Post-July 25 Ennahda: Infighting Trajectories

Ahmed Nadhif | 19 Aug 2021

Shock waves continue to reverberate throughout Tunisia’s political spectrum following President Kais Saied’s far-reaching moves on July 25th. The removal of senior state officials and the appointment of others still occur on a daily basis. Yet it remains difficult for anyone to foresee the president's next move. Despite all this uncertainty, the steps taken by President Saied remain the most radical in Tunisian political life since the ouster of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. These moves will have profound repercussions on Tunisia’s politics, its political system, and especially on the president’s Islamist opponents, namely, the Ennahda movement.

This paper sheds light on the implications of President Saied's actions for the Ennahda movement, analyzes the movement's reactions, and dives into the dynamics of an internal conflict within this Islamist party.

A Befuddled Position and Perplexed Leadership

The surprise factor was decisive in the success of the "constitutional"[1] move announced by President Kais Saied on the evening of July 25, 2021. No one ever thought that the president would take the unusual move and declare a "state of imminent danger", despite abundant evidence of an unprecedented multi-dimensional crisis in the healthcare, political and economic fields. The events and decisions taken on the night of July 25th rendered Ennahda unable to take a balanced position. The movement's leaders were clearly confused in the media in expressing a unified or properly formulated position. But as soon as everyone began to absorb the shock and understand that President Saied's move was proceeding in a gradual and clear manner and that it was not just exceptional measures, the Brotherhood movement began to formulate a new position towards what had happened. Therefore, the Ennahda movement’s handling of Tunisian president’s actions from the first moment until today passed in three basic stages:

  1. Escalation: Shortly after the president's decisions, the Ennahda movement described Saied's invocation of Article 80 of the constitution, and the consequent freezing of Parliament, the lifting of immunity from its members and the dismissal of Hichem Mechichi's government, as a "coup against legitimacy." The movement denounced the measures, saying they were an "infringement of the constitution."  The movement’s leaders tried to enter the parliament headquarters, and urged its supporters to take to the street and rally in front of the Assembly of the People's Representatives, in a clear escalation against the president’s decisions[2].
  2. Tactical Retreat: But later, the Brotherhood movement re-positioned a little. After it failed to mobilize people in the streets after the largest part of its supporters refused to do so, and thus the sit-in plan in front of parliament failed after the building was sealed off by army units, the movement’s president Rached Ghannouchi announced that the movement’s members and leaders withdrew from the vicinity of parliament and called on the movement’s supporters to return to their homes to "maintain civil peace"[3]. Nevertheless, the movement continued to assert repeatedly that the president's decisions are nothing but a "coup against legitimacy", and that it awaits "strict" international stances against President Saied's actions.
  3. Regression: Due to an imbalance of power, this tactical retreat later turned into a complete regression. In what seemed to be an indication of a radical shift in the movement's position on the president's actions, its leader Rached Ghannouchi said on August 4 during a meeting of the movement's shura council: “We must turn the president's actions into an opportunity for reform. It must be a stage of democratic transition.[4]” Then an official statement was issued by the Council that did not describe what the president had done as a “coup against legitimacy,” but rather confirmed Ghannouchi’s statement that Saied’s decisions were an “opportunity for reform.”

Determinants of President Saied's Superiority Over the Ennahda movement

It seems that the unprecedented decline of the Ennahda movement, and the success of President Saied's sudden move, were governed by four basic determinants that were pivotal in the balance of power on the night of July 25, namely:

  1. Key Institutions’ Loyalty to the State: The military and security establishments played a decisive role in the Tunisian president's move and an even greater role in curbing Ennahda reaction. It was evident that the president had succeeded in winning the loyalty of the main state’s institutions from the first moment of the move, and directly appointed a new Minister of the Interior and dismissed the Director of Intelligence.
  2. Popular Support: After the mass base of the Ennahda movement refused to take to the street or sit in front of the parliament headquarters, the popular movements, which were manifested in massive rallies in most cities, were an important source of support for the Tunisian president to make his exceptional measures successful, taking advantage of a prolonged popular anger against the political class that was in power.
  3. International Neutrality: President Saied benefited greatly from the fact that no sharp international positions were issued against his "constitutional move". No international power described what happened as a "coup" as the Ennahda movement wanted, so that this neutrality in the end would serve as a strong push for Saied against his Islamist opponents. Most of the world’s powerful countries and heavyweight bodies (Germany, the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States) have generally pursued a “wait and see” approach without issuing any position, while urging restraint and dialogue.
  4. Regional Support: On the other hand, the Tunisian president has received clear and strong support from most countries in the region. With the exception of Turkey, which supported Ennahda, Saied has received political backing from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Algeria.

