Tunisia’s largest parliamentary bloc the moderate Islamist Ennahda Movement witnessed the biggest mass resignation in its history this week. The timing of the walkouts occurred just as the movement was escalating its opposition to what it described as Tunisian President Kais Saied’s “coup”.
On 25 July, Saied suspended the Tunisian parliament, dismissed the prime minister and declared emergency measures for 30 days at a time when the country was battling a fierce Covid-19 variant wave and recording the highest death rates in Africa.
After extending the measures for another 30 days, Saied gave them permanent status last week by issuing Decision 117 that suspends parts of the Tunisian Constitution and grants him extraordinary powers to rule by decree.
The decision, issued on 22 September, said that amendments to Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution would be introduced with the assistance of a committee appointed by the presidency.
Four days later as thousands of people protested against Saied in central Tunis, there was an avalanche of resignations from the Ennahda Movement, reaching 131 by late evening.
The dissenting members included leading figures from the movement and MPs who explained in a statement that their departure from Ennahda was an acknowledgement of their failure to reform the party.
The statement called out the movement’s leadership for a string of bad policies that had led to its “isolation” and failure to be actively involved with other Tunisian political parties to counter Saied’s emergency measures.
Internal divisions in Ennahda have been brewing for years over the leadership’s policies, and the movement’s popularity has been declining with every election.
The reverberations of Saied’s political earthquake on its fragile unity are an inevitable outcome of the political changes that have taken place in post-revolutionary Tunisia that Ennahda has grappled with during its past decade in power.
Successive, albeit smaller-scale, resignations over recent years from the movement have cited demands for leadership change, more democratisation within the party, and controversial realpolitik compromises made during its decade in power that have alienated Ennahda’s constituency.
In their statement this week, the signatories to the new wave of resignations said they had felt compelled to emancipate themselves from the movement’s constraints and limitations to prioritise their national duty to defend Tunisia’s democracy.
The statement held Ennahda Movement head and Parliamentary Speaker Rachid Al-Ghannouchi responsible for the political crisis in the country.
Both the 25 July emergency measures and the 22 September Decision by Saied would not have been welcomed by many Tunisians, the statement said, had it not been for parliament’s damaged image.
This was the result of the “populist” performance of its members under the “failed” leadership of its speaker, a reference to Al-Ghannouchi, who had ignored advice against nominating himself for parliamentary speaker to avoid fuelling polarisation and discord, it added.
The statement said the situation had been exacerbated by the “catastrophic” performance of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi’s government in handling the Covid-19 health crisis in Tunisia. The economic crisis in the country had “deepened Ennahda’s isolation” leading to the widespread popular support for Saied’s emergency measures, it added.
The resignations included top figures from the Ennahda leadership, MPs and former members of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly of 2011-2014.
On Sunday, thousands of people rallied against Saied for the second consecutive week in Avenue Bourguiba in central Tunis. Turnout was noticeably larger than during the previous week, while a second counter-protest supporting Saied had shrunk in size. Eye-witnesses said that the police had prevented buses packed with protesters, believed to be from Ennahda, from reaching the Avenue.
“Constitution, Freedom, National Dignity,” they chanted. “The people want what he [Saied] does not want.” Some of the protesters carried placards demanding the intervention of the armed forces to “protect the constitution.”
Decision 117 allows Saied to issue “legislative texts” by decree, appoint the government and set out its policy decisions unilaterally. Parliament will remain frozen, and its members will no longer receive their salaries or enjoy immunity from prosecution. The Decision also terminated the country’s Independent Provisional Authority in charge of determining the constitutionality of laws.
The Decision has not received the support of political parties or civil-society groups, even while the polls say that Saied remains popular. The Attayar, Al-Joumhouri, Akef and Ettakatol Parties said in a joint statement that Saied’s measures “enshrined a monopoly of absolute power.”
On Saturday, a joint statement by 15 local and international rights groups and NGOs said Decision 117 constituted a “power grab” in the absence of guarantees. The statement questioned the absence of anti-corruption measures and impunity in Tunisia’s transitional-justice arrangements and Saied’s decisions.
Tunisia’s influential UGTT trade union described Saied’s Decision as a “danger to democracy” and called for dialogue on Friday. It had earlier been part of a quartet that had addressed Tunisia’s national discord after the 2011 Revolution and was the winner of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
The UGTT initially adopted a cautious posture in response to the 25 July intervention, but this changed when Saied extended the emergency measures. It has called for the formation of a new government and early elections as a precondition to introducing constitutional amendments.
The union said it rejected the president’s “monopoly” on constitutional amendments, describing these as “a danger to democracy.”
“There is no way out without consultation and dialogue on the foundation of national principles,” it said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly