Ennahda or the cost of recognition

The political earthquake that rocked Tunisia on 25 July 2021 and its following 25 September aftershock – which resulted in a loss of power and dissent over contested leadership – had closed a cycle for Ennahda and ushered in a moment of existential uncertainty. It became unclear if the organization could reinvent itself to regain the role it had played since 2011. In one form or another, it was also unclear if the party still had something to offer Tunisians. This is essentially the recurring uncertainty surrounding the relevance of political Islam as a party and its potential to bring about specific solutions to contemporary problems created in the wake of the turmoil of the past few weeks. In this context, this paper will provide a retrospective glance at  Ennahda’s trajectory since 2011.

Security forces take security measures around parliament building as supporters of Ennahda Movement stage protest against suspending parliament, assuming executive powers by Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia on July 26, 2021. ©Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency

In the middle of the night on 25 July, 2021 Rached Ghannouchi stood in front of the gates of the Bardo Palace as the Tunisian military prevented him from entering the Assembly, for which he is the Speaker. Shortly after, Kais Saied announced the freezing of Parliament. This was a striking illustration of Ennahda’s failed ambition of transforming into a pivotal party in the Tunisian political scene. After all, the Islamist movement had been a pariah for so long.

The mass resignation of more than a hundred members of the movement on 25 September — including two historic figures (Abdelatif Mekki and Samir Dilou) – was in open defiance against Rached Ghannouchi. This meant that binding the party as a legitimate actor in national public life to the fate of Rached Ghannouchi was no longer possible. Ghannouchi was a leader of the party almost since the establishment of the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI) in the early 1980s, and this was the beginning of his renunciation. His election to the office of the Speaker of the Assembly in January 2020 was presented to the base as the culmination of this quest for integration, the symbol of their collective devotion after years of sacrifice, and the guarantee of their security.

Since he assumed this sensitive position, the leader of Ennahda had control over parliamentary action. This ensured coordination with a majority-backed government in which Ennahda was an essential component. Incidentally, it allowed him to control the parliamentary bloc and granted him influence over the party. Rached Ghannouchi, who was sentenced to death by Habib Bourguiba in 1987 shortly before his destitution (he was later pardoned by Ben Ali ) became one of the transition’s key players, and was celebrated internationally.

The political earthquake that rocked Tunisia on 25 July 2021 and its following 25 September aftershock – which resulted in a loss of power and dissent over contested leadership – had closed a cycle for Ennahda and ushered in a moment of existential uncertainty. It became unclear if the organization could reinvent itself to regain the role it had played since 2011.

In one form or another, it was also unclear if the party still had something to offer Tunisians. This is essentially the recurring uncertainty surrounding the relevance of political Islam as a party and its potential to bring about specific solutions to contemporary problems created in the wake of the turmoil of the past few weeks. This forward-looking reckoning calls for a retrospective glance at  Ennahda’s trajectory since 2011.

Ennahda: A Traumatized Community

In Ennahda’s trajectory, one constant is evident. As a group, Ennahda is a traumatized community, constantly worried about its existence. The threat of being ousted from power and the consequences that this could pose for the party and its partisans has proven to be traumatic. The extermination attempts that its partisans and their families had been exposed to were frightening indeed. Many of these people had been exiled, tortured, detained, or harassed for being affiliated with an Islamist political movement that challenged the ruling elite. This trauma cast a shadow that has since shaped the party’s evolution. These were individuals who were condemned de facto as social pariahs and had experienced repeated traumas since 1991 – up until the revolution. This trauma had shaped the party’s unity as a protective frame. It made participation in power a strategic necessity. Lastly, it granted Rached Ghannouchi – the mediator with external forces – a last resort argument to impose choices and compromises on the party.

From Hegemony to Transaction

After the triumphant welcome of Rached Ghannouchi upon his return to Tunisia on 30 January 2011, Ennahda felt caught up in a double dynamic. This dynamic became even more evident after the electoral victory on the following 23 October, in which the party secured a majority of 89 seats out of 217 in Parliament. The party was caught up between two junctions: nationally, the junction between society’s Islamic cultural hegemony and the political majority, as well as internationally, in the middle of the so-called “Arab Spring.” The party, which had been repeatedly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, had scored electoral wins following in the footsteps of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and with the support of Qatar.

However, this hegemony quickly found its limits, especially among the elites and the senior administration. Ennahda now had to settle for symbolic Islamic indicators in the Constitution. Tensions climaxed in the summer of 2013 when the movement realized that the only way to protect itself was by negotiating with former elites  of the Destourian Party which rallied behind Beji Caid Essebsi in Nidaa Tounes. The meeting held in Paris in August 2013 between the two leaders launched a period of “pact-based transition.”

