Is Tunisia’s Ennahda On Brink of Imploding?

Amid internal party instability and popular rage in the street, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party may be losing the power and steam it once had.

al-monitor Tunisia's Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali speaks as he announces his resignation during a news conference in Tunis, Feb. 19, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

Topics covered

tunisia, islamists, ennahda

Aug 16, 2013

Hamadi Jebali, the former head of government and secretary-general of the Ennahda party, who was the first Ennahda member in the “legitimate” government of the troika, has stood out in recent days through his statements to the media. He has returned to the spotlight after a long hiatus resulting from his resignation from the government and the failure of his initiative on Feb. 6, 2013, which marked the day of the assassination of oppositionist Chokri Belaid.

Did he back off to make a stronger leap? Or, is this a new political maneuver which intends to contain public anger and manage the country's intense crisis?

Jebali had ended his mandate following the crisis that erupted after the assassination of Belaid. If memory serves us right, hundreds of thousands of Tunisians took part in the funeral service, and a large majority had already pointed out, at the time, the inefficiency and incompetence of the government.

Jebali had launched his famous initiative in the form of a decision to form a government of technocrats. However, the Shura Council of the Ennahda party declined his proposal. Consequently, Jebali admitted “the failure of the country’s governance — a failure shared by the opposition.” Then he resigned.

The different negotiations between the government, the opposition, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and other components of civil society took too long amid an ambiance of suspense. Meanwhile, public anger gradually faded and Tunisians began to “mourn” Belaid.

Jebali resigned from his leadership position in the government, but he maintained his position as secretary-general of the Islamist party. Jebali treated himself to some time off and avoided appearing on television and addressing the public. He was probably too exhausted and needed to disconnect for a while. In any case, he did everything to make himself almost forgotten. He even managed to score points in terms of popularity, since a large segment of the population saw his initiative as an expression of patriotism and altruism. Killing two birds with one stone, he managed to calm the people after the stormy assassination of Belaid, and at the same time, he came out with his head high and was almost considered a hero.

It was not long before the summer 2013 crisis broke out with the new politically-motivated assassination of MP Mohammed Brahmi. Public anger has surged and hundreds of thousands of people have demanded the dissolution of the government and of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). This crisis is even more serious than that of last February, and it has significantly rocked the position of the troika, especially that of Ennahda.

It is precisely in such circumstances that the same Jebali, with his ever-smiling face, chose to reappear. Indeed, he has attempted to grab the attention of the media, politicians and public opinion.

He began by giving two interviews, one with Al-Chourouk Television and another with Leaders magazine, offering his vision and analysis of the situation.

Jebali then went into high gear, presenting a clear proposal concerning the fate of the government. He called for the formation of a government of technocrats to be chaired by an independent — a proposal almost similar to his first initiative.

So, what does he seek with his second initiative? Is he seeking to forge a new path to power? Is he trying to buy time for his party? Or is he aspiring to a bitter “failure” — a double failure since he has not managed to convince the members of his party of his initiative?

Or could this be a new attempt to divert attention from the sit-ins and demonstrations, to absorb popular tension and alleviate the pressure from the streets?

All assumptions are plausible and possible. However, it is not in any case a spontaneous act motivated by “the desire to move the country toward the end of the tunnel.” There is undoubtedly a strategy or a political maneuver that is underway to the benefit of Ennahda, in general, and its leader in particular.

Moreover, the reappearance of Jebali on the political scene stirred a reaction even within his own party. In fact, Minister of Health Abdellatif Mekki, one of Ennahda's hawks, said on Aug. 14 via Shems FM Radio, “Jebali’s statements are his own and he was not speaking on behalf of the party.”

So if the party’s secretary-general does not represent the party and does not express its position, what would be his position then? How can one interpret Mekki’s contemptuous talk about the party’s No. 2 man?

The party is likely going through a serious internal crisis if Rachid Ghannouchi — the party’s No. 1 man — sets some red lines, among which is head of government Ali Laarayedh, contrary to Jebali’s recommendations, and if Mekki does not hesitate to challenge Jebali’s second initiative.

In this case, Jebali would be discrediting himself; he who has always declared to serve his party and has shown complete loyalty and respect to Ghannouchi, the movement’s “spiritual father.”

We all noticed that amid the crisis, even when Jebali resigned and gave up on his initiative, he still showed respect to Ghannouchi. After the mea culpa to his countrymen, the outgoing head of government made a mea culpa to Ghannouchi, kissing his forehead as a sign of complete loyalty.

It is either a simple partisan hierarchy or a serious conflict of interest. The fate of Jebali’s second initiative will reveal many secrets to us.

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