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Why is Ennahda not fielding a presidential candidate in Tunisia?

Tunisia's Ennahda party is playing a long-term strategic game, say analysts
Tunisian Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi at a press conference to present his party's manifesto on 23 September, 2014 in Tunis (AFP)

TUNIS - “Of course there should be a candidate, with God’s help,” said Choukri Seyahli as he stood outside having a cigarette in Melassin, southeast Tunis.

Like so many others in the country, the 48-year-old was discussing Ennahda’s future prospects in the run up to the presidential elections scheduled to take place exactly a month after this Sunday’s legislative elections.

Much is pegged on the two votes. Seyahli, who works in a café, is an exception in this working-class neighbourhood in the country’s capital, where many are unemployed.

Poor urban neighbourhoods like Melassin, where rubbish goes uncollected by the local authorities for long periods and street lights stay switched off at night, make up one of Ennahda’s key support centres.

The party began as a social movement motivated by theological and cultural issues during the early 1970s, but become increasingly politicised on Tunisia’s university campuses.

While Ennahda was officially banned before the 2011 revolution that toppled former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the party quickly rebuilt its strong grass-roots links, particularly in urban areas, and was able to draw on these to become a leading player in Tunisian politics.

These days the party is commonly equated to the Muslim Brotherhood, but it emerged in response to a very specific set of national issues.

“As a party, we’re very disciplined, perhaps because of our religious reference,” said Mohamed Ayari, 47, a local Ennahda member who runs a charitable organisation helping Melassin’s poor.

Spread betting: reducing the risk

Given Ennahda’s impressive organisational capabilities - which saw it top the parliamentary ballot in the 2011 elections after Ben Ali’s overthrow - many were surprised to see that Ennahda has not put forward a presidential candidate in the forthcoming elections.

The vote will be the first time that Tunisians will elect their president directly, with interim president Mohamed Moncef Marzouki having been elected by parliament.

“This period requires the participation of all the political parties,” Faisal Nasser, deputy head of the party’s communication team, told MEE. “We don’t want to dominate the political system.”

The need for caution is great, he explained, while pointing to the troubles in neighbouring Libya, which has been ravaged by strife over – among many other things – political exclusion of those who had worked with overthrown long-time leader Muammer Gaddafi.

Ennahda is all too aware of such dangers and understands that they “could destabilise the country’s democratic transition,” Nasser added.

The party also says it has learnt from Egypt, where the Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president who hails from the country’s Muslim Brotherhood, was overthrown in 2013.

Monica Marks, an expert on Ennahda from Oxford University who lives in Tunis, believes that Ennahda is playing a long-term game, and has been attempting to spread risk and blame since 2011, two years before Morsi’s downfall.

“Ennahdha wants to be able to spread blame around because they’re thinking strategically about the long-term game,” said Marks. “So what we see with Ennahda today is a party that is at the top of the game in Tunisia when it comes to political chessmanship.

“The leadership is willing to make partners anywhere.”

However, for Alaya Allani, an academic at the University of Manouba in Tunis, Ennahda is not motivated by a straightforward desire to avoid conflict and be seen to be monopolising government posts.

After it came to power in 2011 in a coalition known as the troika, perceived poor economic performance and security threats prompted a backlash against the party by some civil society groups, with people turning out to the streets to protest.  

Mass demonstrations were sparked by the assassination of two politicians last year, with many calling for the government’s resignation. Ennahda stepped down from power in favour of a cabinet of technocracts in December 2013.

“If they presented a candidate for the presidential elections, he would be highly contested. This is the real reason,” said Allani.

‘Consensus’: one candidate, one nation

By getting behind a so-called ‘consensus candidate’, Ennahda is trying to regain ground by shedding the image of economic mismanagement associated with the party, said Allani.

The party hopes to reclaim the image of technocratic professionalism that is a central tenant of the discourse of Ennahda’s main rival, Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia), led by 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi.

The political veteran served in several posts under the Ben Ali and Borguiba governments but has managed to rebrand himself as a potential saviour of the nation.

Founded in 2013, Nidaa Tounes draws together a loose coalition made up of members of Ben Ali’s former Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), secular leftist parties, and ‘constitutionalists’.

Marks told Middle East Eye that Ennahda is hesitant to govern alone because it doesn’t want the success of the democratic project in Tunisia to be paired with popular perceptions about its success as a party.

“They don’t want the democratic experiment to fall apart just because people get fed up with them,” she said.

