Professor Mohamed Haddad, the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Studies of Religion at La Manouba University in Tunisia, and the author of ‘Islam: The Violent Impulse and Strategies for Reform’ and ‘The Religion of Individual Conscience and Islam’s Fate in Modern Times’
Like a vulture that falls on weakened prey, the Islamist Nahda (Renaissance) Party took advantage of Tunisia’s prone position after the January 2011 revolution that removed former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Its Right wing was violence, embodied by its first ally (in fact, its look-alike), the so-called al-Karama (Dignity) alliance, which includes deputies who have had troubled relations with terrorists and the sinister “ligues de sauvegardes de la révolution” (League of Revolutionary Guardians) banned by court order. Its Left wing was corruption, embodied by its second ally, the Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) Party, created from scratch by a media tycoon officially prosecuted for money laundering. It is probably in return for his release from prison that Qalb Tounes was offered to Rached Ghannouchi, president of the Nahda party, on a plate to serve as his subordinate.
We can only understand the anger of the Tunisians on the morning of 25 July 2021, and their immense joy the same evening, by explaining what it was that led up to this extraordinary movement of spontaneous and sincere discontent.
Since 2011, invited by the transitional government to participate in the democratic transition, Nahda set about seizing every lever of power: political, bureaucratic, judicial, financial, diplomatic, even scientific—the research centres and associations were infiltrated and co-opted. Not a day went by without Nahda trying to extend their reach, visibly or otherwise. So it was that the Palace of Carthage (headquarters of the Presidency of the Republic) and the Kasbah (seat of the Presidency of the Government) were put in the shadows by a huge building located in the business district of Tunis, in Montplaisir, which houses the headquarters of the Nahda party and the office of its leader for the last forty years, Rached Ghannouchi. Directly or indirectly, this party has governed Tunisia for more than a decade, following the adage once pronounced by one of its historical leaders, Abdelfattah Mourou: exercise power whether you are in government or out.
The Nahda party did not participate in the first transitional government, formally, but was already dictating to its leader by, for example, mobilizing on the streets to besiege his offices in the Kasbah. Thus, Nahda forced his hand on the promulgation of an amnesty law, thanks to which hundreds of terrorists left the prisons, the “original sin”, as one author called this decision, of the post-revolutionary government that set in train a descent into hell for untold numbers of people, in Tunisia and abroad.
In the October 2011 elections, the Nahda party, thanks to extremely generous financial contributions from abroad and the racket of businessmen close to the deposed regime, won a majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly. It was then decided to entrust the government to leaders who had no experience in the management of public affairs, to the point that the one appointed to the post of head of government still dreamed of embodying the sixth caliphate! Forced in early 2014 to give up overt power, following a situation of total anarchy, both in the security and economic domains, the Nahda party held its ground. It still had a majority in the Constituent Assembly and hundreds of its supporters were in key positions throughout the state, including the Ministries of Interior and Justice. (The Defence Ministry was the only one that proved more or less resistant to Nahda.)
In the 2014 elections, the Nahda party came out a loser but still managed to participate in the first government appointed by Béji Caid Sebsi. The latter intended to embody the unity of the nation through the presence of the Nahda party, which he wanted to be symbolic. But it was without counting with the Machiavellianism of Ghannouchi, who took advantage of the advanced age of the President and the serious splits within his party. Sebsi’s ultimate disgrace and downfall was partly caused by Ghannouchi’s hidden schemes.
In the 2019 elections, the Nahda Party took first place but did not achieve an absolute majority, having lost nearly half its electorate compared to 2011. Not whit abashed, Ghannouchi seized the presidency of the Parliament and tried to impose an underling as Head of Government. His ploy was only half-successful. He also failed to elect his friend, Abdelafattah Mourou, to the presidency of the Republic. By a process of elimination, it ended with Kais Saïed, a man from outside the political sphere, a former professor of Constitutional Law, as President, winning by a large margin (more than 70% of the vote), acquiring an unchallengeable legitimacy.
Ghannouchi did not take this novice to politics too seriously, and probably he could do to Kais Saied what he had with Béji Caid Sebsi: isolate him and confine him to honorary functions, while Nahda exercises real power. In his own eyes and those of his supporters, as well as for many Tunisians and in Western chancelleries, Ghannouchi was unbeatable. His omnipotence seemed eternal. He managed to thwart a mention of censure and remained silent to the demands of his fellow MPs who asked him to resign from the presidency of Parliament so as not to mix the leadership of his party with the leadership of a sovereign state institution. Within his own party, he defied the internal statutes that required him to leave the position of president of the party at the end of his second term, in 2020.
In the background the situation was darkening. The economy was in tatters. At the end of this decade, Tunisia’s ranking in Davos Doing Business fell from 48 in 2012 to 78 in 2020. The growth rate is currently negative. Foreign debt now stands at 102% of GDP, up from 48% in 2010. GDP per capita fell from $4,140 in 2010 to $3,320 in 2019. Inflation has steadily risen for ten years to an annual average of 5%. The poverty rate is currently 21%. The unemployment rate is 18% (over-40% among young people). According to a recent FAO report, half a million Tunisians are undernourished. More than half of the illegal migrants arriving on the Italian Coast are Tunisians.
Added to this catastrophic management of the economy was the poor management of the health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Minister of Health, a Nahdaoui, led Tunisians to believe that the contamination rate could be zero and mentioned a Tunisian health exception. It is obvious now if it wasn’t then that this was a gross deception. Tunisia has been disproportionately hit on both ends by the pandemic—more deaths from the virus (20,000 in a population of ten million, one of the highest mortality rates in the world), and then the late imposition of lockdowns that have protracted the economic pain. A country that was presented by the WHO in the 1960s and 1970s as a model of success in mass immunization campaigns is failing miserably to vaccinate its population.
Even in economic turmoil, amid a pandemic, Nahda did not stop its political games. At a critical moment, the Nahda party chose to push its former ally, the President of the government to resign, officially for a “conflict of interest” and in reality because he began to obstruct the Islamists, throwing the country into another round of political instability.
This multipronged crisis that was stifling and abusing Tunisians, then, is what led to the revolt against the system. July 25, the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic, was to be the Nahda party’s last day in office. Just like Ben Ali in January 2011, despite presiding over a deteriorating situation, they never saw it coming. Ghannouchi had misjudged Saied, who now dismissed the Nahda-backed government.
To understand the extent to which the Nahda party was cut off from reality, it is necessary only to look at the way Ghannouchi called on his followers through the mass media to “besiege” parliament to overturn Saied’s decision, imagining he could mimic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call in July 2016 for his supporters to resist the attempted military coup. Unlike in Turkey, Ghannouchi’s effort to mobilize his supporters failed: less than one-hundred people turned up outside Parliament, and even most Nahda deputies did not join the protest. Aware of how ridiculous this looked, Ghannouchi sought to enlist outside pressure against Saied by using the Muslim Brotherhood lobbies and their allies to brand the freezing of Parliament as a “coup”. This, too, failed. Empty-handed, Ghannouchi has had to accept the verdict.
Nahda made promises to Tunisians that they would create paradise on earth, and they were given ten years to try. The balance sheet is as outlined above, and Tunisians have had enough. They overwhelmingly support what Saied did; for them, this is a second revolution or at least a chance to reclaim the first.
Ghannouchi repeated the mistake of Ben Ali, becoming cut off from reality to the extent that he missed the darkening indicators that were leading to popular revolt. Ten years of the Nahda Party’s control over Tunisia had not made the country better off, and nor did they seem to be trying any longer: all utopian ideas were gone, now they were reduced to an endless series of political manoeuvres just so they could stay in power. Nahda began with false promises and they ended with false promises, made in May after Ghannouchi’s visit to Qatar (a trip that was illegal, apart from anything else: Tunisian officials may not make official visits to foreign countries without the authorization of the President of the Republic). The money Nahda needed to solve the crises never materialized from the Qataris, interestingly; perhaps they could see that the power of their protégé in Tunis was ebbing away.
Whatever happens for Tunisia in the near future, one thing seems to be irreversible: the decline of Ghannouchi. A clever tactician, he is a poor strategist. His party may be banned depending on what the terrorism and money laundering trials reveal. It may be saved if social peace is again favoured over truth and justice. But this will likely be done without its founder and historical leader. Having repeatedly worked his way out of tight corners, this time it looks like checkmate.
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