The radical and sudden changes imposed by Tunisian President Kais Saied last month that included the firing of the country’s prime minister and the suspension of parliament have affected the Islamist political party Ennahda the most, notably because it was the main political force in the Tunisian parliament.
Now suspended from power, the party faces popular anger, as well as the disappointment of its supporters and of some of its leaders. With public rejection, internal conflicts, and concerns over the behaviour of party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who is doing everything in his power to remain at its head, the party is weakening by the day and may be close to disintegration.
While Ennahda has been trying to gather its strength and calm things down by calling for a national dialogue in Tunisia to end the crisis, a lobbying contract it signed with the US public-relations agency Burson Cohn & Wolfe has surfaced, making its mission to regain popular trust even more complicated.
According to reports, the party is using such lobbying in a bid to sway public opinion against Saied’s recent decisions, targeting particularly decision-makers and the media in the United States. The party is looking for US support and a revamped communications strategy in order to manage what is turning into a difficult period for it and to put the president in a bad light.
Receiving foreign funding by political parties is prohibited by Tunisian law, and the apparent willingness of Ennahda to pay a US agency to intervene in Tunisian politics has led the country’s judiciary to open an investigation into the matter.
Spokesperson of the Tunisian Court of First Instance Mohsen Dali said in a statement to the Tunisian TAP news agency that the public prosecutor was collecting data on the lobbying contract and would either open a new case as a result or add the new contract to an already existing case regarding lobbying contracts concluded by Ennahda before the Tunisian legislative elections in 2019.
In a statement, Ennahda said that no contract had been signed with any agency abroad either through its legal representatives or through its leaders. It said that it had not made any financial transfers abroad or received funds from outside Tunisia.
“Ennahda is proceeding with normalising its violation of the laws regulating the work of political parties in Tunisia in order to achieve its agenda, ignoring all the legal consequences and resulting actions that could reach the point of the dissolution of the party,” said Sghaier Hidri, a Tunisian political expert.
“It is not the first time that Ennahda has resorted to such illegal practices. In the 2019 elections, as revealed by a Court of Auditors report, the party also concluded a contract with an US public-relations company, and the Tunisian judiciary recently opened an investigation into this matter.”
“These violations could lead to the dissolution of the Islamist movement, especially in the light of the ‘liberation’ of the judiciary from political pressures,” he added.
However, for many the lobbying contracts and the controversies surrounding them seem to be just part of growing concerns about a party that was once powerful enough to control the judiciary.
Under the pressure of changes resulting from the presidential announcements, the party that for decades presented itself as unbreakable even when in exile has found itself internally weakened by cracks that threaten its very existence.
Ghannouchi, long the public face of the Islamist movement in Tunisia, is today at the centre of such criticisms, except that it is not his political opponents this time round who are attacking him, but his own followers.
The 80-year-old is being blamed for the fall of the government, the seizure of power by Saied, and the anger of the Tunisian people.
More than 100 Ennahda youth members, including MPs and members of the country’s Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, have sent a letter to party leaders calling for the immediate dissolution of its executive office.
They have also demanded the creation of a crisis unit, expressing their support for the decisions of the president, who “responded to the demands of a large section of Tunisian society.”
Their call, however, was ignored by the party’s leaders, who decided that Ghannouchi should remain at the head of the party. This announcement was rejected by several members, who then walked out of a party meeting.
Key Ennahda figure Lotfi Zitoun, who resigned last November, has voiced harsh criticisms of the party, saying that it could not read the signs, had been wrong in its assessments, and had not listened to the Tunisian people.
“In 2019, I advised Ennahda to leave power. Eight years were enough. But no one listened to me, and this is where these three more years have led,” Zitoun told the Tunisian Mosaique FM radio station, echoing others who have chosen silence in the face of the leadership of Ghannouchi.
The current conflicts within Ennahda reflect concerns that Ghannouchi has been leading the party towards disintegration as a result of his authoritarian leadership style.
“However, these conflicts may also be manoeuvres to put Ennahda in a different light in order to calm things down with its opponents. The next few days will tell us more about the fate of this once ‘unbreakable’ political party,” Hidri concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly