostility being leveled against Ennahda. One is that it sought to bring the country under Islamist rule. The effort, by this telling, was in full swing between 2011 and 2013, when the country was shaken by extremist violence marked by by the assassinations of two prominent secular leaders. The Ennahda-led government said it had evidence that Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist militia with ties to al-Qaeda, had carried out the murders and banned the outfit. Yet nine years on, Ennahda continues to be dogged by allegations of complicity with the group.

The other is that Ennahda wrecked the economy through a mix of incompetence, corruption and greed. Hamma Hammami, a leftish politician, recently called it “the Ennahda syndrome” — one that views the party “as responsible for every problem, no matter what.”

Never mind that Ennahda was the junior partner in a coalition with secular parties for eight of the past 11 years, compromising its ideological principles arguably more than any of its Islamist peers.

Ghannouchi’s trademark pragmatism, inspired by the bloody suppression of fellow Islamists in neighboring Algeria and deepened by the violent overthrow in 2013 of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, oiled the historic December 2013 pact with Essebsi, who was elected president in December 2014.

The deal struck between the “two sheikhs” behind closed doors saw the adoption of a new democratic constitution free of any Islamist language lobbied for by Ennahda hard-liners and the establishment of a coalition government between their respective parties, in which Ennahda took a junior role.

The entente had the support of the so-called quartet comprising the all-powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and three other civil society groups that was hailed as a model and crowned with a Nobel Peace award.

To many, it now looks like more of a dirty deal struck between self-serving elites at the expense of ordinary Tunisians.

Early on, the lack of transparency and a partial amnesty for former regime figures cast a pall and led to fierce internal debates within Ennahda. Public sympathy over the unspeakable horrors endured by the Islamists under the previous regime has worn thin.

“We were saddled with other people’s grime,” said Mekki, the Ennahda defector.

“What was keeping democracy on track was a sort of Tunisian-style pact of transition whereby each side was protecting the other side’s ability to maneuver,” said Lawrence, the former US diplomat. “The going joke about it was ‘You keep me out of jail I’ll keep you out of jail,’” Lawrence told Al-Monitor.

Ordinary Tunisians were indisputably freer but no richer.

Human rights on empty stomachs

Endemic corruption, poverty and a lack of opportunity and social justice were among the main drivers of Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution. Economically speaking, 11 years on, things are worse.

“Chicken is 15 dinars per kilo. Before, you could get a whole chicken for 15 dinars and in Ben Ali’s time, a chicken was three dinars. The revolution only harmed us,” fumed a butcher in El Kabaria, a slum in southern Tunis.

“Tunisians’ expectations were so high after the revolution with respect to economic gains, however the harvest was not good for many,” Ghannouchi acknowledged.

Many Ennahda leaders point the finger of blame at the UGTT. Arbaoui said, “They organized 30,000 strikes in the first two years. They paralyzed the country.”

The current government is desperate to reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. The IMF is demanding UGTT buy in as a prerequisite for any deal. The union has long resisted demands to cap public sector wage hikes, shave food subsidies and other harsh measures that would deepen public suffering but without which IMF officials insist the economy cannot recover. Hopes of an accord rose when the UGTT agreed to a lower increase in public sector wages than it was initially seeking.

This week, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said an agreement would be reached "very soon." However, the union signaled that the concession was a one-off and that collective action may ensue. “When there are painful choices, we will be with our people in the front lines of the struggle and in the streets," UGTT leader Noureddine Taboubi, said in a recent speech.

Unemployment, which according to the World Bank stood at 18.4% in the last quarter of 2021, has soared while the value of the Tunisian dinar has plunged below pre-2011 levels. Annual inflation is running at more than 8%. Tourism, a critical hard currency earner, has yet to fully recover from a series of Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked attacks that killed scores of foreign tourists.

The former government’s clumsy handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which claimed nearly 30,000 lives, added to public incandescence. The wars in Libya and more recently in Ukraine dealt further blows, prompting ever more Tunisians to risk their lives aboard rickety boats to get to Italy. A growing number are opting to travel by air via Turkey and Serbia on what is known as the Balkan route.

The political gains of the revolution were nonetheless “great,” Ghannouchi asserted. But a hostile media backed by assorted lobbies whose interests were threatened downplayed the gains. “We failed in convincing public opinion that we were operating in very hard circumstances,” Ghannouchi told Al-Monitor.

“Now people have lost those freedoms and gained nothing in economic terms,” Ghannouchi added. He believes that it won’t be long before Tunisians decide once again to take fate in their own hands, and bring the country’s aspiring dictator down. “It’s a matter of time before the people will react en masse. There is a real expectation that the Kais Saied regime can collapse before the year ends.”

These are uncharted waters for Tunisia and it’s hard to fathom what extremes Saied may resort to and where the army stands. But the economy may yet prove his undoing, and already there are signs of popular unrest. On Sept. 25 hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Douar Hicher, a gritty low-income neighborhood in Tunis, shouting, “Jobs, freedom, national dignity.”

