The Tunisian Chess Game
Federica Zoja 7 June 2019

On Sunday the 2nd of June, Prime minister Youssef Chahed was elected head of Tahya Tounès, a center formation in which all the discontented of Nidaa Tounès merged. Will this be enough to revive the modernist front in the upcoming elections?

The alliance between modernism and political Islam is wobbling in Tunisia, in a more confusing scenario than ever. The two electoral appointments in the autumn (the legislative vote on 6th of October, the presidential vote on 17th of November) risk setting the record for abstention. According to the Baromètre politique of Sigma Conseil published in April, only 32 percent of the sample taken into consideration, representative of those entitled to vote, would intend to go to the polls.

In the remaining 68 percent, abstention would be certain for more than two thirds, while doubt would characterize the remaining third. But if we consider young people, that is citizens between 18 and 24, the abstentionist intention concerns almost 80 percent of the sample.

However, the majority party, Ennahda (The Renaissance, moderate Islamist), contests this scenario, arguing that Sigma’s patron, Hassen Zargouni, would attempt to manipulate public opinion. Meanwhile, the tribulations of the liberal front contribute to the general climate of distrust in politics. The former majority party Nidaa Tounès (Haraka Nidaa Tounès, the Tunisia appeal movement) is not only divided but also emptied of energy.


The birth of Tahya Tounès


The rupture between Prime minister Youssef Chahed and the clan of President Béji Caïd Essebsi, who has been accused by many of having created a party for the exclusive protection of his interests, has led to the birth of another liberal party, Tahya Tounès (Go Tunisia), at the end of January. At the founding congress in mid-April, Chahed himself played a leading role, although he was still a member of Nidaa (rehabilitated after a “freeze” due to disagreements with Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, son of the president and leader of Nidaa).

But it is on Sunday the 2nd of June that the National Council of the party, chaired by Kamel Morjane (leading exponent of the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali), chose Youssef Chahed as president of Tahya Tounès.

The premier does not intend to resign from his government post. For the moment, he has not clarified whether he will run for the elections or not, and, if so, for which ones. To this day, Tahya is the second political bloc in the Tunisian Parliament, having attracted all the exiles from Nidaa, of which it has the same centrist positioning. As for the conservative rivals, the Islamists of Ennahda, despite having a relative majority in Parliament they cannot sleep peacefully.

The break (political and personal) between the leader Rached Ghannouchi and the president of the Republic Essebsi, announced at the beginning of the year, suggests that a new government of liberal-Islamist compromise will be a difficult task. And alone, moderate Tunisian Islamists, although at 24 percent in voting intentions, will not be able to hold the helm.

Ghannouchi has supported the action of the prime minister so far, but if the latter is a candidate for the presidential elections, it is not certain that Ennahda would swupport him.

The Islamic front sails in troubled waters: it enjoys a territorial confirmation verified at the administrative polls of 2018, but it is not able to free itself from the Islamic imprint that has characterized it till now. Ghannouchi would like a new Ennahda, more conservative democratic and less Islamist, but is accused of populism.

The real thorn in the Islamist side, however, is that extreme fringe that has never been refused, indeed hatched within: for the two political murders Brahmi and Belaid of 2013, the Prosecutor’s Office of Tunis believes that it is precisely a cell of the Ennahda secret police that is responsible, trained by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The party leadership defends itself and also denies having orchestrated the departure of thousands of aspiring mujahidin towards the Siraq war theaters between 2011 and 2014. Of these, about a thousand would have already returned, with serious risks for security, stability and also socio-economic development of the country.

The risk of terrorism weighs heavily on Tunisian society, limited in its democratic growth by the state of emergency in force for almost four years. The fear of the opposition is that the Islamist-liberal power bloc will take advantage of the martial law to re-establish authoritarianism. To dispel this scenario and protest against the inability of the executive in the economy, anti-government demonstrations are multiplying. The stall of which the Tunisian political class is hostage also casts a shadow over the presidential vote.


New “players” rise for the presidency


None of the main parties of the Tunisian scenario expressed nominations. The owner of the private television station Nessma tv, Nabil Karoui, is an independent candidate. Escaped by Nidaa Tounès in 2016, Karoui started a social project called Khalil Tounès, in homage to his son who died in a car accident, distributing food and consumer goods in disadvantaged areas of the country.

Every single initiative has had wide coverage on his TV, a choice that has earned him a shower of criticism from the detractors. He has always defended himself by saying that he wants to give visibility to those layers of the population that do not have them, without political objectives.

His candidacy for the presidential vote is not surprising, therefore, also because Karoui has supported, even operationally, the electoral campaign of Béji Caid Essebsi in 2014, this time declaredly absent from the competition.

“Ending poverty” is the workhorse of the aspiring president, also a firm believer in the usefulness of a Maghreb Union. The Higher Authority for the Audiovisual sector had to argue about the ways in which Nessma TV, according to the prosecution, tries “to influence the organs of the State” and ordered the seizure of the equipment. The Tunisian Journalists’ Union, while criticizing the Authority’s decision, acknowledged in Nessma TV “serious violations”.

Hamadi Jebali, a former leader of the Ennahda movement, is also an independent candidate. Ghannouchi expressed his support for Jebali, provided that the Islamist party does not find an internal agreement for its own candidate president.

So, four months before the vote, everything is still in doubt in the complex Tunisian chess game, overshadowed by the Libyan and Algerian news on the agenda of the Western allies.


Follow us on Twitter, like our page on Facebook. And share our contents.

If you liked our analysis, stories, videos, dossier, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month).