Tunisia : Ennahda’s post-election future

Tunisia’s 26 October elections saw the emergence of the Nidaa Tounes Party, recieving 38 per cent of votes. Ennahda has been forced to accept defeat at the hands of secularist parties. This presents the question about the relevance of Ennahda and political Islam in Tunisia.

During the four years following former president Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011, Tunisians have experienced tumultuous changes : the economy has stagnated, security has worsened, and increased freedoms have wrought a resurgence in public expressions of religiosity. On the political scene, four governments have been formed, two politicians have been assassinated, and a new constitution has been adopted in its fourth draft.

The 26 October elections heralded the end of the transitional phase and formalised the emergence of the Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) party, which received almost 38 per cent of the vote in the poll. The Islamist Ennahda party, which had previously secured 37 per cent of the vote in the country’s 2011 election for the transitional Constituent Assembly, has been at the helm for most of the transitional period, in coalition with the Congress for the Republic (CRP) and Ettakatul. Ennahda was (rightly or wrongly) blamed for the decrease in security and Tunisia’s economic stagnation, and the party has been the rallying point for the formation of secular parties such as Nidaa Tounes and the Popular Front. Ennahda’s diminished returns in the recent election has however raised questions around its sustainability and the future of political Islam in the country.

Electoral outcomes and their consequences

The October election saw more than 1300 lists with over 9500 candidates vying for the 217 seats in the Assembly of People’s Representatives (PRA). The electoral system is one of proportional representation between closed party lists. In contrast with the 2011 election, no lustration clause barring former Ben Ali regime figures from participating was instituted. Though voter apathy had been a concern, over 60 per cent of eligible voters participated, higher than the 52 per cent turnout in the 2011 election.

The election results surprised many, even though pre-election polls had pointed to Ennahda’s waning popularity – the highly respected International Republican Institute’s (IRI) 2014 survey placed Nidaa Tounes on 24 per cent and Ennahda on thirteen per cent. Ennahda saw its dominant position in the assembly diminish, receiving only 28 per cent of the vote (69 seats), while the recently-formed Nidaa Tounes garnered just under 38 per cent (86 seats). Since no party has gained an outright majority, a ruling coalition must be formed, similar to what occurred after the 2011 election. It is worth mentioning that such results are inevitable ; given the country’s unwillingness to institute a minimum threshold and adopt the Hare Quota, smaller parties have gained seats in the assembly.

Ennahda has not ruled out the possibility of joining a Nidaa Tounes-led coalition. The party has expressed its preference for a unity government ; Rached Ghannouchi had previously stated that the party would even be willing to work with Ben Ali remnants to realize this. Furthermore, it has desisted from supporting a candidate in the forthcoming 23 November presidential election so as to smooth the path for possible negotiations over the cabinet’s formation.

Most analysts have argued that the difficult measures required for the country to return to a more equitable growth path would have a greater chance of being accepted by the population if a unity government was at the helm. Moreover, both parties espouse a neoliberal economic agenda, and improving the country’s investment and business climate is a cornerstone of both economic platforms. Both have also been opposed to the non-payment of international debts incurred by the Ben Ali regime, and both have refrained from advocating for a more progressive system of taxation.

Despite these commonalities, it is questionable whether Nidaa Tounes would want such a coalition, given that it was founded in July 2012 on an explicitly anti-Islamist platform. Comprised of a hodgepodge of secularists, trade unionists, business personalities, destourians and former Constitutional Democratic Rally (RDC) members, Nidaa’s sole unifying feature is its opposition toward Ennahda’s Islamist tendencies. Beji Caid Essebsi (Nidaa’s current head), has frequently framed his party’s ideology as modernist, juxtaposed against Ennahda’s supposed Islamist tendencies. Further, Nidaa has yet to organize a national congress to elect its leadership and define its agenda, and is currently controlled by many former RDC officials who were part of the widespread suppression of Islamists during Ben Ali’s twenty-three year reign. Moreover, Nidaa vocally advocated for the Ennahda-led government’s dissolution subsequent to the 2013 assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brami, and was a significant actor in the Salvation Front’s successful attempt to render the country ungovernable.

