Conflicts surface with Tunisia’s Ennahda

The last-minute decision of Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi to run in this year’s legislative elections in Tunisia has ruffled feathers in the Islamist movement.

al-monitor Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda, speaks to journalists after a meeting with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (not pictured) in Tunis, May 28, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

Aug 9, 2019

TUNIS — The Executive Bureau of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda — which holds a plurality of 68 out of 217 parliament seats and is represented in the government — announced July 21 on Facebook that Rachid Ghanouchi, the movement's founder and thus far its only leader, will head its candidate list in the Tunis 1 district in legislative elections scheduled for Oct. 6. 

Parties had from July 22-29 to submit candidate lists to the Independent High Authority for Elections. Ennahda spokesman Emad al-Khamiri told Tunis Afrique Presse July 21 that the decision on Ghannouchi heading Ennahda's list had been made the day before at an extraordinary meeting of the party's Executive Bureau. He added that Ennahda's lists for other electoral districts will be made public at a later stage. The Shura Council is the authority charged by party rules with drafting candidate lists.

The upcoming election marks Ghannouchi's first candidacy for an official position since resuming political activity following the January 2011 revolution. Ghannouchi had gone into exile in Britain in 1989 following conflicts with Tunisian authorities and officials, returning in late January 2011, after the toppling of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. In August 1992, a military court had sentenced him to life in prison, in absentia, for allegedly plotting against the state. 

On the day Ennahda announced Ghannouchi's candidacy, Tasnim Gazbar requested on Facebook that the party remove her from its Tunis 1 candidate list, apparently in light of Ghannouchi's addition to it. She asserted that she would contest the election as an independent rather than with Ennahda because, she said, the movement calls for openness but does not actually believe in it. 

The surprising decision by Ennahda’s Executive Bureau ignited controversy among the movement’s leaders. On July 22, Mohamed Bin Salem, a member of parliament for Ennahda, told Mosaique FM that 78 of the party's 147-member Shura Council had signed a petition calling for the council to hold an extraordinary session to examine the bureau’s action. They claim that the bureau's altering of the candidate list violates party rules. 

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Bin Salem claimed that the Executive Bureau, in addition to adding Ghannouchi, at the same time had intentionally removed from the list candidates critical of or who oppose Ghannouchi. He said that an independent committee consisting of Ennahda members who are not part of the Executive Bureau will be set up to assess the movement's lists nationwide, including for Tunis 1, for possible violations. Executive Bureau members, he said, obviously cannot judge in a case in which they are involved.

On July 22, Lotfi Zitoun, an adviser to Ghannouchi, charged on Facebook that the movement’s electoral lists had been developed based on political exclusion and allegiance to Ghannouchi. He asserted that he had purposely been removed from the list Ghannouchi leads and alleged to have been subjected to verbal abuse. 

Salim Basbas, a member of parliament for Ennahda, told Al-Monitor that the current dispute within the party is healthy. According to him, it shows that Ennahda is a major party that includes a large number of competent members who view themselves as qualified candidates. He believes that Ennahda's institutions will allow it to overcome differences that occasionally surface. 

Sadek Mtimet, a professor of political science at the University of Tunis El Manar, told Al-Monitor that Ghannouchi senses danger from political alliances recently formed to compete against Ennahda and to isolate it politically. Given such maneuvering, Mtimet said, Ghannouchi decided to use every weapon in the political battle, including running himself.

Mtimet explained that Ghannouchi choosing Tunis 1 was a well-considered decision, reflecting the sociopolitical and demographic importance of that electoral district. Winning in it would enable him to run for speaker of the parliament if Ennahda secures the majority of seats.

On June 30, Ghannouchi had told Hannibal TV that he was seriously considering running in the presidential elections scheduled for Sept. 15 as Ennahda's candidate, a move that would represent another first for him.

Abdellatif Hanashi, a professor of contemporary history at Manouba University in Tunis, told Al-Monitor that it is more likely that Ennahda will use the presidential elections to settle scores and as a trump card to be used against other candidates in enticing them to engage in negotiations and obtain their support. As a case in point, Hanashi noted that Ennahda had helped the late President Beji Caid Essebsi in the 2014 elections.

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