A Deepening Gap Between the Leadership and the Grassroots

In the wake of the exceptional measures taken by Tunisian President Kais Saied and the political confusion that enveloped the Ennahda movement, it became clear that the Brotherhood movement had lost its popular base. Large sectors that used to vote for the movement refrained from taking to the streets despite calls made by Ghannouchi and other leaders of the movement to "defend legitimacy and democracy". This rejection was only the end of a long path of disintegration of the organizational base of Ennahda, which began years ago, but whose results became clear on the eve of July 25, 2021.

One of the manifestations of this disintegration is the erosion of the movement's electoral base over the ten years since it took power. After the number of those who voted for the movement in the 2011 elections reached about 1.5 million, the number has rolled down to only about 560,000 in 2019. The number of the movement’s representatives in Parliament also decreased from 89 in 2011 to 69 in 2014 and 54 today, only 29 of who collected the number of votes corresponding to the electoral quotient, while the others were elected thanks to the distribution of the remaining votes[5].

Although the movement continued to have the largest parliamentary bloc due to the fragmentation of the secular opposition, it lost its strength in the street. Its supporters felt disappointed by populist promises and slogans raised by the movement following its return to the political arena in 2011. Consequently, the gap continued to deepen day by day between the movement's leaders who are more pragmatic and ambivalent in their stances and policies on the one hand, and its more conservative popular base on the other[6].

In addition to these objective circumstances, it seems that a major dispute that has divided the movement since the 2016 congress, between a group led by Rached Ghannouchi and an opposition camp, has undermined the movement's ability to communicate with the grassroots. This dispute led to the departure of dozens of prominent leaders of the movement. As for the youth sector of the movement, Rached Ghannouchi’s control of the movement’s leadership for more than five decades has come under wide criticism from a broad range of movement members and grassroots bases. It also emerged that family and clannish considerations clearly drove the appointment of leaders and officials. Ghannouchi is now leading the movement through a family administration that includes a narrow circle of loyalists and relatives[7]. This prompted the opposition movement to bring the internal disputes out into the open in an unprecedented step, which caused the Ennahda movement to lose a major chunk of its reputation among the masses. Despite all this, it does not seem that the movement will be able to mobilize its supporters in the short and medium terms, which ultimately means it would underperform in any future elections and lose an important card that has always given it an edge over other parties.

Ennahda: Infighting

Since its founding at the end of the 1960s, the Tunisian Brotherhood movement - which has been called "Ennahda" since 1988 - has been an arena for a struggle over leadership between one of its founders, Rashid Ghannouchi, and other leaders of the movement. However, since these conflicts have always been hidden from the media, the conflict that has raged since the movement’s 2016 congress between Ghannouchi and his opponents has been unprecedented in its intensity, depth and impact. A number of leaders, including Abdel Hamid Jelassi (resigned in 2020) and Abdel Latif El Makki, suggested that half of the members of the Executive Board be elected while leaving Ghannouchi to appoint the other half, but Ghannouchi threatened to withdraw from the congress before the proposal was eventually rejected by a minority Simple (52%).Since then, a strong opposition to Ghannouchi has begun to take shape, denouncing the "excessive concentration of power" in the hands of the movement's leader. Then the division deepened further when Ghannouchi unilaterally decided to change 30 out of 33 electoral list heads in the run-up to the October 2019 legislative elections,[8] which opponents considered a legal violation. Ghannouchi also hinted at the possibility that he would run again for the leadership of the movement in its congress to be held at the end of this year, although the movement’s statute does not allow for doing so[9]. In September 2020, 100 members of Ennahda, including prominent figures such as Samir Dilou, Abdellatif Makki, Mohamed Ben Salem, Habib El-Louz and Amal Azzouz, sent a letter to Ghannouchi calling on him to respect the legal and institutional structures of the movement and to abandon the idea of ​​running again and leave room for new generations[10].

