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George Joffe

Ennahdha bids for the long term

Ennahdha is determined to learn from its spell in government [Marieau Palacio/Anadolu/Getty]

Date of publication: 20 March, 2015

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Comment: The Islamist party is looking to its long-term future within a democratic Tunisia, for which it believes it is crucial. Hence its move to bolster Nidaa Tounes, writes George Joffe.

Now that the elections are over and Tunisia has formed its first post-transition government, its political parties are glancing back over their experiences of the last four years as part of their plans for the future.

Interestingly enough, it seems to be Ennahda, now that it is in government once again, which is best-positioned to have learnt from experience. Nidaa Tounes, created by the country's new president, Baji Caid Essebsi, has already experienced an embarrassing split and Hama Hammami's Front Populaire, although not in government because of its suspicions of Ennahdha, would otherwise have been prepared to compromise over its attitudes towards the old regime which is abundantly represented in the party which the president had founded.

It has been replaced by businessman Slim Riahi's Union Patriotique Libre and Afek Tounes, itself also alleged to be linked to the old Rassemblement Constitutionelle Democratique (RCD).

Lessons learned

The movement has indeed learned from the last four years.

Ennahdha itself has internal tensions as well. Its more conservative, rural-based wing, particularly predominant in the south of the country, is uneasy about too great an engagement in democratic politics at the price of daw'a, of reviving the role of Islam inside Tunisia's social environment. Youth is often impatient over the compromises that democratic governance may involve and is susceptible to the lure of salafism.  And the party, as a whole, has had to come to terms with the fact that it came only second in the polls after Nidaa Tounes with 69 seats to the latter's 81 seats in the 217 seat National Assembly.

As a result, the movement has been holding a series of internal seminars in Hammamet, to learn from its experiences over the past four years, as preparatory meetings for its tenth party congress, to be held in Tunisia (for only the second time) later this year.

The party's leadership has already established some clear principles to guide its actions, not least because its president, seventy-three-year-old Rachid Ghannouchi, made it clear at the end of February that he is undecided as to whether he will stand again for election as party president at the congress.

Yet, even if he does stand down, it would be inconceivable that his influence on party policy would disappear, given his role in its creation and evolution over the past forty-five years.

And the movement has indeed learned from the last four years.  It has, for example, set its face resolutely against violent political extremism, of the kind practiced by Tunisia's salafi-jihadists, which it now considers should be eliminated. It is a significant change for, three years ago, the movement was accused of a ‘double language' after its leader suggested that extremists could be won over to the movement's moderation.

That became one of the secularists' most persuasive arguments against its future role in government after the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013.

It has also appreciated the value of compromise in political life; indeed, it argues that it learned this long ago from its observation of politics-in-action in Britain, during its long exile there after its repression at the start of the 1990s by the Ben Ali regime. Indeed, it demonstrated this in its willingness, however reluctantly, to engage in the national dialogue in late 2013 and to step down from power inside the Troika government in January 2014, letting a technocratic government under Mehdi Jomaa come to power instead.

Similarly the compromises it eventually made over the drafting of the constitution were a reflection of the lessons it had learned, even to the extent of abiding by majority opinion over the type of democratic system Tunisia was to create. Ennahdha, after all, had sought a parliamentary system but settled for a modified presidential system instead.

Nidaa Tounes is inherently unstable as a political formation.

But perhaps the most important lesson that the movement has learned is that the preservation of a democratic political system is the most important objective that it can have, more important, indeed, than the simple conquest of power through the ballot box. It is for this reason that it has been prepared to join a coalition government with Nidaa Tounes, even at the price of a limited ministerial presence. It argues that Nidaa Tounes is inherently unstable as a political formation but that, as the largest party in parliament, it has become essential to the Tunisian democratic experiment. Its decision to join the governing coalition, therefore, was as much in the interest of bolstering Nidaa Tounes as in gaining access to government again.

Nidaa Tounes splits

It is an irony that, within days of coming to this conclusion, the Ennahdha leadership should have been proved right. On March 9, a group of 64 of the party's members-of-parliament, 60 members of its executive committee and 24 party regional coordinators rejected the authority of the central organ of the party, the founders committee.

Their complaint was twofold; that the remnants of the RCD within the party were threatening to take it over and that the president's son, Hafidh Essebsi, was aiming to inherit the party leadership from his father who had been obliged by the new constitution to step down once he had been elected president.

It is not yet clear whether the split will become permanent but Ennahdha's prescience seems to have been well-justified, as has its claimed belief in the virtues of democratic governance and its commitment to the preservation of such a system. It is a great pity that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had not had similar experiences to draw upon.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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