Secularists and Ennahda, how the Tunisian Laboratory is Changing
Federica Zoja 3 November 2018

A year ahead of legislative and presidential elections, Tunisian politics appears to be in a period of intense upheaval. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s position has been wavering for months. Meanwhile, the economic malaise of the population deepens by the day.


With political machinations going on behind the scenes, the Tunisian political stage looks vaguer and messier than ever. Nidaa Tounes (“Tunisia’s Call”, a liberal, secularist party) has been looking for stability, but has been held hostage of the clash between Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and the clan of party-founder and Tunisia’s president, Béji Caïd Essebsi.


The conflict exploded into public view in September, when the Assembly of People’s Representatives (Tunisia’s parliament) closed for the summer break. Suspended by his own party, Nidaa, due to differences with Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, executive director of party and the president’s son, the prime minister has nevertheless been strenuously resisting his opponents’ pressure. To date, Chahed has embodied the current within Nidaa that is adverse to the clientelistic trend observed within the party under the stewardship of the Essebsi family and its acolytes.


The strategy put in place by the Essebsi faction in the last two years is proving a hard test for this young North African democracy. Since January 2016—that is, when Hafedh undermined the previous leadership—many of the party’s MPs abandoned it, causing Nidaa to lose the parliamentary majority it established at the 2014 elections. Most of these MPs joined the National Coalition, openly supporting Youssef Chahed.


The Essebsi faction, however, has found a strong partner in the Free Patriotic Union (UPL, 15 MPs), whose former president, Slim Riahi, has agreed to become secretary general of Nidaa following its merger with UPL, which took place on October 15. Now, the ministerial reshuffle requested by Riahi could create big problems for Chahed.


In fact, the prime minister is closer to the conservative Islamists of Ennahda (“Rebirth”)—which, with its 69 seats in the Assembly, is the largest parliamentary party—than he is to his brethren within Nidaa. Indeed, President Essebsi founded Nidaa Tounes in 2012 as a secular, anti-Islamist party. Essebsi drew together technocrats, businessmen, and former soldiers (almost all compromised by association with the disgraced regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, toppled in the Arab Spring; few were truly new faces) to “protect” the country from the supposed Islamic threat.


Then, three years later, the alliance between President Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi, the intellectual leader of Ennahda, spared Tunisia from civil war, re-launching the democratic transition through a compromise coalition government.


But today, Chahed has highlighted the internal contradictions within Nidaa, which pit old-school secular statists against more economically liberal Islamists. Indeed, strategies that Chahed has pursued—such as opening the Tunisian market to foreign investors and reorganizing public finances—are appreciated more by Ennahda than by Nidaa. In conclusion, Chahed could run with the Islamists in 2019—once a backstage rumor, it is increasingly seen as a real possibility.


The president’s irritation with all this maneuvering is palpable. Essebsi announced his intention to run for the 2019 presidential elections in August; then, one week later, his spokesperson added: “Relations between Béji Caïd Essebsi and Ennahda have broken down and Ennahda is to blame”.
According to Arab media, President Essebsi is going to ask the Assembly for a vote of confidence in Prime Minister Chahed’s government in the coming days—most likely right after the new financial law is passed.


While personal rivalries and ambitions fully occupy the national debate, Tunisia remains the sole, genuine democratic laboratory in North Africa. In fact, the first anti-discrimination law enacted in a Muslim-majority country anywhere in Africa has been approved in Tunisia, which was also the first Middle Eastern country to abolish slavery, in 1846. The legislation, which includes a prohibition Tunisian deputies against racism, incitement to hatred and discrimination was enacted on October 9. Formally entitled Law 11/2018, it provides for between one month to one year of jail time and a fine up to 300 euros (one thousand Tunisian dinars) for anyone found guilty of racist language.


In the case of “hate speech”, “racist threats”, “dissemination”, “justification of racism”, “creation or participation in an organization that supports discrimination in a clear and repetitive way” and also funding of racist organizations, the jail time extends to a minimum of one year to a maximum of three years, and up to a 1000 euro fine.


Mohammed Ennaceur, president of the Assembly (and co-founder and former leader of Nidaa), did not hide his satisfaction at the passing of the legislation, calling it “revolutionary”. This new anti-discrimination regime elevates Tunisia to the same level of human rights protection as emerging democracies that adopted similar measures decades ago, such as South Africa and Brazil.


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