Tunis, Tunisia – Ennahdha, the largest party in Tunisia’s parliament, is facing its biggest crisis in decades after President Kais Saied’s shock dismissal of the country’s prime minister and suspension of Parliament on July 25.
Rached Ghannouchi, parliament speaker and Ennahdha’s leader, initially called Saied’s activation of Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution – which allows him to assume executive powers in times of national crisis – a “coup” and “unconstitutional”.
Saied said the parliament will only be frozen for 30 days and that he would “not turn into a dictator”. But, after he lifted the immunity of parliamentarians, politicians from various parties and members of Ennahdha have been arrested over the past week.
The president’s actions could not have come at a worse time for 80-year-old Ghannouchi, who is facing health problems after contracting COVID.
Ghannouchi and his party face their biggest existential crisis since 1989 when former strongman President Zine Abbedine ben Ali banned Ennahdha – resulting in many members fleeing into exile or being jailed and tortured.
Now the party’s future once again hangs in the balance.
Ennahdha was founded in 1981 as the Movement of Islamic Tendency. The party has in recent years separated its religious and political activities and prefers the term Muslim Democrat.
Since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution that overthrew Ben Ali, Ennahdha has been a key part of successive coalition governments and is now the largest party in Parliament, albeit it holding only a quarter of the seats in the assembly.
However, in recent years Ennahdha has increasingly become the focus of anger from discontented Tunisians who blame the party and the government formerly led by independent Hichem Mechichi for Tunisia’s political and economic woes.
Protests over skyrocketing COVID infections and deaths, police brutality and repression, and dwindling economic prospects and unemployment at nearly 18 percent have also been simmering for many months.
On July 25, anti-government demonstrations broke out in cities across Tunisia, with protesters attacking several Ennahdha offices – which ostensibly led Saied, a political independent elected in 2019, to suspend Parliament.
Sofiane Achour, an anti-government activist, told Al Jazeera that the final straw for him came on July 7 after Ennahdha had reportedly demanded 3 billion dinars ($2.2bn) in compensation for those imprisoned and tortured under the Ben Ali regime.
“When people are dying at the doors of hospitals, when we have no oxygen for patients, when we don’t have enough doctors and doctors are dying, they are asking for 3 billion dinars, it is shameful!” he said.
Saied’s move to dissolve Parliament appears to be broadly popular in Tunisia, although Ennahdha maintains a strong core base of support.
Mondher Louinissi, a member of Ennahdha’s Shura Council, the party’s highest authority, told Al Jazeera: “We are an elected party, we had elections and the people chose us”.
However, he acknowledged that Ennahdha has made mistakes and “we need to take responsibility for that. We are in the process of an internal analysis of where mistakes were made”.
‘State of shock’
Ahmed Gaaloul, adviser to Ghannouchi, told Al Jazeera Saied’s moves took the party by surprise.
”We have to admit that there is a state of shock … right now everyone is in a state of fear,” he said.
“It is a radical shift because [Saied] is moving the country from democracy and freedom and separation of powers to a state where power is monopolised by one person and one institution, which poses many risks to the country.”
Ghannouchi had initially called for people to come out and protest against Saied, and he led a sit-in outside the parliament on July 26. Hundreds of Ennahdha and pro-Saied supporters confronted each other outside the parliament, with some throwing stones and bottles.
The authorities arrested four Ennahdha members over the violence, although they were later released without charge.
By the next day, Ghannouchi had reversed his stance, urging supporters to remain calm and to stay off the streets.
It has also emerged that the party is being investigated over finance violations during the last election, allegations it denies.
“What is happening now is very dangerous,” Amal Souid, a former youth MP for Ennahdha in the southern city of Gabes told Al Jazeera.
“This is a defining moment. It is a coup because Mr Kais Saied hasn’t really activated Article 80, he violated Article 80”.
Souid says that, under Article 80, although the president can assume executive powers, it clearly states that the parliament should still sit in continuous session.
Tunisia is now in a state of suspense, waiting to see what will happen over the course of the next few weeks.
“We have not seen a road map or a plan,” Ennahdha youth party member Mohamed Alaiez told Al Jazeera.
“There is no clarity regarding the political landscape and it is time to show a road map and try to reach consensus about the next steps.”
Meanwhile, Ennahdha is divided and the party’s response to the crisis has been hesitant and unsure – exemplified by the reversal in stance over protests. According to both Louinissi and Gaaloul, the party is holding frequent meetings to discuss the crisis. However, only a meeting of Ennahdha’s 150 member Shura council can decide on an official strategy.
The Shura Council was due to meet on Saturday but this was postponed when Ghannouchi required hospital treatment. Louinissi said council the plans to meet later this week but admits that they have lost valuable time.
Political analyst and author Amine Snoussi said Ennahdha’s shifting alliances over the years have led to splits within the movement.
“Getting their own people around the table first will be the big issue,” he said.
Some youth members of Ennahdha have called for its executive to be disbanded and new leaders to be elected, according to TAP news agency, with young party members demanding in a petition for the leadership to “shoulder the responsibility for the failures to meet the demands of the Tunisian people and the climate of tension and unrest”.
However, Souid said not all young party members felt that way and this is not the time for drastic change within the party.
“I am not with them, right now we have to be united because our democracy is in danger. After this is over, we can talk to our leaders.”
Ennahdha’s main strategy now appears to be one of avoiding confrontation and escalation and seeking a national dialogue with all political parties and major civil society actors.
However, Snoussi said Ennahdha’s fall in public standing means it lacks the political clout to effectively lead a call for dialogue.
“They can still make their voice heard but I don’t think people will listen to them when it comes to opposing Kais Saied,” he said.
He said that new elections could not only break Tunisia’s impasse but perhaps also lead to a renewal of Ennahdha, with the old guard making way for a new generation.
“I think the only way out of this situation is new elections,” Snoussi said.
Gaaloul said the risk of violence or a period of brutal repression in Tunisia was mitigated by the country’s flawed but relatively durable institutions and enduring vestiges of democracy – although Saied’s moves could still “lead to chaos”.
He called for political parties and civil society to work together for the country to regain its political equilibrium and move forward.
“We need to get out of this state of fear in order to stay within the sphere of politics and we need to play the political game according to the rules of democracy and civil liberties.”