The twilight of the Tunisian Islamists of Ennahda | International

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The trajectory of the historic Tunisian Islamist movement Ennahda is a metaphor for the evolution of Tunisia in the last decade, the most turbulent in its recent history. From the euphoria over the fall of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's regime in 2011, which led Ennahda to win the first free elections, to the slow withering of revolutionary hope that led to the self-coup of populist president Kais Said in 2021. If the Islamist party was the actor that reaped the greatest fruits of the revolution, it is also the one that has paid the greatest price for the end of the democratic transition: around thirty of its leaders are in prison, including its president, Rached Ghannouchi, and his two lieutenants, Ali Larayed and Nurredin Bhiri.

“We are concerned about the health of our leaders. They are very old and Tunisian prisons do not have adequate infrastructure, especially in a summer with heat waves of 50 degrees. We fear for their lives,” says Riad Chaibi, member of the party executive, and political advisor to Ghannouchi, founder and historical leader of Ennahda, 82 years old. Several have had to be transferred to hospitals due to health crises. The last of them, Abdelhamid Jelassi due to kidney problems. The majority are over 60 years old, and some, like Habib Ellouze, are already septuagenarian. Earlier this month, former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali was also arrested, but he was released hours later.

“Having already passed more than a year and a half since the coup, and taking into account the advanced age of our leaders, we did not expect them to be imprisoned,” adds Chaibi, in a conversation he had last month with this newspaper. Some of them, like Jelassi, already endured long prison sentences during the Ben Ali dictatorship, but others, like Ghannouchi himself, spent most of that period in exile. Almost all of them lost their freedom in a wave of arrests between the months of February and April, as happened to a dozen non-Islamist political leaders, such as the Spanish-Tunisian liberal Jayam al-Turki.

Unfounded processes

The various cases opened against opposition leaders are being investigated by an anti-terrorist court, and include charges such as “rebellion”, or “trying to change the nature of the State”, which imply very severe prison sentences and even the death penalty. Various human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, have denounced that these are “unfounded” and “politically motivated” processes. “The allegations are not based on any evidence connected to the charges. For example, in the summary of the conspiracy case, meetings with foreign ambassadors are mentioned, including the Spanish one, but that is not even illegal,” says Karim Marzuki, a lawyer who is a member of the Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners.

The regime of Kais Said, an independent and populist politician elected at the polls in 2019, has cornered dissent. Although Ennahda headquarters across the country have been sealed by police since April 18, the day after Ghannouchi's arrest, it is not an illegal organization. “The party continues to function, and coordinates the work of opposing the coup, but not from the offices. The situation is not as difficult as in the Ben Ali era. That was a totalitarian regime. This is not consolidated, nor does it have the same support among the security forces,” says Chaibi.

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“Ennahda was a party with a strong territorial presence during the beginning of the transition, but it lost it,” says professor and political scientist Tarek Kahlaui. Perhaps for this reason, and because of the fear of greater repression, rather than mobilizing its bases to bring down the regime, Ennahda's strategy consists of hoping that the country's socioeconomic degradation will lead to a social outbreak.

“We are committed to holding early presidential elections as a way to return to democracy. It is a possible scenario once a social revolt has occurred,” predicts Chaibi. Meanwhile, the Salvation Front is teasing the daisy about a hypothetical participation in the presidential elections scheduled for next year. “I'm not sure that Said will celebrate them if he is not sure of winning them. Our participation will depend on guarantees that [las elecciones] be clean,” concludes the Islamist leader.

It is not clear whether Ennahda will be able to hold its national congress in October, or if the regime will prevent it. In any case, its main opposition work takes place within the National Salvation Front platform, made up of other parties with representation in Parliament and independent activists. But the Front has not been able to incorporate other dissident parties from the social democratic orbit, such as Tayar Democrati, which blame Ennahda for the failure of the transition and demand a public statement as an apology before collaborating with the formation.

President Said suspended the functions of Parliament in 2021 after a long struggle over the delimitation of its functions with the then Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi, and arrogated to himself full powers. In the midst of the Covid crisis, the serious economic situation and political disputes, Said's coup achieved majority support from the population and implemented the state of emergency. But the legislative elections held in the second round last January reflected discontent with the regime promoted by Said, with an abstention of almost 90%.

Confronted with the president, Ennahda acknowledged in a statement having made “mistakes” during the transition, but has refused to delve into this path alone. “We are capable of recognizing that, as a party that assumed greater weight in the governments of the post-revolutionary period, we have a greater responsibility. But the rest also have their share of blame. The task of reviewing the errors must be done jointly among all the parties that want a return to the democratic path,” says Chaibi, who believes that the exercise of self-criticism requested of them by the left only aims to weaken them.

Although Ennahda won half of the six electoral processes during the transition, the percentage of the vote for the Islamist formation progressively decreased election after election. “The party and its leaders have aged. A profound review of its strategy and a renewal of leadership is necessary to reconnect with society,” comments a young activist who left Ennahda a few years ago. Before Said's authoritarian turn, the party was experiencing one of the most serious crises of its five decades of existence: one of the most charismatic leaders, Abdelatif al Meki, had announced a split, and dozens of middle cadres had decided to leave the party. formation, which defines itself as “Islamodemocratic.”

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