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Opposition or unity: what will Ennahda's role be if Essebsi wins?

Debate over Ennahda's role should Beji Caid Essebsi win Tunisia's presidential elections has intensified within frontrunning Nidaa Tounes
Nidaa Tounes' presidential candidate Essebsi on the campaign trail this month (AFP)

TUNIS – While Tunisians wait to see who will emerge as president in Sunday’s election, they are also in the dark over who will be their next prime minister.

The delay over forming a government, a month after voters picked a parliament, was agreed by all the country’s main parties as part of Tunisia’s carefully calibrated progress towards democracy. The political class decided it made better sense for an elected president to launch the process than to rush it through by today’s unelected interim head of state. Under the country’s new constitution, the president asks the head of the party with the largest number of seats in parliament to form a government.

But as the wait for a prime minister continues, a debate is intensifying within Nidaa Tounes, the party that won the parliamentary elections. If its leader Beji Caid Essebsi, who is the frontrunner to win the presidency, does indeed triumph on Sunday, should he appoint a prime minister with a mandate to invite Ennahda, the Islamist party which fell to second place last month, to join a government of national unity, or should they push the Islamists into opposition?

Nidaa Tounes (the Appeal of Tunis) includes a wide variety of interest groups that range from business leaders to trade unions. There are modernisers, as well as representatives of the old elite that ruled under the ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The main glue holding the party together is secularism. Some have an almost visceral contempt and hatred for the Islamists, with a good deal of class arrogance thrown in. Analysts compare them to the Kemalists in Turkey, who despise Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, with its backbone of lower middle-class shop-keepers and conservative peasants who, in recent decades, migrated to the major cities.

Shortly after the Egyptian army toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi last year, Nidaa Tounes supporters mounted several days of protests and sit-ins outside parliament demanding the Ennahda-led government’s resignation. Their street movement also included young leftists and Arab nationalists. It was seen as the Tunisian equivalent of Tamarod, the alliance of protesters that paved the way for the Egyptian coup. The Tunisian army has no tradition of political intervention, unlike Egypt, but a few months later Ennahda resigned anyway, handing power to technocrats.

Now that Ennahda has been defeated in the parliamentary elections, taking 69 seats to NT’s 85, many NT leaders see no reason to allow them a comeback. NT could join with the Free Patriotic Union (16 seats) and Afek Tounes (eight seats) to form the slimmest possible working majority in the 217-seat parliament. All three parties are pro-business and economically liberal.

Tayeb Baccouche, NT’s secretary general, was a Communist in his youth, then served as head of the UGTT, the general Tunisian trade union, for three years under Habib Bourguiba, the country’s long-serving independence leader, and later became president of the Arab Institute for Human Rights.

In an interview with Middle East Eye, Baccouche stuck to the official NT line, that it would discuss government formation with all parties, but his criticism of Ennahda was uncompromisingly scathing. “Ennahda didn’t lose the support of those who are indoctrinated and support them blindly. But they lost the support of people who wanted to see what they could do, and now recognise it [their time in power] has been a total failure on social, political, and even religious issues," he said.

NT’s leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, appears more sympathetic than Baccouche to the notion of a coalition with Ennahda, if only to tie them in as junior members, thereby making it harder for Ennahda to attack NT at the next elections if the country’s economy fails to deliver enough progress. This stance also allows Essebsi to present himself as a conciliator who can provide stability in the tradition of Bourguiba.

Alliance or co-operation

If Essebsi wins the presidency on Sunday and offers Ennahda a role in a government of national unity, some observers predict NT will quickly lose support. It may even split. “Most Nidaa Tounes voters are people who were against Ennahda being in government," Gilbert Naccache, a veteran socialist and author, told the weekly Tunis-Hebdo. “If Nidaa Tounes makes an alliance with Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes will lose its majority and the balance of forces will swing to Ennahda. There will be a long period of confusion leading eventually to the dissolution of parliament and new elections."

Apparently in order to minimise this risk and because of pressure from his rank and file, Essebsi recently modified his approach. “We should not look for alliances but co-operation with other tendencies,” he said last week. On other recent occasions, he has used the word “collaboration”, hinting that he might try to seek agreement on issues of economic and social policy without giving Ennahda any portfolios.

A third option, which is canvassed by Afek Tounes, the small party of economic liberals, is that the prime minister should be a technocrat who would appoint the ministers in charge of the economy and social issues. Ennahda and NT would agree on the Justice and Interior ministries, while the president would have his people in charge of Defence and Foreign Affairs.

Behind the speculation in Tunis over the shape of the next government, two deeper issues are worrying the people who championed the uprising against the dictatorship in 2011. One is whether the Islamists will be put under administrative restraint or even outlawed as has happened in Egypt. Would Saudi Arabia and the UAE insist on such measures as a condition for giving Tunisia loans? 

After initially supporting a bill in the last parliament to ban members of the old ruling party, the RCD, from running for election, Ennahda switched to opposition. Analysts say they were afraid the bill could be used against them later.

For the moment, the threat of repression against the Islamists seems to be marginal. After seeing Egypt’s chaos, US and British policy is to advise against any bans on Ennahda.  Tolerance is the hallmark of Tunisia’s transition to democracy and, as long as the country’s government poses no challenge to Western policy on Israel or allows fundamentalists free rein, it will be supported internationally.

Old elite with new clothes

How far a Nidaa Tounes victory on Sunday will go in permitting a return of the old elite to power is the other big underlying issue. Moncef Marzouki, head of the secular Congress for the Republic, who is Essebsi’s main challenger for the presidency, is more outspoken on this than the Islamists.

In a recent speech, he caused a storm by saying the “taghout” (best translated as devils, demons, or even ghouls) would be back if Essebsi won. In softer language, Tarek Kahlaoui, a senior member of Marzouki’s campaign staff, told MEE: “We consider Nidaa Tounes as the forefront of the old elite in a renewed form. Most of NT’s members of parliament are part of the RCD machine.”

Kahlaoui acknowledged that Essebsi had charisma in spite of his advanced age of 88. “But it is charisma because of the context. The country is traumatised and there is a sense that it needs a father figure. Essebsi has worked in government for a long time. People feel secure because he’s almost identical to Bourguiba,” he said.

Kahlaoui claimed the last few days had seen a significant rise in Marzouki’s support. His warnings about a return to the old regime were having an effect in changing the election argument. Sunday’s contest was not about secularism versus Islamism. The choice was between a fresh start for Tunis with social justice and political freedom or the revival of an authoritarian elite, he said.