Protests, Power Struggles, Conservative Nostalgia: Tunisia’s Troubling Times
Federica Zoja 3 February 2021

Ten years after the sudden destitution of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the chickens are coming home to roost in a Tunisia drained by what appears to be a never-ending economic crisis. Political reports mirror a situation that is now festering and in which conflict currently pervades.

The first direct and open clash is that between political Islam, represented by Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi, and secular conservatism; self-centred, strong and nostalgic for the ancien régime supported by Abir Moussi, president of the al-Dusturi al-Horri party (from the Arab words dustur, Constitution, and hurria, freedom), hence free Destourian following in the tradition of the homeland’s father Habib Bourguiba, though even more to the Right.

This is a battle between different visions of the world, but not only; it is also a clash between personalities that have become symbols.

Now almost 80-years-old, Speaker of the House Rached Ghannouchi, more than thirty years after the founding of Hizb Ennahda (the party of Rebirth), is the only real senior figure of the Islamic front. In Tunisia it is Ghannouchi who listens to the requests of both moderate Islamists – so-called “democratic Islamists” due to linguistic resemblance with “Christian democracy” in Europe – as well as those of the more extreme fringes.

This is all thanks to his past as a scholar of theology at the az-Zeytuna University in Tunis, as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood during his post-graduate years spent specialising in Cairo and as a follower of groups prepared to fight the dictatorship, in Syria.

During his 20-year-long exile in London between 1991 and 2011, a period during which he never stopped taking an interest in Tunisian politics and society, Ghannouchi repudiated the use of violence and terrorism as a means for liberating oppressed populations. As far as the Palestinian issue was concerned, over time he adopted increasingly softer tones, although recognition of the state of Israel was never added to Ennahda’s agenda.

His opponents, however, continued to believe that he had never in truth experienced sincere ideological change and therefore pointed a finger at his ambiguous attitude regarding the radical Islamist al-Karama coalition, and, outside parliament, regards to the vast Tunisian jihadist underworld.

However, his ability to accept a historic compromise with the Modernist Front in 2013 and his political and personal alliance with the (late) President Béji Caïd Essebsi in the long post-revolutionary years provide evidence in his favour.

Tunisian magistrates have for some time been investigating Ennahda’s compromising position and leadership regards to jihadism and in particular recruiting fighters for wars in Syria and Iraq serving the Caliphate. Judges are also assessing Ennahda’s leaders’ responsibilities in the political assassinations of Tunisian Left-wing representatives Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi (2013).

At a regional level, Ghannouchi’s relations and those of his leadership with Turkey and Qatar, nations with a Sunni majority as political and economic supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, were openly established. Qatar, in particular, is currently Tunisia’s top investor. Immediately after the revolution, Doha organised the creation of fund that is now worth a total of US$1 billion, so as to support economic and social revival in the small republic. Qatar’s efforts are often mentioned by Ghannouchi, who is a frequent guest in the sultanate as the president of the People’s Assembly (Tunisia’s one-house parliament).

On the other side of the ring there is a figure with far less experience, but no less symbolic. She is the 45-year-old lawyer Abir Moussi and has always been a supporter of Ben Ali. As soon as she had completed Law School, towards the end of the ‘90s, she joined the movement of Tunisian lawyers led by the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique, the regime’s only political party. For her, this became the launching pad for accessing the RCD’s leadership with increasingly important appointments as a member of commissions and internal agencies. Just before the regime imploded, Moussi presided over the Commission for Women.

In 2011, during all the street protests, the lawyer did not hesitate to openly oppose the president’s destitution, considering it a “European and Zionist plot”. She still stands by these beliefs today.

During the following three years she vanished from the political stage, in her opinion being ostracised in an “incomprehensible” manner due to her nostalgia for the dictatorship and her opposition to the pluralist democratic project. In 2016 the Tunisian Right’s ‘Pasionaria’ returned to the lime light assuming leadership of the Free Destourian Party. This movement explicitly inherited the legacy of the Rassemblement with a project to reinstate a form of strong presidentialism, not excessively toned-down by a parliament.

The Association of the Families of Victims and the Wounded in the 2011 Revolution recently pressed charges against Moussi for revisionism and for denying the atrocities committed by the Ben Ali regime following her statements on the subject made as the representative of the Destourian Party. But she did not retract at all and reiterated that “Tunisia was better” in the days of Ben Ali.

 

These are the summarised profiles of the two main players in this exhausting tug of war currently ongoing in parliament and in the media, while the streets and squares are filled with discontent, despair and anger. The year 2020, in fact, with its burden of the pandemic, struck this small Arab country sweeping away all hope of economic revival. And to think that a year ago, a period of relative stability and security had allowed one to envisage the best in terms of tourism and foreign investments.

The much yearned for political solidity too has remained a utopia: since the elections held in the autumn of 2019, President Kaïs Saïed has already asked three different premiers to form a government, all three without a strong majority in parliament.

On this subject, another ferocious duel is currently underway in Tunisia, the one between the President of the Republic and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, appointed in September 2020. This is the harshest institutional clash ever seen in post-revolutionary Tunisia. At the end of January, the premier’s new cabinet was approved by parliament, while opposed instead by the president (attention, also by Abir Moussi). Saïed formulated specific accusations stating that the premier had not, in primis, respected procedures established by the Constitution. Then other issues were added such as the fact that Mechichi had introduced to the cabinet a number of ministers – there are eleven new entries – of doubtful moral standing. These were very serious allegations, made worse by the fact that Mechichi had been chosen by the president precisely because of his commitment to legality and transparency.

Even worse, the prime minister had managed to have the cabinet reshuffle approved thanks to support from Ennahda’s moderate Islamists as well as al-Karama’s more conservative members with additional assistance from the Qalb Tounès populists and (more modest) support from Tahya Tounès’ liberals.

In the eyes of the presidency this was a manoeuvre in pure transformist style, seeing that the premier had been ‘selected’ specifically so as to put Islamist ambitions ‘in their place’.

What the President of the Republic is effectively challenging is the fact that Bardo (the seat of parliament) and the Kasbah (seat of government) are working independently, ignoring compulsory constitutional passages as well as his political instructions. The Presidency of the Tunisian Republic is now reduced to an honorary role, devoid of the capability and authoritativeness to influence political strategy.

In the meantime, the authorities are reacting with an iron fist to the people’s mobilisation in protesting against the economic crisis ongoing since the tenth anniversary of Ben Ali’s destitution (January 11, 2011). Thousands have been arrested while day by day the government increases the deployment of the army to different provinces, including Tunis. Part of public opinion is alarmed by this return to a police state, a possibility less remote than it was a year ago, while on the other hand people hope for stability and order.

And what about the international community? Perhaps it has already made its choice, at least as far as the so-called West is concerned.

It is sufficient to search the main Euro-American media to come across articles, interviews and photographs of Abir Moussi, who has embarked on a clever marketing operation abroad as far as she herself and her party are concerned.

The Destourians have understood the importance of words and consequently softened their political language that had so far been ‘unfit’ to be used  – due to its harshness  – in Brussels (as well as in Washington now that there is an Administration in the White House more sensitive to form). Supported by polls that now confirm a rise in her popularity, Moussi now proposes to form a multi-party government “open to all” secular parties, aimed at relaunching the economy and “freeing ourselves of political Islam”.

It is a programme that very probably already has supporters in European chancelleries but that could empty Tunisian banks of all the Gulf’s dollars.

 

Cover Photo: Tunisian police block protesters from accessing the parliament building – Tunis, January 26, 2021 (Fethi Belaid / AFP).


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