For the first time in recent memory, basic staples such as bottled water, coffee, flour and cooking oil are in short supply because the state, which subsidizes them, can no longer cough up the cash. When asked by a reporter whether sugar was available, an employee at the giant French-owned supermarket Carrefour responded, “We don’t have any sugar and I don’t know when we will.”

Health care and education are in steady decline. The stench of uncollected garbage rising above the city has become a symbol for the country’s chronically unaddressed woes.

For many the only bright spot on this otherwise bleak horizon is Ons Jabeur, the tennis star and Wimbledon finalist who fellow Tunisians have nicknamed “Wazirat Essaada,” or “The Ministry of Bliss.”

Bikinis or bourkinis?

Yet even with his popularity ebbing, a sizable number of Tunisians still give Saied the benefit of the doubt.

“I voted for Kais Saied in the last [2019 presidential] election because he is a good and honest man,” said Dorsaf Mridi, a 39-year-old mother of three as she shopped for vegetables in El Kabaria. “Yes, there is disappointment in Saied, but Ennahda was a total failure,” she told Al-Monitor. She used to vote for them, “but never again,” Mridi vowed.

“Before the revolution I earned well. Today I can barely survive. I voted for Ennahda, then for Essebsi, then again for Ennahda the last time. Corruption and theft only increased,” said Mohammed Klibi, a 54-year-old casual laborer. “Maybe it’s a good thing for the future that they close all the political parties,” he told Al-Monitor.

Some prominent civil society figures who welcomed Saied’s dissolution of parliament but decried his subsequent power grab, agree that Ennahda sought to impose Islamist mores. Sami Tahri, a senior UGTT leader, told Al-Monitor, “Ennahda wanted a religious society, with legal references to the Quran and the like. And Ghannouchi, I can tell you, he was behind everything.”

Houssem Hammi, general coordinator for the Soumoud coalition of civil rights groups, agreed. “Democracy was a trampoline for their agenda. Salafists popped up like mushrooms all over the place,” he recalled. “They were even directing traffic here,” Hammi asserted during an interview at a trendy café in the upscale Al Marsa neighborhood. “Can you imagine?”

Ennahda’s reluctance to draw a clear line between itself and violent extremists in the first messy years of its rule clearly fed mistrust. And its caricaturization of the real lifestyle concerns of secular Tunisians and of women in particular, conflating them with old regime “lobbies,” was another strategic gaffe.

“Too much time was wasted discussing what ought to be the role of religion in the constitution, et cetera. That was not the priority of the people,” said Boutar, the media boss.

Even today, Nahdaouis who might be labeled moderates on the Islamist spectrum blithely defend informal Islamic inheritance laws whereby sons continue to inherit twice as much as daughters.

All of this obscured many of the bold positions Ghannouchi, who spent long years in exile in London, subsequently embraced. They include backing some of the region’s most progressive gender laws enshrined in the 2014 constitution and promoting women within the party itself.

“The ambiguity of its relationship with Ansar al-Sharia while trying to portray themselves as allies of the security establishment, this effort to hold a middle ground was problematic from the start,” said Fadil Aliriza, founder and editor-in-chief of Meshkal.org, an independent news website covering Tunisia in English and Arabic. “And they didn’t have a clear vision of how to run the economy,” Aliriza told Al-Monitor. “They are organizationally coherent and nationally present, but far less important than they used to be.”

Yet, with the rest of the opposition still fragmented, there is no party that can rival its reach. “It’s got cadres all over the country,” Lawrence said.

Many Nahdaouis would say that their total lack of experience was their biggest handicap of all.

“Ennahda had no project to govern, no intellectual or technocratic cadres. They were used to being critical of power, not exercising it,” said Hmida Ennaifer, a leading intellectual who founded Tunisia’s Islamist movement with Ghannouchi and Abdelfattah Mourou. He split from the movement in 1979 over its deepening ties with the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and believes Ennahda should never have taken power to start with because its “Islamist ideology was bound to collide with the realities of the modern state.”

Moreover, “They were so busy proving they were not Islamic fundamentalists that they didn't convey who they actually were or what they represented,” Ennaifer told Al-Monitor.

For some Nahdaouis, however, the pragmatism did not go far enough. Ahmed Gaaloul, a member of Ennahda’s Shura Council and a Ghannouchi loyalist, reckons that Ennahda should have pushed for blanket amnesty for all regime officials and their business allies potentially facing prosecution from the get go. By the same token, their victims should have been fully compensated as envisaged by the now defunct but once promising Truth and Dignity Commission. Getting sucked into the horse-trading over both was “a fatal flaw,” Gaaloul told Al-Monitor.

“The immediate challenge is how do we safeguard our unity, reform, bring in new blood and secure consensus within the elite so that when Ghannouchi steps down we will have a party that is still organized,” Gaaloul explained.

But Ennahda’s fate may well be taken out of its own hands.

“Both its survival and its ability to replace its leadership and have a say in the future depend entirely on what Kais Saied does, and not on what happens inside the party,” Lawrence observed. “If Said bans Ennahda then it won’t survive.” And will Tunisia’s democracy? That remains the most pressing question of all.

Imen Blioua contributed to this report.

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