The recent announcement that Tunisia’s dominant Islamist party Ennahdha wants to reshuffle of the cabinet and forge a broader alliance with secular opposition parties is a sign of the group’s growing vulnerability, writes Mohamed Bechri, a former president of the Tunisian Section of Amnesty International.
In order to understand Ennahdha’s motives, one should note that a turning point occurred with the Islamist party’s mishandling of the September 14 attacks on the U.S. embassy, he notes on the Fikra Forum. The four resulting deaths led to accusations of Ennahdha’s incompetence and their alleged cover up of the Salafi violence.
Ennahdha’s mishandling of the events of September 14 backfired at the very moment the party faced additional challenges from civil society organizations, the media, and the judiciary; and when its secular partners in the Troika coalition government are on the decline.
To make matters worse, the highly publicized video of Rachid Ghannouchi (left) warning a Salafi convention that the Tunisian administration is still in the hands of the secularists and that “the army and the police are not safe” provided those on the fence with proof of the Ennahdha president’s allegiances. The event put the group’s leadership on the defensive as the opposition and independent media used the video as concrete evidence of “the hidden agenda of the so-called moderate mainstream Islamists.”
In the midst of this tense political situation, Salafi violence returned in the Tunis suburb of Manouba on October 27, when Commander Wissam Ben Sliman was assaulted during clashes with Salafis protesting against alcohol vendors. The violence left Ennahdha with no choice but to apply a two-track strategy: cracking down on jihadi Salafis on the one hand, and authorizing Salafi political parties to keep the potential for political partnership open on the other.
Though the Islamists’ coalition parties are in a state of decay, they are taking a stand against Ennahdha. On November 8, the secretary general of CPR, Mohamed Abbou, announced that his party might leave the ruling Troika if its demands for the abolition of Ennahdha vigilantes, known as “The Committees to Protect the Revolution,” and the nomination of independent personalities to head the sovereign ministries were not met.
The weakness of both the Salafi Islah Front on the right and the secular partners in the Troika on the left explains the recent call by Rachid Ghannouchi for “a large alliance” to prepare for the coming elections, which should be understood as a call addressed to all secular opposition parties. The only exception is the newly formed “Call of Tunisia,” whose platform presents the party as a political alternative to Ennahdha.
While the Islamists’ attempts to shift alliances may be viewed as opportunistic, it undoubtedly reflects their current vulnerability. This in fact presents a valuable opening for their opponents to end Ennahdha’s hegemony.
Both the U.S. guarantee on government debt issues and the European Union’s assignment of privileged partner status embody a confidence in Tunisia’s transition to democracy. Nonetheless, the West’s leverage could be put to better use if it focuses on supporting the following: (1) the cabinet reshuffle as a precondition to ensuring free and fair elections, (2) making Ennahdha’s continued partnership with secular parties a precondition for future improved bilateral relations, and (3) strengthening Tunisia’s thriving civil society as the best line of defense against attempts to return to autocratic rule.
The combined pressure from both domestic and foreign sources would seriously weaken Ennahdha’s political dominance. The country that was the trendsetter of the Arab Spring movement could be the first to exit the Islamist theocratic quagmire altogether, again paving the way in the transition to full democratic rule.
This extract is taken from a longer article on the Fikra Forum. RTWT