It has become crystal clear over recent weeks that Tunisia is now witnessing a new political crisis.
The Islamist Ennahda Party, opposition MPs, President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Elyes Al-Fakhfakh are all parties to it, with the latter three, though representing different political forces across Tunisia’s political spectrum, being increasingly dissatisfied with the way in which Ennahda wants to direct the country’s foreign and domestic policies.
The latest sign of a clash came late on Tuesday as Ennahda said it will seek a vote of no confidence against Al-Fafhfakh.
This came in response to Al-Fakhfakh's announcement on Monday that he would reshuffle the cabinet against the will of Ennahda, the largest political force in the North African country’s 217-seat parliament with 52 seats, which then called for consultations over selecting a new head of government.
But President Kais Saied wants “no consultations as long as the prime minister remains in power.” As both Saied and Al-Fakhfakh relied on Ennahda’s support to gain office, the causes of the disagreement need to be explained.
According to Mahmoud Al-May, a member of Tunisia’s constituent assembly that wrote the country’s new constitution after the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, Ennahda has been trying to “take advantage” of Al-Fakhfakh’s issues about an alleged conflict of interest to pressure him to include the Qalb Tounis Party in the government, which would need 109 votes in parliament.
“The country’s learning democracy is about blocking certain issues. Tunisians disagree on almost everything, but they agree on one thing: blocking the road to dictatorship,” Al-May said. “There is no corruption investigation hanging over Al-Fakhfakh, but he is suspected of a conflict of interest, which is not a penal issue.”
An independent MP published documents in June that showed that Al-Fakhfakh owned shares in companies that were awarded state contracts worth $15 million. Some MPs want Al-Fakhfakh to resign as a result, while others have unsuccessfully attempted to stage a vote of no confidence against him.
The prime minister, addressing parliament, said he would resign if he was proven guilty, but he also claimed that he no longer owned shares in the companies. Al-Fakhfakh, a former finance minister, joined the Ettakatol Party after Tunisia’s 2011 Revolution. Ettakatol was then an ally of Ennahda.
Ennahda claims that the ruling coalition, which it has backed in the past, must now expand to include more parties, claiming the need for a “better balance” between the government and parliament.
Qalb Tounes, a political force that has 29 MPs, is one party that Ennahda wants to include in government. Local and foreign media outlets have reported that such a step would mean less involvement for anti-Ennahda forces in government, including the Tahya Tounes Party that has 14 MPs and the Al-Shaab Party with 15.
Saied and the opposition parties oppose including Qalb Tounes in government as its leader and former presidential candidate Nabil Karoui has corruption allegations against him.
For Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, disagreements between Ennahda’s leader Rached Al-Ghannouchi and the opposition started “from day one.”
“He has seemed to have soured his relationship with President Saied, so he has few allies right now. The momentum has been building over Al-Ghannouchi’s dealings with Turkey, and now even some members of Ennahda seem to want him gone, so I would not be surprised if they succeed in removing him,” Yerkes said.
She explained that the two main reasons for the disagreement were the relationship with Turkey and “consequently threats to Tunisia’s neutrality in Libya” and Al-Ghannouchi’s interference in foreign policy, the “realm of the president and what some perceive as a power grab.”
A similar argument was made by Nader Hashemi, director of the University of Denver’s Centre for Middle East Studies in the US, who believes that Tunisia is being destabilised by “events next door” in Libya.
“Different political parties in Tunisia are sympathetic to different sides of the Libyan conflict,” he said.
The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya is backed by Turkish troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries in its war against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which enjoys the support of Egypt, Russia and the UAE.
One example of the implications of the Libyan conflict on Tunisia emerged during Saied’s Paris visit in June.
At the time, French President Emmanuel Macron said that “we won’t tolerate the role that Turkey is playing in Libya,” and according to a report in the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat Tunisian opposition MPs accused Ennahda, which reportedly has a pro-GNA stance, of mobilising its supporters in front of the Tunisian Embassy in Paris.
The protesters raised anti-Saied slogans and slammed his economic policies.
The Tunisian opposition is also escalating its actions against Ennahda. Parliamentary sources in Tunisia, the satellite TV channel Al-Arabiya reported on Sunday, said that political forces were “fed up with Al-Ghannouchi’s suspicious moves and practices,” including his “attempt to implement the Muslim Brotherhood agenda” in Tunisia, and accusing him of seeking to expand his authority by disregarding the president.
These forces are willing to hold a vote of no confidence against Al-Ghannouchi, believing that a conflict of interest exists between Al-Ghannouchi’s roles as Ennahda’s leader and speaker of the parliament. They include the Al-Kotla Al-Democrateya Party (40 MPs), Tahya Tounes, Al-Islah Al-Watani (15), Al-Kotla Al-Wataneya (nine) and the Free Destourian Party (17).
Experts with connections to Ennahda are optimistic about the Islamist Party’s political future, however. Among them is Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a think tank, who believes that passing a no-confidence vote is “possible, but unlikely.”
Masmoudi said the main blocs against Al-Ghannouchi were unlikely to get the 109 votes needed to remove him. Masmoudi wants Al-Fakhfakh to either “resign or recluse himself” as the conflict of interest charges against him are “very serious.”
“I don’t think his government can continue for much longer, especially since the case was referred to the courts. The problem is that forming a new government will not be easy and will take several months and possibly lead to early elections,” he said.
This is not the first time that Ennahda, one of Tunisia’s major political parties after the 2011 Revolution, has got into a battle with the opposition blocs. In 2013, after talks sponsored by the Tunisian General Labour Union, the then Ennahda government agreed to step down and hand power to an interim government until new elections could take place.
The assassination of two opposition leaders, Choukri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, at the time had produced a crisis that only ended with talks and a political agreement.
Arnaud Kurze, an associate professor of justice studies at Montclair State University and a Woodrow Wilson Centre global fellow in the US, said that while Ennahda has finally managed “to get a seat at the political table,” Al-Ghannouchi is still seeking to buttress his forces inside the government and weaken others, including Al-Shaab and Tahya Tounes.
“While the Islamist Party’s leadership is positioning itself during this scandal-filled imbroglio to gain political points, Saied’s role is more delicate. As an elected and socially conservative former constitutional lawyer, the role of guardian and arbiter suits him well, but it comes at a considerable risk.”
If he fails to convey the image of an unbiased leader, “the political consequences could be damaging, as they would come at the cost of his political legitimacy,” Kurze said.
But he highlighted the fact that the opposition is not necessarily united, adding that the country’s health minister had “struck a more conciliatory tone” and urged leaders from both sides to find a consensus.
“It remains to be seen whether Tunisia’s mercurial politics will boil over in the days and weeks to come, or whether technocratic forces within the institutional structures will be able to soothe the political tensions and avert a government crisis that will further destabilise an already fragile institutional framework weakened by the effects of the Covid-19 crisis and a global economic downturn,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. The article's electronic version was updated by Ahram Online on Wednesday, 15 July, 2020.