Ahmed Nadhif, independent writer and journalist, author of ‘Tourist Rifles: Tunisians in World Jihadist Networks’
A few hours after Tunisian President Kais Saied’s sudden announcement of a “state of imminent danger”, which was accompanied by the freezing of parliament, the lifting of immunity from deputies, and the dismissal of the government of Hichem Mechichi, Parliament Speaker and leader of the Islamist Ennahdha Movement, Rached Al-Ghannouchi, headed with several his aides towards the suburb of Bardo, west of the Tunisian capital, in an attempt to enter the parliament building. However, they were prevented from entering by military units that were supervising the implementation of the president’s decisions.
Al-Ghannouchi was looking for an opportunity to portray the president’s moves as unjust and discriminatory against his party — a tactic that the Muslim Brotherhood has excelled at throughout their history. He also thought that the series of events, which he and his fellow party members broadcast on their social media accounts, would prompt a popular uprising among Ennahdha supporters and encourage them to stream to the Parliament steps in protest of the government dismissal. However, none of that happened.
Al-Ghannouchi, still suffering from the sequela of Covid-19 and being over 80 years old, stayed until noon the next day in his car with a few of his aides waiting for the “holy mass invasion”. He made many calls to his movement’s supporters on Twitter and Facebook to head to Parliament, but to no avail. Finally, Al-Ghannouchi announced his withdrawal, along with a number of his party’s deputies, from the Parliament square, in a symbolic scene that clearly revealed the erosion of the popular base of the Ennahdha Movement. Meanwhile, supporters of President Saied lit up the square in celebration.
The question then arises: why did popular support for the Tunisian Islamist movement wane? The question has weighed heavily on the minds of Islamists and the Tunisian political class in general. Since it came to power in 2011, the party has witnessed a downward trajectory of support, which worsened following the 2019 elections when Ennahdha entered into questionable political alliances sparking a direct conflict with Saied. The group’s fall from grace can be explained by several developments and regrettable decisions made by the group over the past 10 years.
For nearly five years, the Ennahdha Movement has been experiencing increasing internal divisions between the prevailing line, led by the movement’s leader Al-Ghannouchi, his son Mouadh, and his son-in-law Rafik Abdel Salam, and the line opposing the executive leadership, which demands greater positions within the organization and the transfer of power and leadership positions, which have been dominated by supporters of Al-Ghannouchi for decades. This organizational division prompted dozens of the movement’s historical leaders to resign, such as the former Prime Minister Hammadi Jbali, the leader Abdel Hamid Jlassi, and the former Secretary-General Ziad Adhari. This affected the movement’s organizational structure and it lost key supporters. Al-Ghannouchi continued to run the movement with a small group of supporters, taking advantage of his control over the movement’s funding sources and his foreign relations.
It’s also important to note a shift in the type of supporters of the movement. Before the 2011 Revolution, ideology largely drove people to join the group, but over the years the support became more interest-based and utilitarian. Since 2016, the Ennahdha Movement has been suffering from a state of “ideological fluidity.” In that year, it announced its abandonment of “Political Islam” and said it would turn towards “Democratic Islam.” This occurred amid the opposition of an important segment within the movement, which believed that this step would lead to the movement losing its historical popular base, which comes from the poor and middle classes and demanded the preservation of the apparent Islamist face of the movement, which is considered as its only capital for mass mobilization. This ideological fluidity cost the movement many popular bases that abandoned it, believing the movement had “betrayed the historical Islamic project” for which it was founded on at the end of the 1960s.
Questionable Political Alliances
The political alliances that the movement formed in the wake of the 2019 elections contributed to the eroding of what was left of its popular base, particularly its support for presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, who had been accused of tax evasion and money laundering and was imprisoned twice for financial crimes. While at first Ennahdha opposed Karoui, it suddenly shifted its position to one of support, which did not sit well with many of the group’s supporters.
Most of the economic and social indicators in Tunisia point to an abject failure of the Ennahdha Movement in running the state over the ten years of its rule, whether singularly or in partnership with its allies. However, the deterioration that the country has witnessed during this past year — particularly the paralysis of public services and the spread of violence and corruption — seemed unprecedented. Ennahdha also stood by the government of Mechichi as it failed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, which led to Tunisia having the highest death rate globally. This horrible record angered the Tunisian people and led to more disillusionment towards the party among its supporters.
Playing On Europe’s Fear Of Migration
With no strong domestic support left, Ennahdha then turned outwards to mobilize external support. It did this by presenting itself as the “protector of the Tunisian revolution and democracy” and trying to scare European countries on the Mediterranean Sea by suggesting that the government’s dismissal would push the country into a state of chaos that would be accompanied by a wave of terrorism and a surge in migrants flocking to Europe.
Al-Ghannouchi was very clear in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera when he said, “If Italy does not help us find democracy, tens of thousands of immigrants are ready to leave. We, the Tunisians, Europe, and especially the Italians … We are all in the same boat. If democracy is not restored in Tunisia soon, we will quickly descend into chaos. Terrorism can grow, and destabilization will push people to leave in any possible way. More than 500,000 Tunisian immigrants can try to reach the Italian coasts in a very short period of time. If the coup continues and the police are forced to resort to dictatorial means, including torture and assassinations, I do not rule it out at all (…) At this point, the entire Mediterranean basin will be hit with an urgent danger. France and Italy will find themselves in the front row, obliged to ensure their safety and to control the increasing flow of migrants on boats.” Al-Ghannouchi seemed pragmatic, as usual, in addressing Western countries by hinting at the security and social risks that the situation in Tunisia could pose, especially since Italy is considered as Europe’s vulnerable spot in regard to irregular migration, thus, it fears any unrest in the countries of the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
However, despite all of Ennahdha’s overtures to Europe and the US and their mass media campaign, their cries seem to be falling on deaf ears. It has failed to convince key international players that what happened in Tunisia was in fact a “military coup.”
The Ennahdha Movement today stands at a crossroads. Its empowerment project, which it put in place to control the state and society since its return to political activity after the 2011 revolution, has reached a dead end. It has failed to convince a large segment of the Tunisian elite about its project, so it tried, by using the means of the state through the mechanisms of appointment to senior positions and promotions, to win financial and administrative elites to its side.
However, this strategy failed to strengthen the movement and instead backfired on it. This focus on winning over the elites made the movement neglect the paths of “ideological partisan education” that prevailed in the 1980s and 90s, which aimed to recruit and indoctrinate committed and ideologically involved elements in the Islamist project. The movement found itself, after ten years in power, without partisan and ideological bases and without elites politically committed to the project. As a result, Ennahdha lost both its ideological base, as well as support from elites, which affected its organizational cohesion. It appears that the current leadership of the movement, headed by Al-Ghannouchi, is going to walk away in the medium term, given that a large segment of Ennahdha supporters hold it responsible for what happened.
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