Hours before the year folded, Tunisian authorities arrested deputy chairman of the Ennahda Party and former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri on December 31, 2021. Interior Minister Tawfiq Sharafeddine came out with a statement on January 3, 2022, saying that Bhiri was under house arrest based on Law 50 of 1978, on suspicion of providing IDs and passports to individuals who are a threat to Tunisian security (including a Syrian woman, who was not identified). He is also accused of providing documents, during his tenure as minister, to Tunisian youth who were linked to jihadist groups in Syria.
His party claims that he was “kidnapped,” blaming his abduction on President Kais Saied who launched a soft coup against Ennahda in July 2021, suspending parliament and toppling its speaker, Rached Ghannouchi, the group’s notorious long-time leader. Bhiri, 63, is currently being held in a hospital in Bizerte, north of the Tunisian capital, where he has reportedly been on hunger strike since January 3.
Prior to his arrest, few outside of Tunisia had heard of Bhiri. Born in the town of Jebiniana in 1958, he studied law and political science at Tunis University. During this period, he joined the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood four years before it officially became the Ennahda Party. Bhiri worked in the Tunisian underground, with the aim of establishing a theocracy in his country, and was jailed by President Habib Bourguiba from February to September 1987. He worked at the court of cassation in Tunis and steadily climbed the ranks of the party, becoming a member of its political bureau, then of its executive command, and finally of its Shura Council.
Stint In Power
After the January 2011 toppling of long-time president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali during Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, Bhiri joined the cabinet of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali as justice minister in December. During his tenure, he filled prisons with Ben Ali supporters and opponents of Ennahda. He was also elected to the Constitutional Assembly (from which he later resigned from in order to concentrate on his cabinet duties in May 2012) and, subsequently, to the Ennahda-held Tunisian Parliament in 2014. The Jebali government famously resigned after the February 6, 2013 murder of opposition lawyer Chokri Belaid, amidst nationwide protests against Islamification of the country.
Before being shot, Belaid had said: “All those who opposed Ennahda become the targets of violence,” a statement that particularly struck a raw nerve at Bhiri’s office at the Ministry of Justice. Belaid’s wife filed murder charges against Ennahda and Ghannouchi, saying that he was “personally responsible” for her husband’s death.
Bhiri was one of the names originally earmarked to replace Jebali as premier. He ended up instead as minister delegate in the cabinet of Prime Minister Ali Laareyedh from March 2013 until January 2014. Both Jebali and Laareyedh were affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood and ranking members of Ennahda, and it was Jebali who had famously proclaimed shortly after assuming office: “We are the sixth caliphate, God willing.”
A Broader Campaign
Bhiri’s arrest comes days after two significant and intricately-linked developments took place — one at home and the other in neighboring Egypt. The first was the international arrest warrant issued for former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki on December 20, 2021, under whose term Ennahda had seized all major junctures of the state. Marzouki, now living in France, had been stripped of his Tunisian diplomatic passport in October and is now being accused of “undermining state security” for a series of crimes committed during his presidency (2011-2014), among which was the naming of Jebali as premier in December 2011.
Next door in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is also busy with the trial of Aisha al-Shater, daughter of Deputy Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Brotherhood Kheirat al-Shater (who has been in jail since 2013). Her case was re-opened on December 26, five days before Bhiri’s arrest. She is accused, among other things, of smuggling arms and funds to the Egyptian Brotherhood and spreading fake news against President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.
The developments have sparked fear in the Ennahda party. For two weeks now, the group’s leaders have been sending signals to Tunisian authorities, seeking permission to leave the country, fearing jail or persecution. Ghannouchi hopes to return to London, where he lived as a political exile for 22 years. Arranging the new exile for him is his friend and colleague, Ibrahim Munir, secretary-general of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, also based in London.
Ghannounchi is no fool. He realizes that the arrest warrant of Marzouki, the trial of al-Shater and the arrest of Bhiri are all related and he will be targeted next. These developments serve as a strong reminder that the die has been cast regarding the fate of Ennahda leaders. What President Saied started last summer remains unfinished business, aimed at reclaiming the Tunisian Revolution from the Islamists, and it won’t end before Ennahda is eradicated from Tunisian politics.
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