The 2014 elections, won by Nidaa Tounes, cemented this “consensus.” Ennahda sided with the majority, and despite a symbolic presence in government, it consolidated its position on the political landscape and within the State. This alliance protected both the civil peace and the party during the three violent attacks of 2015, which were claimed by ISIS.

The 2016 political assembly was the culmination of this strategy when Beji Caid Essebsi personally saluted Ennahda's role in stabilizing the State. Rached Ghannouchi hailed the Parliament as Ennahda's “full reconciliation” with the State. The Parliament ratified the “specialization” of the party in political activity and left sermon and “cultural” action to an autonomous associative movement. The assembly concluded with the intention of reforming the organization to adapt to its vocation as a major party in government. This would mean simplifying the membership process to attract a new elite, revising internal structures to encourage debate, and launching a systematic overhaul concerning mainly socio-economic issues. Nevertheless, Rached Ghannouchi refused to be blackmailed into resigning. He especially refused to resign when the majority of congress agreed – following the motions submitted by Abdellatif Mekki and Adbelhamid Jelassi – to discuss the possibility of entrusting the appointment of a part of the executive office which he wanted to control.

From Transaction to Severed Ties

During the 2014-2019 legislature, Ennahda still felt comfortable in its ambition for its partner, Nidaa Tounes, to be torn apart between rival clans. However, Béji Caïd Essebsi intended to keep control of this alliance amid tensions between the two main forces in the country. In June 2016, he imposed Youssef Chahed, from Nidaa Tounes, as head of the government, and attempted to dilute Ennahda in a “national unity government” sealed by the Carthage Agreement.

Some worried parliamentarians asked: “To what extent will Rached Ghannouchi keep forcing us to follow Beji Caid Essebsi?” These MPs had just been forced to pass a vote of no confidence on Habib Essid’s government, at a time when the path to reforms finally seemed to be clear.

Nevertheless, far from resolving the internal crisis in Nidaa Tounes, the appointment of Youssef Chahed only aggravated tensions further. The new head of government severed ties with his mentor and launched the attack against his son, Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, leader of Nidaa Tounes. While the majority was entangled in its quarrels, governmental action reached a deadlock and the political class became more and more disgruntled.

Bolstered by its strong base and organization, Ennahda was relatively spared during the municipal elections of May 2018, shunned by the voters (65% abstention rate), coming in first behind independent tickets, with 30% of the votes. In the Assembly, it formed the majority bloc following successive divisions within Nidaa Tounes. However, the party’s leadership failed to see how this dominance was increasingly restricted to institutions, in utter disconnect from the growing defiance of the public.

Instead of investing his political capital in a reform plan, such as completing the implementation of the Constitution or resolving the country’s structural problems, Rached Ghannouchi thought it would better to invest in Youssef Chahed’s ambition, as part of an alliance with Béji Caïd Essebsi. In September 2018, all ties with the President of the Republic had been severed.

The “Consensus” at the Service of the Status Quo

The “unsinkable” majority of 155 out of 217 that Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda had secured in the 2014 elections had hardly implemented any significant reform. Neither of the two allies had any alternative vision to the one imposed by the donors. They even failed to succeed in implementing that vision. Instead of transcending interests in a project that would transform the country, the “consensus” had been constantly marred by tensions and maneuvers by each of the partners seeking primarily to maximize their gains and divert attention from their wrongdoings.

Ennahda’s first and foremost goal was to secure its position among national institutions, all while the geopolitical environment became more and more hostile for the Muslim Brotherhood. Simultaneously, a scandal awakened demons of the past. A stack of questionable documents hidden at the Ministry of Interior were discovered after it was seized from the home of a partisan of Ennahda. The documents strongly suggested the existence of a parallel intelligence service –which a group of lawyers was trying to link to the assassinations by Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013. It reignited the old argument that there was a conspiracy against the State. The old regime had utilized this sort of propaganda to justify its repression of the Islamist movement.

Transitional justice paid the price for the “transactional” nature of the consensus. While the Truth and Dignity Commission served as an outlet for the trauma of Islamist activists, the party got closer to former senior officials of the security apparatus to ensure that legal proceedings would not go against political deals.

Caught in an alliance that lacked trust and under the constant threat of compromising “exposés,” Ennahda would have never had the space to offer an original vision without succeeding in becoming a party like the others.

