The Struggle Between Kais Saied and Ennahda Movement in Tunisia: Causes and Likely Trajectories

Ahmed Nadhif | 01 May 2021

The differences that began more than a year ago between Tunisian President Kais Saied and the Islamic Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement – which has the parliamentary majority – escalated, to turn into an open struggle between the two sides and a media clash with statements, in the light of a multidimensional crisis that the country is going through at all political and economic levels, which was deepened by the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

This paper seeks to analyse the nature of this struggle between the two sides by monitoring its indicators, revealing its causes and roots, and trying to anticipate the possible paths for its development in the future.

Struggle indicators

During the second round of the Tunisian presidential elections, in the fall of 2019, the Ennahda Movement strongly supported second-round candidate Kais Saied in the face of its current ally, namely the businessman accused of corruption Nabil Karoui. However, the picture has been radically reversed after the rise of President Saied to the Carthage Palace. Since his early days in power, signs of disagreement between the two sides began to rise to the surface to take a clashing turn for months. These indicators can be outlined as follows:

- Since the beginning of 2020, a dispute has erupted between President Saied and the head of the Ennahda Movement Rached Ghannouchi over Ghannouchi’s powers as Speaker of Parliament. Ghannouchi issued statements related to Tunisia's positions on foreign issues, which are among the core duties of the President of the Republic according to the Tunisian Constitution, especially the positions expressed by Ghannouchi regarding the conflict in Libya at the time, even as he sought to use his position in Parliament to support the Islamists in Tripoli. Saied resolved the dispute by declaring in an official letter to Ghannouchi that "Tunisia has only one president at home and abroad".[1]

- On 4 April 2021, the Tunisian President returned the Constitutional Court Law to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP), days after Parliament had made amendments to the law, including reducing the majority required to elect the Court’s members from 145 to 131 Members of Parliament (MPs). Those amendments were in the interest of the Ennahda Movement and the ruling parliamentary coalition. Saied sensed that the purpose of accelerating the concentration of the Constitutional Court is to try to remove him from his position, given that the Constitutional Court is the only judicial body capable of settling disputes between the authorities, and has the exclusive power to remove the President from his position in accordance with Article 88 of the Tunisian Constitution.[2]

- On 9 April 2021, the Tunisian President went to Egypt for a three-day official visit, which sparked widespread controversy inside Tunisia and was confronted by the Ennahda Movement through its media network with a torrent of attacks and denunciations, which was attributable to the historical enmity between the Egyptian political regime and the Muslim Brotherhood group, the Ennahda Movement being one of its external extensions.

- On 12 April 2021, on the eve of the month of Ramadan, the Tunisian President chose the Zaytuna (also Zitouna) Mosque, with its religious and historical symbolism, to launch a violent attack against the political Islam stream. He said in a speech from the Mosque’s courtyard: “God addressed Muslims and believers and not Islamists; the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) was a Muslim and not an Islamist. We are Muslims, praise be to God for the blessing of Islam, and we are not Islamists. This is the difference and this is the major manoeuvre that is intended to divide the society. The issue was never an issue of Islam versus non-Islam”.[3]

- On 18 April 2021, the Tunisian President announced, in a speech marking the anniversary of the establishment of the Internal Security Forces, which was attended by the Speaker of Parliament and President of the Ennahda Movement Rached Ghannouchi, that his powers as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces also include the internal security forces and not just the army. Saied implicitly criticised the accumulation in the courts of corruption cases that include political leaders without judgments being issued. He called for the law to be enforced on everyone without exception, be it money, external connections, marriage, or lineage, in a clear reference to the corruption case involving Ghannouchi's son-in-law, namely former Foreign Minister Rafik Abdel Salam, whose judgement has been pending since 2012.[4]

- On 20 April 2021, the Ennahda Movement issued a statement accusing President Kais Saied of "threatening democracy and of authoritarianism", calling on him to "stop all efforts to disrupt and dismantle the wheels of the state". It also considered his announcement of the leadership of the Internal Security Forces as a "trampling of the Constitution and the laws of the country, and a trespass on the political system and the powers of the Prime Minister".[5]

Causes

Despite the friendly relationship that President Kais Saied had with the Ennahda Movement before he came to power, and the electoral support that Ennahda announced in favour of Saied during the second round of the presidential elections, all this was reversed in the wake of Saied’s accession to power. The current struggle could be attributed to the following three main causes:

1. The hegemonic tendency that characterises the Ennahda Movement, given that the Movement has resorted, since its return to political activity in 2011, to the tactic of not ruling alone and seeking to form alliances with parties and presidents in order to use them to consolidate the foundations of its rule. Since the beginning of his rule, Kais Saied seems to have sensed this tendency by the Ennahda Movement to take control of the state by adopting the same mechanisms that it resorted to during the past ten years with the two presidents Moncef Marzouki and Beji Caid Essebsi, which are based on consensus, bargain, and the sharing of power and its benefits. The Movement has been using its parliamentary majority to bully the presidency over the past years. Therefore, President Saeid has tended to use his powers relying on the Constitution and on a popular base that is still strong according to most opinion polls.[6]

2. Ennahdha Movement’s inaccurate assessment of President Saied’s orientations. The President seems to have conservative tendencies, so the Movement thought that it would be in a more favourable position than it was during the rule of Beji Caid Essebsi. However, Kais Saied’s conservatism does not have political extensions, and it became clear that he is not remotely associated with the political Islam current, both in terms of his rhetoric and his political behaviour, which scattered many of the Islamic Movement’s cards.

3. The conflict of political references, given that Saied belongs to a political background that categorically rejects the political life that is based on partisan action and indirect representative democracy. He seeks to change the system of government towards a horizontal democracy based on local and regional representation, leading to parliamentary representation. He also seems to seek to consolidate the limited powers of the President of the Republic according to the 2014 Constitution. On the other hand, the Ennahda Movement wants to preserve the form of the current system, which was set by the Movement itself when it had the majority in the Constituent Assembly (2011-2014), which gives it a wide margin for political manoeuvre, and enables it to remain in power.

Potential pathways

While it is difficult to predict the possible paths for the development of the struggle between the Ennahda Movement and President Kais Saied, these paths can be grouped within four main scenarios:

First scenario: the activation of the national dialogue initiative that was put forward by the Tunisian General Labour Union at the beginning of 2021, and which was accepted by President Saied and the rest of the political parties to search for radical solutions to the dispute over powers and resolve the issue of the Premiership, even as the President continues to refuse to approve the ministerial reshuffle made by Hichem Mechichi with the support of the Ennahda Movement on 16 January 2021. While this scenario seems remote in the light of the escalation of the struggle, it remains plausible, especially that a similar initiative had settled the differences between the Ennahda Movement and the opposition in 2013, following the assassination of MP Mohamed Brahmi.

Second scenario: a bilateral settlement is reached between the Ennahda Movement and President Kais Saied whereby Ennahda would abandon the government of Hichem Mechichi, and President Kais Saied would have the right to choose again the most capable figure to head the government, as stipulated in Article 98 of the Tunisian Constitution. A wing within the Ennahda Movement seems to be seeking to proceed along this scenario, given that the leading figure in the Movement Al-Ajami al-Wurimi revealed that the Movement is conducting consultations with other political actors in order to end the existing dispute. The leading figure in the Ennahda Movement Imad al-Hamami called for making concessions and resorting to the language of reason and dialogue, indicating that he supports the Movement’s abandonment of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.[7]

Third scenario: the two sides head towards escalatory steps in which the President could use his constitutional powers to refuse to sign laws. He could also instruct the military judiciary to take up sensitive judicial files related to the Ennahda Movement, such as the Secret Apparatus case, which has stalled in the civilian judiciary for nearly three years, and the issue of foreign funding and money-laundering which was raised against the Movement by former Anti-Corruption Minister Mohamed Abbou in September 2020. On the other hand, Ennahda continues to possesses many power cards, such as the parliamentary majority, its control over the government, and a strong presence in the street.

Fourth scenario: the situation remains as it is. This scenario appears to be the most catastrophic for the country in the light of the stifling economic crisis whose consequences have been deepened by the health pandemic and the intensity of the third wave of the epidemic.

Both the first and second scenarios appear to be the most realistic and plausible, given the impossibility of resolving the conflict in favour of one party or the other. Neither the Ennahda Movement is presently capable of taking full control of the state, nor is President Kais Saied capable of dislodging Ennahda in the light of its possession of parliamentary majority. It appears that the tendency to head towards a settlement through an inclusive national dialogue may be a possible step out of the state of inertia that paralyses the country, and in a face-saving way for both sides. Most importantly, it could also lead to early legislative elections that would radically change the existing political scene, especially in the light of the strong rise of the Free Destourian (Constitutional) Party led by Abeer Moussa, and President Kais Saied's persisting popularity according to opinion polls, as opposed to a clear decline for the Ennahda Movement and its allies.

Conclusion

The struggle between the Islamic Ennahda Movement and the Tunisian President Kais Saied has escalated in an unprecedented manner. The power disputes between President Saied and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi have deepened. Saied has also refused to sign the Law of the Constitutional Court which Ennahda tries to consolidate as a weapon against the President or even go along the path of removing him from power. Saied’s declaration of himself as commander of the civil armed forces only intensified the struggle between the two sides, even as the Ennahda Movement described this step as “authoritarian”.

The roots of the struggle are attributable to the hegemonic tendency with which the Ennahda Movement has conducted the political affairs for more than ten years, only to be faced with a President from outside the traditional political class who does not accept parity or consensual solutions, and who seeks to change the system of government that the Movement has established and seeks to sustain in order to preserve its political interests.

While it is difficult to anticipate the possible paths for the development of the struggle between the two sides, it is possible to limit those paths to the possibility of reaching a settlement, either through the national dialogue mechanism supported by the strong central trade union, a bilateral settlement, or escalation through the use by each side of its constitutional powers. Nevertheless, the option of a settlement or heading towards a national dialogue that leads to early elections seems to be the most realistic in the light of the severe economic, political and health crises the country is experiencing.

References

[1] Kais Saies, Tunisia has only one president who represents at home and abroad, Sky News Arabia, 24 May 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3aKLIxO

[2] Article 88 of the Tunisian constitution stipulates that “The Assembly of the Representatives of the People may, through the initiative of a majority of its members, present a motion to bring to an end the President of the Republic’s term for a grave violation of the Constitution. Such a motion must be approved by two-thirds of the members”.

[3] The remarks of the President of the Republic from the Zaytuna Mosque. Availabe at: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=279481080514244 

[4] “The Tunisian President continues his attack on the government and the Ennahda Movement”, Sky News Arabia, 20 April 2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3ve676N  

[5] “The Ennahda Movement accuses the Tunisian President of ‘authoritarianism’”, Erem News, 20 April 2021. Available at: https://www.eremnews.com/news/maghreb-news/2319043

[6] Ahmed Nadhif, “Future Prospects of Tunisia’s Political Crisis”, Emirates Policy Center, 13 February 2021. Available at: https://epc.ae/ar/topic/future-prospects-of-tunisias-political-crisis

[7] “The Ennahda Movement plans a barter to bypass the essence of the crisis in Tunisia”, Al-Arab International, 23 April 2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3xgmC4a

 

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