Though support for democratic pluralism is key to the Ennahda’s outlook, it is also strategically self-interested.

“They believe that if Tunisia returns to a strongman authoritarian system, they and their supporters will go back to prison,” Marks added.

Suspicions of Ennahda’s ability to mobilise large constituencies led to large-scale suppression, torture and the incarceration of thousands of the party’s members in recent decades.

Base and leadership: misfit

For all the various motives, however, Ennahda seems to be presenting a unified front – from the party’s headquarters - located next to one of Tunis’s main thoroughfares - to the working class district Melassin.

This cohesion is clear to see at Ennahda’s base in Melassin, a small converted house where supporters gathered to receive election training. 

“The president only has a certain number of prerogatives according to the constitution. We’re interested in ruling through the parliament,” said Ayari a local activist.

“The difference between us and the other parties is that for us Tunisia comes first,” he added, clearly echoing the words made by party chairman Rachid Ghannouchi in recent weeks.

However, tensions remain between the strategic choice of the party’s leadership to not contest the November presidential elections and Ennahda’s popular support base.

“No, we can’t deny that; we can’t close our eyes to that. Often there are disagreements between the leadership and the base,” said deputy head of communications Nasser.

In Ennahda’s eagerness to support a ‘consensus candidate’ as Tunisia’s next president, a figure it is yet to decide on, specific policy goals have become hard to pin down.

“Our problem is not ideology,” said Nasser. “Our challenge is to convince the other parties to work together with us.”

But reaching out and making concessions in an attempt to form a coalition with Nidaa Touness - a party associated in some quarters with the return of the old regime, or tejamaa as the phenomenon is locally known – has its own drawbacks and will likely alienate the party faithful, Marks explains.

“There is a popular perception of Ennahda informed by stereotypes of Islamist movements – that they’re monolithic, that they operate with an unthinking phalanx of robotic supporters,” said Marks.

No candidate: the ‘joker in the pack’

Though some of Melassin’s inhabitants agreed with Ennahda’s decision not to run a presidential candidate, many have nonetheless chosen who they will vote for.

“I’ll support Moncef Marzouki,” said Sadeq Talouba, a 41-year-old unemployed voter. “He has specific goals and a particular programme.

“Also, he’s clean,” added Talouba, referring to the political record of Marzouki, a human rights activist who has been Tunisia’s interim president since 2011.

Marzouki, founder of the secular Congress for the Republic party, has broad appeal, gained through opposition to Ben Ali’s rule and his commitment to human rights. Appointed in a power-sharing deal by the troika led by Ennahda in 2011, Marzouki has entered the 2014 presidential race as an independent.

He is popular among Ennahda supporters because of his plain speech and perception of professionalism. If re-elected he could reduce Ennahda’s bargaining power following the legislative elections.

With no party gaining an outright majority in recent polls, a power-sharing government is likely.

Ennahda has declared its willingness to work with any party following the results of the legislative elections, although for Nidaa Tounes a political alliance with “the Islamists” who they see as incapable and reactionary, is anathema to this self-styled secular modernist party.

With the parliamentary election so close, everything is still left to play for.

Dhafer Malouche, pollster and statistician at the Ecole Superieure of Statistics in Tunis, told Middle East Eye that Ennahda could promise support for Nidaa Tounes’s presidential candidate Beji Caid al-Sebsi, in return for his agreement to enter into a parliamentary coalition between the two largest parties.

Alternatively Ennahda could at the very least choose not to openly endorse Marzouki, Essebsi’s main rival, Malouche explained.

“This is the joker in their pack,” Malouche added.

According to Alyani, the party could also use its presidential vote's bargaining chip to ensure it gets a number of ministry portfolios.

However, whether the party’s supporters fall in line at election time remains in question – especially if the party doesn’t endorse Marzouki.

“Marzouki’s on the side of the revolution”, said Telba Al Ayari, 47, a small shopkeeper in the Melassin district.

Though disagreements between the Ennahda base and leadership have primarily revolved around political, rather than religious issues, room for some kind of deal remains, according to Marks.

“The base has accepted Ennahda’s concessions on sharia, on blasphemy, on these classically ‘Islamist’ issues but it has been much slower to accept the leadership’s willingness to allow what they see as a resurgence of old regime forces,” she said.

Quoting a dedication by Marzouki in a book by a Swiss author, former taxi driver Muji Arfaoui, 58, recited the line: “Changing the world is foolish; but not trying to do so is cowardly.”

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