In addition to the conflict between these two camps within the party, today there is a third offshoot, but it is still in the orbit of the movement. Hence, the conflict within the Tunisian Brotherhood movement can be divided into three streams, as follows:

  1. The Executive Leadership: Although it is a minority group, it is influential. This group is led by the movement's president, Rached Ghannouchi, former Minister of Justice Noureddine al-Buhairi, and former Prime Minister Ali al-Arayedh. The group has a majority in the Executive Office and the Shura Council and controls the movement's external relations, as well as financial resources. It also has a strong presence in the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in the group's branch in the European continent.
  2. Domestic Opponents: Although a majority at the grassroots, states, local offices, and youth levels, this group remains a minority in the movement's executive institutions and is not influential when it comes to financial resources. However, it has come to occupy a place in the Muslim Brotherhood's structures abroad[11]. It has gained the support of an important segment of the group's leaders abroad, who are not satisfied with Ghannouchi's management of the movement after 2016, and the move towards "separation between religious “Dawah” (call) and politics". Among the most prominent leaders of this group are the former Minister of Health, Abdellatif Al-Makki, and the former Minister, Muhammad bin Salem.
  3. Former Members: This group is widely popular among the movement's bases and supporters. It includes a wide range of historical leaders who preferred to resign from the movement due to differences with Rached Ghannouchi, but they continued to adopt the movement's Islamist ideas and ideology. Among the symbols of this group are one of the founders of the movement, Abdel-Fattah Mourou, former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, Lotfi Zaitoun, the director of Ghannouchi’s office and the former minister, and the former Secretary-General of the movement, Ziad Al-Adari.

Possible Trajectories

In light of the developments in Tunisian politics after President Kais Saied’s decisions, and the difficult subjective situation that the Ennahda movement is experiencing, i.e. the conflict between Ghannouchi and his opponents, the movement is living its darkest days since 1991. It suffers from severe political and popular weakness from which recovery will not be easy. It is possible to draw three potential paths for what might happen in the foreseeable future:

  1. The Disintegration of the Movement: The disintegration scenario of the Ennahda movement does not seem unlikely in light of the radical transformations that Tunisia is going through today. The policy pursued by President Kais Saied could lead to the eventual dissolution of the movement as a result of lawsuits pursuing the movement and its leaders, especially those related to foreign funding, the issue of the secret service, political assassinations in 2013, and the issue of networks transporting Tunisian youth to conflict hotspots[12].
  2. Division: A split-movement scenario does not seem unlikely. It may be possible if the movement’s leadership continues to refuse to listen to the internal opposition calling for a review of the mistakes of the previous phase, assuming responsibilities and renewing the party’s leadership structures, and for Ghannouchi to step down. Evidence of this is the unwillingness of many leaders of the group opposing Ghannouchi to remain in the movement, and the wave of resignations that the movement has seen during the past two years[13]. Therefore, the scenario of division remains a possibility if Ghannouchi and the group supporting him insist on continuing to lead the party.
  3. Ghannouchi’s Departure:  This scenario seems highly likely in light of the deep crisis that the movement is experiencing, of which Rached Ghannouchi is one of the major causes. The man's departure from the movement's leadership during the next conference would be the best settlement he could make with the opposition group. Such a step would prevent splits or defections. It seems that the opposition to Ghannouchi is taking advantage of this difficult circumstance to continue to pressure to achieve gains and positions within the Brotherhood movement.

But the ongoing conflict between the two parties to the conflict within the Ennahda movement could eventually lead to the sharing of positions during the next congress. This may also open the door for the return of figures who resigned from the movement and to reach a compromise that separates the movement presidency job - which cannot legally revert to Ghannouchi again - on the one hand, and the leadership position on the other. The latter will be something like a supreme leadership similar to Iran's supreme leader model, which may be granted to Ghannouchi[14] in an attempt to launch the "post-Ghannouchi" phase[15] without fanfare.

In any case, the Brotherhood movement during the next stage will remain mired in its internal problems, which will make it unable to act politically, whether Ghannouchi remains its president or not.

