The crisis in Tunisia’s biggest party

by Francois Conradie 0

Tunisia’s biggest political party, Nidaa Tounes, is in very bad shape owing to internal factionalism. The party was born in a critical period during the ‘Troika’ government headed by Islamist party Ennahdha, when widespread popular resistance against the government opened a big gap for a secularist party headed by a credible administrator.

Nidaa Tounes was that party, headed by Beji Caid Essebsi, who had been prime minister during the interim period that followed the deposition of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Apart from secularism, however, not much united the party’s members and supporters: there were economic liberals and socialists, trade unionists and holdovers from Mr Ben Ali’s ruling party.

Nidaa Tounes did well in the legislative election (although it did not win an outright majority) and Mr Caid Essebsi is now president. Early in 2015 Nidaa Tounes formed a legislative coalition with Ennahdha and named the independent Habib Essid as prime minister.

Since then, differences between currents in the party have led to the emergence of two main factions: one fronted by Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president’s son, and the other fronted by the party’s secretary general, Mohsen Marzouk. Ridha Belhaj, the president’s cabinet chief and one of the party’s founders, is in the Caid Essebsi camp, and many in the Marzouk faction strongly suspect that the president wants to keep his party in the family.

Tensions reached a high point on Sunday, November 1, when party members came to blows at an executive committee meeting in Hammamet; many allege that Mr Belhaj sent the troublemakers (which he obviously denies). On Monday, November 2, the president summoned his son and Mr Marzouk to the presidential palace to try and find a solution to the problem.

A number of the party’s members of Parliament (MPs) declined the invitation, saying that the presidency had no right to interfere in party business, but the two main protagonists were there.

A trip by Marzouk and Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahdha’s leader, to Washington last week is also exciting comment. Mr Ghannouchi, who is arguably the most senior member of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood (MB) still at liberty after the massive crackdown on that group in Egypt, did not release his schedule, but Mr Marzouk did.

His agenda included meetings with David Petraeus, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and currently a director at the huge investment fund Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and with Eric Pelofsky, a senior official in the National Security Agency (NSA). Given that Mr Marzouk has no government position, and that people assume that Mr Ghannouchi met with the same people (or at least the same sort of people), the public mood in Tunisia is one of baffled exasperation.

Secular-minded Tunisians mainly fear that a split in Nidaa Tounes could open the door to Ennahdha taking power again, and a return to the feverish environment of 2013. This seems highly likely to us – we expect to see President Caid Essebsi’s interventions on his son’s behalf to cause further trouble in the party, and the crack in the party will become a chasm.

If the party splits, we see Mr Ghannouchi as more likely to arrive at an arrangement with Marzouk than with Mr Caid Essebsi. On Monday, Mr Ghannouchi said that his party had no intention of taking over and that “we estimate that the current situation requires an alliance between four parties, including Nidaa Tounes,” but a real split in that party would seem like too good an opportunity to miss.

More broadly, thuggery like that on Sunday, and other signs that politics in Tunisia is becoming more ruthless and gangsterish, are a major worry.

Francois Conradie, Political Analyst, NKC