Hence, a coalition between Nidaa and other smaller parties such as Afek Tounes (8 seats), or the left-wing parties coalesced under the Popular Front banner (15 seats) is far more probable. Though these parties have divergent economic views to that of Nidaa (the Popular Front is opposed to the IMF and has advocated an increase in taxes), their mutual abhorrence of Islamism may lead to a narrowing of these differences. These parties had also previously been part of the Salvation Front and had worked together with the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) to ensure the collapse of the Larayedh administration following Brami’s assassination. In light of this cooperation, the various statements from smaller parties within the Popular Front, about their discomfort in partnering with Ben Ali remnants, hold little water.

Ennahda’s fall from grace

Economic stagnation

The party’s wane had been predicted on the basis of Tunisia’s economic reversal since 2011 and the drastic increase in insecurity.

Ben Ali’s ouster was predicated on the worsening economic conditions resulting from his regime’s implementation of World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programmes and its disproportionate focus on the country’s coastal areas. Thus, hinterland regions such as Cidi Bouzid and Gafsa were among the first to protest and advocate for the regime’s ouster.

Thus far, the uprising has not delivered significant improvement. Political wrangling, coupled with Libya’s fragmentation, have exacerbated the situation. Tourism and investment have decreased, and unemployment increased from 13 per cent in 2010 to around 17 per cent in 2014[AK1] . Tellingly, graduate unemployment, which was already more than 10 per cent higher than overall unemployment, has increased to over 32 per cent[AK2] . The Tunisian Dinar has also depreciated against the dollar, raising the cost of the country’s many imports, and increasing inflation. Moreover, little of the forty billion in assistance that was promised to post-uprising states has been forthcoming.

Ennahda’s inability to develop a coherent economic program, and its failure to integrate the interior regions, have contributed to the deterioration ; in areas such as Cidi Bouzid and Kabili graduate unemployment rose from 41 to 57 per cent in Cidi Bouzid, and 42 to 60 per cent in Kabili. Houcine Jaziri (a former minister in both Ennahda-led governments) reiterated this, arguing that the party had too many politicians and not enough economists. While asserting that it disproportionately focused on moral issues, Jaziri has argued that lessons have been learnt.

Security deterioration

During the Ben Ali era Tunisia was a ‘security state’. In what is referred to as the ‘autocratic bargain’, the regime sought the provision of economic growth and stability in exchange for securitising the state and cracking down on all forms of dissent. Ben Ali, a respected partner in the US’s global war on terrorism, jailed thousands under the country’s 2003 anti-terrorism laws, including many Ennahda moderates. The security apparatus also suppressed militancy ; the Suleiman group, trained by the Salifist Group for Preaching and Combat, was vanquished through the killing and imprisonment of its members.

However, all this changed during Ennahda’s period in office,
since the party’s tolerance for diversity and belief in integration allowed those espousing more conservative strands of Islam to operate. Many joined the Ansar Al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) group, which has an antagonistic relationship with democracy. Though mostly peaceful, some of AST’s members attacked bars, art galleries and movie theatres, culminating in the 2013 assassinations of Belaid and Brami. Ennahda has since supported a crackdown on AST, which was declared a ‘terrorist’ organization. But the damage had already been done ; opposition politicians accused the party of supporting AST and succeeded in ousting it.

Regionally, the conflict in Syria and disintegration of Libya have also contributed to increased militancy within Tunisia. AST’s support for the Nusra Front in Syria has led it to facilitate recruitment of Tunisians wishing to fight in Syria[AK3] ; while Libya’s porous borders have been used to smuggle weapons into Tunisia and Algeria[AK4] . This has precipitated the formation of a Jihadist fringe in the country (Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi), which has clashed with Tunisian soldiers in the Chaambi region. In July, 14 soldiers were killed in clashes with the group, while prior to the October election six people had been killed in a military raid on a house in Western Tunis.

Opposition parties took advantage of this, forcing a cabinet reshuffle in February 2013 and a full cabinet dissolution in January 2014. Ennahda was also forced to compromise in drafting the constitution ; the proposal for a parliamentary system was relinquished, the Constitution makes no mention of Sharia as a ‘source amongst sources’ of law, and the party’s views on woman were altered.

These perceived failures have disillusioned many Tunisians. Over
77 per cent of individuals surveyed during early 2013 said the country was following the wrong path, while more than 70 per cent believe that politicians in Tunis are not concerned about the country’s other regions, and a majority of respondents indicated that all parties are only interested in resources and power.

Ennahda’s lack of institutional presence

This has been exacerbated by the party’s lack of institutional presence. During the Bourguiba and Ben Ali eras hyper secularization had been attempted. The head scarf had been banned ; a code of personal status had been enacted ; and the country, unlike most majority Muslim states in the region shares its weekend with France. Further, when the Ennahda movement, previously called the Movement for the Islamic Tendency, posed a threat to the Ben Ali regime, attempts were made to eradicate it. Unlike in Egypt and Jordan, Islamists were not allowed to run charities and participate in civil society activities. Thus most ordinary Tunisians –who were raised during the crackdown period – had little exposure to Islamism or groups such as Ennahda. The party received 37 per cent of the 2011 vote mainly as a result of its members’ credentials, many of whom were exiled, imprisoned or tortured by Ben Ali ; and also because of the elitist, incoherent discourse utilized by other parties.

This has meant that Ennahda has had less leeway and time to establish itself with the electorate. The time period allotted to it has been minuscule when compared to that of most parties who gain power following negotiated revolutions. In the recent election the party had mainly been judged on its ability to reinvigorate the economy and improve the country’s security ; areas in which it had performed poorly.

Future prospects for Ennahda

Though it has performed poorly during the recent election, Ennahda still remains a prominent actor in the country’s political scene. Its 28 per cent of seats will provide it with a considerable voice in the country’s governance, especially in light of the powers imbued to the PRA. Fears have been expressed regarding the future of political Islam in the country, especially if Essebsi is victorious in the forthcoming presidential election, since his hatred toward the movement could lead to a crackdown on religious freedoms and inhibit the party’s ability to operate. However, Ennahda’s strategic acumen has led it to support the creation of institutions to prevent this. The party’s long-term view, which saw it relinquish power in January 2014 and refrain from nominating a presidential candidate, has resulted in the creation of various bodies to both monitor and separate power. The constitutional court, the high council of justice, the human rights board, and the high independent authority on audiovisual communications, will all constrain attempts aimed at reversing the democratic process and suppressing the many freedoms that have been secured since Ben Ali’s ouster.

Moreover, the party’s loss may prove beneficial in the long term, particularly in a regional context wherein reactionary republics (Syria and Egypt) and monarchies (the Emirates and Saudi Arabia) have expanded much effort in resisting the impetus to change by cracking down on Islamist movements. During March the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In addition, the crackdown on the Egyptian Brotherhood and the Israeli invasion into the Gaza strip to weaken Hamas was funded by these states[AK5] . Meanwhile in Libya, the UAE and Egypt are currently providing military and financial assistance to the renegade General Khalifa Haftar in his fight against the Libya Dawn militias. Tunisia’s relative lack of geopolitical significance and the country’s maintenance of a weak military had meant that it has experienced less pressure from Gulf monarchs, however the UAE’s reported funding of Nidaa Tounes clearly illustrates the intentions of these states and the strategies they might adopt in order to stall change.

Lastly the country’s economic difficulties are unlikely to improve in the short term. The three and 4 per cent economic growth predicted for 2014 and 2015 respectively are unlikely to improve conditions for the majority of Tunisians unless drastic steps such as tax and subsidy reforms are enacted. In addition, the problem of militancy may increase with the Syrian and Libyan crises both remaining intractable. Nidaa Tounes’s unwillingness to implement tax reforms owing to its constituency, and the party’s intention to not renege on Ben Ali regime’s accrued debt will mean that similar problems will face Tunisian citizens come the 2019 election. This will allow Ennahda an extended period of time to increase its local presence and formulate an economic program that would improve the lives of ordinary Tunisians.


Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.