Conclusions

  • The Ennahda movement’s handling of Tunisian president’s actions from the first moment until today passed in three basic stages: Escalation at first, then tactical retreat due to the absence of a popular incubator, then total regression by calling to turn what happened into an “opportunity for reform” and “to be a stage of democratic transition.”
  • Over the course of ten years in power, the Ennahda movement lost the largest part of its popular base due to its failure to manage the state, the internal conflicts that split it, and the dominance of its president, Rached Ghannouchi, over its party organization. The gap has deepened between the movement's leaders who are more pragmatic and ambivalent in their stances and policies on the one hand, and its more conservative popular base on the other.
  • The conflict within the Tunisian Brotherhood movement can be divided into three streams, as follows: The executive leadership, a minority but influential group led by the movement's president, Rached Ghannouchi; the domestic opponents, a majority group at the party base in state and local offices and among youth, but a minority in executive institutions; finally, the former members, a group that has wide popularity among the movement’s bases and supporters, and includes a wide range of prominent leaders who preferred to resign over differences with Ghannouchi.
  • Today, Ennahda stands on the threshold of three possible future paths: Today, the Ennahda movement stands on the threshold of three possible future paths: either disintegration for judicial and legal reasons, or division due to a growing conflict between Ghannouchi and his party opponents, or Ghannouchi’s departure from the movement’s leadership. The latter is the most likely path due to the weak legal position of the man within the movement and the stance he took following the exceptional measures announced by President Saied.

Endnotes

[1] Ahmed Nadhif, Tunisia’s “State of Imminent Danger”: Trajectories and Implications, Emirates Policy Center, 28 July 2021. https://epc.ae/brief/tunisias-state-of-imminent-danger-trajectories-and-implications

[2] Tunisian president ousts government in move critics call a coup, Euro News, 26/07/2021. https://www.euronews.com/2021/07/25/us-tunisia-politics

[3] Tunisie: "Le parti Ennahda fait volte-face avec la volonté de préserver l’unité du pays", France24, 27/07/2021. https://www.france24.com/fr/afrique/20210727-tunisie-ennahdha-fait-volte-face-avec-la-volont%C3%A9-de-pr%C3%A9server-l-unit%C3%A9-du-pays

[4] Tunisia's Ennahda signals shift on political crisis, Reuters, August 5, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/tunisian-ennahda-leader-says-crisis-opportunity-reform-2021-08-04/

[5] Thierry Brésillon, Ennahda, «l’homme malade» de la politique tunisienne, Orient xxi, 13 FÉVRIER 2020. https://orientxxi.info/magazine/ennahda-l-homme-malade-de-la-politique-tunisienne,3601

[6] Intissar Kherigi, Ennahdha’s Separation of the Religious and the Political: A Historic Change or a Risky Maneuver?, Al Sharq Forum, 08 SEPTEMBER 2016. https://research.sharqforum.org/2016/09/08/ennahdhas-separation-of-the-religious-and-the-political-a-historic-change-or-a-risky-maneuver/

[7] Benoît Delmas, Tunisie: la citadelle islamiste ébranlée, Le Point, 04/08/2020.  https://www.lepoint.fr/afrique/tunisie-la-citadelle-islamiste-ebranlee-04-08-2020-2386610_3826.php

[8] Theo Blanc, Ennahdha after Ghannouchi, The Middle East Directions Programme Blog, November 3rd, 2020. https://blogs.eui.eu/medirections/ennahdha-after-ghannouchi/

[9] Article 31 of Ennahda’s revised statute, relating to the conditions for electing a party president, states that “no member may hold the party leadership for more than two consecutive terms.”

[10] Larbi Sadiki, Intra-Party Democracy in Tunisia’s Ennahda: Ghannouchi and the Pitfalls of “Charismatic” Leadership, Middle East Institute, November 25, 2020. https://www.mei.edu/publications/intra-party-democracy-tunisias-ennahda-ghannouchi-and-pitfalls-charismatic-leadership

[11] Ahmed Nazif, “An attempt to dissect the conflict within the Tunisian Ennahda Movement” - Al-Nahar Al-Arabi, January 20, 2021. (Arabic) https://www.annaharar.com/arabic/makalat/annahar-alarabi-authors/19012021114916230

[12] "After its involvement in corruption, demands for the dissolution of the Ennahda movement" - Sky News Arabia, July 31, 2021. (Arabic) https://bit.ly/37vMLAa

[13] Seghair Hidri, Widening divisions within Ennahda threaten party with split, The Arab Weekly, 16/11/2020. https://thearabweekly.com/widening-divisions-within-ennahda-threaten-party-split

[14] Ahmed Nazif, “An attempt to dissect the conflict within the Tunisian Ennahda Movement” - Al-Nahar Al-Arabi, January 20, 2021. (Arabic)

[15] Theo Blanc, Ennahdha after Ghannouchi, Op. cit.

 

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