On the eve of the 2019 elections, the “consensus” only had a meager record to show. Certainly, it helped pacify the political scene, but it ultimately favored the status quo and undermined the credibility of the political class. Economic problems worsened, social divisions still ran deep, and corruption, as well as favoritism seeped deeper into the operations of the State – which had essentially become ineffective.

Meanwhile, the party took the time to refocus on its internal issues. Rached Ghannouchi intended to reap the benefits of party integration. Further contested, he postponed the reforms decided at the 2016 congress. Also, during the summer of 2019, he ignored the partisans’ votes in order to impose his picks in legislative elections. Encouraged by his close inner circle, he even seemed to be considering  running for presidential elections in 2019 or 2024.

The Missed Opportunity of 2019

Ennahda was caught in power struggles and increasingly evident internal conflicts. Public opinion held it partly responsible for the failures of Tunisia’s democratic transition, without a natural ally in the 2019 elections. Certainly, the party secured a relative majority in the Assembly, with only a 19.7% share of the votes and 54 seats (instead of 69 in 2014). Nevertheless, the standout event of this round was the election of Kais Saied as President of the Republic with 72.8% of the votes (or 2.7 million). The message conveyed by these polls was a clear rejection of “consensus” and an expectation of renewal. However, the party ignored the hit and focused on the narrow parliamentary dimension of the election. As the top force in the Assembly, it was entitled to appoint the Prime Minister. The issue was managed based on the internal balance of power in the party.

Rached Ghannouchi, on the one hand, secured his election to the office of Speaker of the Assembly, relying on a new version of the transactional “consensus” – 54 seats of Ennahda, plus 21 seats of the Dignity coalition for the Islamist component. As for the “secularist” component, he relied on 38 seats of Qalb Tounes, the party of Nabil Karoui that Ennahda described as a “party of corruption” during the electoral campaign before later retracting its statements.

The party, on the other hand, was entitled to designate the candidate for the Kasbah. The choice fell on Habib Jemli; a figure it thought it could control, but had neither enough influence nor independence to muster a majority. He failed to win the nomination on 12 January 2020 and Ennahda lost the initiative to Kais Saied who chose Elyes Fakhfakh.

Although the party finally managed to overthrow Elyes Fakhfakh’s government in July 2020 and reactivate the “consensus” in favor of Hichem Mechichi, it failed to reignite a reform dynamic and address tensions within its own ranks. On the contrary, the perspective of the congress – which the COVID-19 health crisis conveniently allowed for delays – dramatized the divisions around the succession of Rached Ghannouchi.

In September 2020, around 100 party officials penned an open letter asking him to refrain from modifying the statutes in order to run for the chairmanship of the movement again. The “sheikh” put them sharply on the back foot. Meanwhile, in the Assembly, the bloc of the Free Destourien Party – which was a self-proclaimed heir to the old guard’s Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) – led a serious parliamentary campaign against the Speaker of the Assembly.

When a nationwide social uprising commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Revolution in its own way, Ennahda backed the government's repressive response, thus culminating a decade of integration into power.

In a buildup of calamities – including internal crisis, social unrest, halting of reforms, a financial crisis, health crisis, and the discrediting of political class, etc. – the popular protests of 25 July erupted. The coup against Kais Saied was carried out to sanction the overall failure of the transition, which was also tightly linked to the failed trajectory of Ennahda.

The Edges of a Malaise

While a new political phase has begun and a new institutional restructuring looms with unclear contours, the party still needs to reconsider its strategy, alliances, identity, and even its relevance at this time.

Its eroding electoral base has been a fundamental trend – between the election of the Constituent Assembly in 2011 and that of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives in 2019, Ennahda had lost one million voters (from 1.5 million to 571,000) and its share shrunk from 37% to less than 20% of the votes. Numerous polls published since then indicate that the downward curve is still not reversed. The latest poll, dated 3 November, credits the party with 14% of voting intentions.

Even if a base of around 400,000 votes would allow Ennahda to still exist for some time, its shrinking electoral base is primarily made up of those living in rural areas, voters over 45 years of age, and less educated members of society. The party fails to attract more dynamic supporters, such as young people involved in social movements or frameworks.

Ennahda has found itself trapped in a series of paradoxes, laying the foundations of its existential malaise. While it has failed to completely shed its image of outlaw within Tunisian politics, 10 years of participation in power have led the party to become affiliated with the “establishment.” Some voters who supported the party back in 2011 have shifted away because the movement infused religion too deeply into politics, resulting in what people referred to as “cheap” demagogy. Meanwhile, others accused the party of abandoning its Islamist goals. Too Islamic for some, not Islamic enough for others – the party now struggles to prove that its religious identity really does set it apart from ordinary political parties, while continuing to suffer from its sour identification with “political Islam.”

The party’s attributes which were once seen as strengths – such as its seniority, the tactical prowess of its leaders, its discipline, and Islamic affiliation – have all now become burdens. The stigmas of an obscurantist, foreign, or even “terrorist” party that had been used to describe the movement since the 1980s among administrative and intellectual elite seems to have stuck to it.

Despite the international recognition of his role in leading the transition, Rached Ghannouchi’s personality remained the embodiment of this repulsive figure for a large part of the Tunisian public. The enshrinement of unity and obedience to the authority’s decisions reinforced the perception of Ennahda as a closed group. As for the religious reference that branded the identity of the movement, it became more of a source of uncertainty than of systematic inspiration.

A Religious Reference Devoid of Meaning

Upon its foundation in 1981, the Islamic Tendency Movement (which became Ennahda in 1989) emerged in response to the authoritarian modernization “from above.” Ennahda was founded as a “counter-movement” or alternative society that projected itself into the utopia of an Islamic republic, a mirror-image antagonist of the Destourien party and its secular politics. Today, it is a vision as unattainable as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was the prelude to the “classless society” of the communist project. Now, however, the State has abandoned its aspiration as an authoritarian institution of society, and the Islamization of the Republic has become nothing but mere theory. The Islamic utopia no longer has an operational function, although it is still present in the minds of former partisans. The movement has been “normalized” throughout its course of successive changes since the 2000s and its desire to be part of the democratic opposition to the Ben Ali regime, then the democratic transition since 2011.

To express its religious reference like the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (JDP), Ennahda developed its own  “Islamic jurisprudence” (fiqh al maqasid) – a notion revived by Tahar Ben Achour (1879-1973), who was a major theologian of Tunisian reformism. This jurisprudence was divided into five objectives: the preservation of religion, life, reason, material goods, and the specie to which the doctrinal texts of Ennahda add social justice and environment. But these very general objectives can be embedded in a wide range of economic and political orientations and do not provide any analytical grid that can be immediately translated into public action. If Quranic verses or prophetic hadiths (alleged certified sayings and traditions of the Prophet Mohammed) are sometimes invoked for internal use in support of a decision, they, however, subsequently represent more of a doctrinal justification than a binding norm.

The argument of identity still serves as fuel for electoral strategies and a source of legitimacy for established elites. However, its mobilizing value wanes even more and vanishes as soon as elections end to later authorize alliances that were demonized throughout the campaign.

The Unanticipated Social Issue

In other words, religious reference still determines the identity of the partisan group. However, what it has gained in plasticity, to the detriment of a strictly normative conception of Islam, no longer allows Ennahda to provide a singular path, namely, to think of the social antagonisms and mechanisms of the economy beyond the core values ​​of solidarity and moralization. It does not bring any resolution to the problems facing Tunisia’s economic issues:

  • How can the country reduce its financial dependence?
  • How can Tunisia be a more proactive participant in international trade?
  • How the government and private sector work together to evenly distribute economic opportunities?
  • How can the country enhance local production or industries to achieve economic sovereignty?
  • Which agricultural model would best respond to socio-ecological challenges?
  • How can the State’s strategic role and capacity be restored to provide essential services? Etc.

Its initial cultural vocation had placed Ennahda among the losers to “modernization,” namely rural areas, peri-urban areas, and the south of the country. This was a possible foundation for an interpretation of social and territorial imbalances which would have made it possible to rethink the State, the economic model, and the purpose of the territories. At the party’s annual conference in June 2019, the economic issue was discussed mainly from the angle of “internal colonialism” (in the spirit of Sghaier Salhi’s work). However, discussions were discontinued. On the contrary, the need for international acceptance prompted Ennahda to embrace the neoliberal orthodoxy of the recommendations made by its investors.

After 2011, it became clear that the party did not intend to unearth the roots of the system with which it always sought to defy and eventually topple. The collusion between the world of money, politics, as well as institutional, judicial and media-related spheres became clear. The impunity and lack of transparency of security forces, as well as economic extraversion producing territorial and social divisions all meant nothing. It turned out that Ennahda was no longer a “systemic” opposition.

Defending a Democratic Model in Crisis

The opposition to what it called a “coup d’état” on 25 July, granted Ennahda (and its new dissidents) the opportunity to present itself as a defender of parliamentary democracy; without however, addressing the weaknesses that the coup revealed and which paved the way for Kais Saied’s scheme. Its inability to perceive and translate popular expectations has left the majority of the population without any political representation.

The strength and legitimacy of a representative democracy lies in the quality of its representatives. However, Tunisia in 2011 inherited a partisan structure shared between small groups limited barely tolerated by the system, or forced underground or into exile, and on the other hand, a bi-party society with one main party (DCR) in power dominating all levels of society as a tool of control and intermediation with the administration. There was also the “counter-society” built up around Ennahda, surprisingly resilient despite the repression it faced in the 1980s and two decades of clandestine action since 1991.

Most of small political groups had already been wiped out after 2011. While the DCR was dissolved in March 2011, successive figures are still trying to modernize the Destourian family –Nidaa Tounes, Tahya Tounes, Qalb Tounes – into the Free Destourian Party (PDL). Meanwhile, other parties joined the competition, either over divisive matters, such as the war on corruption, economic liberalization, or territorial anchoring in the case of the Al Karama coalition in the South. Nevertheless, no party offers an organized reflection of the popular mobilization, identifiable interests, or a sensible ideology capable of politicizing a sufficiently large and recent enough set of issues to develop a national vision or project.

Ennahda, the last survivor of the pre-2011 era, is caught up in turn by the question of its representativeness and the relevance of its political identity.

While the “consensus” prevented the antagonizing of the political field, favored “the organized oblivion of the social issue” and the reproduction of an “rentier economy” for the benefit of an oligarchy, the elections were marred by shameless clientelism, flagrant media biases, and illegal funding duly established by the Court on Accounts – all of these with complete impunity.

Under these conditions, can parties act as true representatives or apparatuses meant to attract the voices that separate between voters and institutions? Is voting really a form of participation and delegation of power, or rather a deprivation of sovereign power?

The founding fiction of a representative democracy which enables the materialization of the overall will of parliamentary majorities is impossible when popular sovereignty is so undermined by formality. The political foundation for the democratic transition has been steadily shrinking since 2011, and political parties are responsible for this erosion. The call for international pressure that Ennahda launched among other Tunisian political players to return to democratic institutions is highly unlikely to restore its representative capacity.

A Conservative Party for What Purpose?

All political parties in Tunisia were left heavily weakened by the sequence of the democratic transition. The “big bang” of 25 July left them uncertain of their role in the next institutional configuration that is likely to emerge in the upcoming months. How can they re-establish representation? Around which issues should a political offer be structured?

Since the 2019 elections, sovereignty – namely economic sovereignty – has clearer boundaries: to abide by economic and political directions imposed by investors and trade partners who associate asymmetric integration in international trade under financial dependency with a liberal democracy model, or to attempt to build a separate path to regain financial independence. The country also needs to base economic choices on internal needs defined by institutions that guarantee a better representation of citizens.

What would the function of a party that represents conservatives look like in such a political configuration? Would it resist the evolutions of a society characterized by dynamics of individualization and hybridization of references, that elude any attempt of the State to define them? Experience shows that re-politicizing the identity issue is an expensive strategy for the Ennahda party: it only serves to isolate and stigmatize the party. In a political structure determined by the issue of sovereignty – while lining up electorally with identity and cultural sovereignty – Ennahda finds itself financially linked to the political and economic extroversion of the Tunisian model, which actually contradicts the “symbolic decolonization” purpose that Islamist movements might have originally had.

With the Assembly scheduled for 2022 fast approaching, several officials who expect no change in internal matters are shunning their responsibilities and secretly distancing themselves from the movement. On the other hand, the members who resigned on 25 September are currently working on the formation of a new party identified as liberal-conservative on the economic level, while preserving the social function of the State. This represents a continuity of the path followed by Ennahda in the past few years. They are ill-perceived by a majority of the base for expressing their dissent in the middle of crises and breaking the unity taboo. However, their driving force remains limited at the moment. It will not be enough for the party to distinguish itself from Rached Ghannouchi’s image, create internal structures that are more democratic than the historic party’s structures, or defend the liberal democracy in the current situation in order to overcome the contradictions and limitations that the party has encountered throughout history.

The Losing Bet

Ennahda left its characteristics on the doorway of the political system where it wanted to be welcomed: its founding utopia, the most regulatory aspects of its religious reference, its first anti-imperialist and pan-Arabist impulses, and its extra-urban sociology. It has tied its fate to a representative regime where stability depends on catch-all electoral machines, capable of producing consensual majorities that support an economic orthodoxy organized by experts. But nevertheless, it is still largely overwhelmed by the ramifications of social and citizen exclusion, in Tunisia as in ancient democracies confronted with the emergence of “populist” illusions.

No one knows how the sequence of events initiated on 25 July will unfold; however, gambling on the return to the previous status quo, along with Ennahda’s dominance, is already a losing bet.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.