The leader and co-founder of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda Movement, Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, has come under pressure from prominent members of his party to step down and not obstruct the rotation of power.
The move by 100 figures in Ennahda came in the form of a letter addressed to Al-Ghannouchi on 16 September asking him to declare that he would not run as president of the movement for a third term.
The timing of the letter, ahead of Ennahda’s 11th convention scheduled for the end of the year, seeks to exert pressure on Al-Ghannouchi to respect the movement’s bylaws that prohibit the election of a president for more than two four-year consecutive terms.
Al-Ghannouchi was elected president of Ennahda in 2012 and 2016 and has been at the helm of the movement as its intellectual leader for decades. After the 2011 uprising that overthrew the regime led by former Tunisian president Zine Al-Abidine Bin Ali, the formerly banned Ennahda became a legal “Muslim democrats” party.
Its electoral victories since then have placed it at the forefront of Tunisia’s nascent experiment with democracy, but they have also affected its popularity in recent years. Tensions within Ennahda have been brewing over its performance as an active political player in changing times.
The five-page letter entitled “Ennahda’s future, between the dangers of extension and opportunities for rotation,” was signed by movement heavyweights including from its Shura Council, its highest authority and effective leadership, its executive bureau, and MPs.
The letter emphasised the rotation of power in Ennahda, as per chapter 31 of its bylaws, and the election of a new president of the movement at the upcoming 11th convention planned in December.
Ennahda’s president is required to be fully devoted to his responsibilities as leader and not to occupy other posts. Al-Ghannouchi, 79, is also speaker of the Ennahda-majority Tunisian parliament.
The signatories to the letter warned of attempts to amend the movement’s bylaws in order to allow Al-Ghannouchi to extend his term in office, which could affect its unity and lead to serious divisions. “Changing constitutions and laws to empower presidents and leaders to remain in power are acts of authoritarianism and one-man rule,” they said.
The rotation of power, said the document, was a practical test for both the movement’s democracy and the leadership’s commitment to it. Al-Ghannouchi has not responded publicly to the document, but has reportedly rejected the initiative.
“Leaders have thick skin,” Al-Ghannouchi said in a statement attributed to him. “They tolerate shocks and absorb vicissitudes.” There was a difference between the rotation of power of heads of state and party leaders, he said, accusing the signatories to the letter of “imposing” their guardianship on the movement ahead of its convention under the guise of democracy to exclude him from office.
“It’s a storm in a teacup,” he said.
In recent years, several influential figures in Ennahda have resigned and spoken out publicly against its politics and policies. This has been a normal, if not predictable, development of the movement’s engagement in politics, say observers.
“Tensions inside Ennahda have been growing, especially since it resumed normal politics. It’s been a decade now, many things have changed, but Al-Ghannouchi is still the ultimate leader,” said Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based political analyst.
After almost a decade of post-Revolution Tunisia, Ennahda might be moving towards a post-Al-Ghannouchi era. “New leaders are emerging in the party,” said Cherif, but “Al-Ghannouchi wants the status quo and is not ready to leave. His response is that of a founding father in denial.”
Al-Ghannouchi, who has a degree in philosophy from Damascus University, founded the Islamic Tendency Movement in 1981 that called for democracy and the end of Tunisia’s one-party system. He was arrested a few months later and left Tunisia for the UK following his release in 1988, where he remained in exile until the 2011 Revolution.
Under his watch, Ennahda had formed several coalitions with the secular parties that have steered Tunisia’s turbulent political scene away from the failures of other Arab Spring experiences.
But Tunisia’s democratic success has not paid off on aspirations of economic stability among other grievances. In the 2019 elections, Tunisia’s electorate voted against the country’s traditional parties, including Ennahda, which despite its majority in parliament did not get enough seats to form a government.
“Al-Ghannouchi sees himself as fundamental to the future of the party: as long as Ennahda wins the elections, he considers that he is on the right track,” Cherif told Al-Ahram Weekly.
But by rejecting demands to step down, Al-Ghannouchi could trigger a serious fracture in Ennahda, which the document’s signatories are sensitive to.
“Al-Ghannouchi’s response to the letter does not change anything,” said Zobeir Al-Shahoudi, a leading figure in Ennahda. “But if he accepts it, he will save us from an internal battle that no one wants,” he added.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly