Ennahdha needs to change to save itself, and Tunisia’s democracy

Ennahdha is perhaps the only force remaining in Tunisia that can realistically act against President Saied’s autocratic regime – but to succeed, it needs to reform itself.

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia''s moderate Islamist Ennahda party, attends the parliament''s opening with a session to elect a speaker, in Tunis
After the 2011 revolution, Ghannouchi’s Ennahdha has opted for a politics of reconciliation and compromise that have alienated most voters and even some of its core base, writes Guesmi [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

Tunisia’s democracy is once again at a dangerous crossroads.

After the dissolution of the parliament and the Supreme Judicial Council, President Kais Saied’s move to force the adoption of a new constitution following a highly contested referendum demonstrated that Tunisia is once again on the path towards autocracy after a decade-long, genuine democracy-building process.

Although various political parties and forces have sought to challenge the president’s decisions in the past year, they remain, for the most part, too fragmented to effectively present any real challenge to Saied’s project. For instance, Popular Destourian Party (PDL) has found it challenging to rally Tunisians behind its programme after Saied coopted most of its leader Abir Moussi’s populist tactics such as claiming to speak for the people and emphasising the need to return to the “order and stability” of the Ben Ali era.

Indeed, the most plausible post-referendum scenarios are all bleak, and the return of the worst aspects of the Ben Ali dictatorship now seems almost unavoidable to many.

Currently, there are only two forces in the Tunisian political landscape that still appear to have some capacity to provide meaningful resistance against Saied’s autocratic regime supported by the country’s powerful security apparatus: the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) and the Ennahdha party.

Since the July 25, 2021 coup, however, the UGTT largely proved itself to be a colossus with feet of clay. The UGTT leadership has found it challenging to adopt a clear vision and direction since Saied’s rise to power. After Saied launched his assault on democratic institutions, the UGTT first supported his decision to dissolve the parliament and backed up his dangerous political experimentation. Only when they were sidelined from negotiations with the IMF did the union’s leaders decide to challenge the president’s project and call for a general strike. They however once again changed their stance last month and refused to call for a boycott of the constitutional referendum or at least campaign for a “No” vote. Instead, the UGTT leadership chose to distance itself from both Saied and Ennahdha, marginalising the union’s political influence significantly in the process. The UGTT’s recent agreement to a “social contract” with Saied’s government to help materialise the IMF rescue programme is another politically unsavvy decision.

As such, Ennahdha is perhaps the only force remaining in Tunisia that can realistically act against Saied’s autocratic regime.

Saied appears to be well aware of the crucial importance and enduring political influence of Ennahdha, as his regime continues to abuse and persecute the party’s leaders and prominent supporters.

Since last year’s coup, several senior Ennahdha officials have been jailed or placed under house arrest, a fire engulfed the party’s headquarters, and the party’s leader, former parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, has been subjected to a money laundering investigation that he categorically rejected as “a political ploy”. Ghannouchi recently stated that he believes Saied may try to ban his party from running in the upcoming parliamentary elections or even move to dissolve it.

To counter these challenges and to save Tunisian democracy from Saied’s authoritarianism, however, Ennahdha needs a reality check. For now, the party appears to be caught in internal struggles and oblivious to its responsibility as the country’s main opposition force to build a resistance against Saied’s efforts to fully institutionalise his authoritarian rule. If it is to end Saied’s assault on democracy, the party needs to reckon with the many mistakes of its disastrous decade in power, radically reshape its political agenda, restructure its internal machinery, and build a new vision for Tunisia’s future around new, younger leaders.

The need for a brand new Ennahdha

After the 2011 revolution, Ghannouchi’s Ennahdha has opted for a politics of reconciliation and compromise that have alienated most voters and even some of its core base. During its time in power, the party repeatedly failed to address the shortcomings of the Tunisian economy and prepare the country for expected downturns and struggles. The party’s apparent inability to plan for the future and instigate meaningful change caused it to gain a reputation for being a “do nothing” organisation that contributed to and even caused the hollowing out of the 2011 revolution’s democratic aspirations. As a result of all this, Ennahdha received its worst results since the revolution in the 2019 parliamentary election.

Another important problem the party currently faces is the fact that large swaths of Tunisians simply do not like Ghannouchi. A year after Saied’s coup, many continue to blame the veteran political leader – and thus his party – for every one of Tunisia’s major problems, from poverty, food insecurity and corruption to inequality and declining human rights and fundamental freedoms.

One obvious argument against Ghannouchi’s continued leadership – beyond his ever-declining popularity – is his age. At 81, Ghannouchi is seen by many as someone who is still fighting the political and ideological battles of the last century. The impression that it is still being ruled by “the elderly” is preventing Ennahdha from expanding its political influence and reducing its ability to emerge as a significant force of resistance against Saied’s rule.

Many in the party are aware of this problem. Just last year, more than 100 prominent party officials resigned in protest against Ghannouchi’s leadership. Today, Ennahdha’s sympathisers and critics seem to agree that Ghannouchi is not seen as a political figure who can bring about change by most Tunisian voters.

This, however, does not necessarily mean the party leader is on his way out. As a political veteran who has the respect of the high cadres of his party, Ghannouchi can survive most challenges to his authority. Of course, by staying in power despite the clear message of disapproval coming from the electorate and the younger wings of the party he is risking undoing his legacy and becoming a burden to his party. For the sake of Ennahdha, as well as Tunisian democracy, Ghannouchi should move to hand over the control of the party to someone who can connect with voters and unite them against Saied.

The future of Ennahdha

Despite its leadership crisis and the massive disconnect from its base, Ennahdha is still a force to reckon with. The party remains the best structured and widest-reaching political organisation in Tunisia. It also still receives significant support from conservative and right-leaning Tunisians.

To reach its full potential, however, it should embark on a radical overhauling of its executive office and work to build a new, modern public image around a much younger leader. The party desperately needs new leadership that can articulate a political and economic vision that will inspire disenchanted voters and give people reason to resist Saeid’s authoritarian ambitions.

If it gets its act together and quickly implements reforms, Ennahdha can put itself in a position to renegotiate its relationship with the Tunisian security services and make sure these influential forces are not merely serving Saeid’s regime. Tunisia’s military and police may be pressured into entering into negotiations with a strong opposition block spearheaded by Ennahdha given Washington’s well-publicised concerns about democratic backsliding in Tunisia after last year’s coup, the spectre of instability in the post-referendum era and the economic woes still crippling the country.

The parliamentary election that will take place in December can be an opportunity for Ennahdha to reform its party and national politics and show that it can still resist and counter Saied’s efforts to consolidate his regime. But if it is to save itself, and consequently Tunisian democracy, it needs to show that it can change for the better and truly engage with the political and economic demands of all Tunisians.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.