The En-Nahda Tunisian Islamist party should be celebrating a year in power. Instead it is reeling from a series of powerful blows to its credibility, its appeal to the broader public and its mandate to govern, even in coalition with its troika partners. The past two weeks have seen the eruption of long-simmering grievances against En-Nahda and the sudden coming together of a major political and discursive backlash against it.
One year ago today, En-Nahda’s star seem to be rising fast. It didn’t secure a majority in the October 23 parliamentary elections. But with 41 percent of votes and 89 out of 217 seats, it had far overshadowed its nearest competitors. En-Nahda had little difficulty securing a troika coalition with two smaller, left of center parties, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, and making its secretary-general, Hamadi Jebali, the new Prime Minister.
To be sure, En-Nahda was outnumbered in Parliament by secularists, but they were divided among more than 20 separate parties. With elected Islamists almost entirely concentrated within its own ranks, En-Nahda, at least at first glance, looked virtually unstoppable back then.
But now En-Nahda’s narrative and strategy for achieving national dominance are in dire straits. Two weeks ago, its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, ignited a firestorm of public outrage when he was videoed telling a group of hard-line Salafists to be patient while En-Nahda fended off any “comeback” from secularists and worked to secure Islamist control of the police and army.
This video exploded the narrative – aimed at both Tunisia’s majority and the West – of the “moderate” En-Nahda: reform-minded and relatively liberal Islamists willing to work within a broad-based, tolerant and pluralistic civil state framework. Ghannouchi’s comments implicated En-Nahda in sympathy with at least the motives, if not the methods, of violent Salafist attacks against “un-Islamic” culture, including art galleries, hotels, bars, cultural festivals, and so forth. And it reinforced concerns that En-Nahda engages in a double-discourse, and, in spite of its public protestations, fully intends to secure and enforce an Islamist Tunisia in the long run.
Fears that, behind its public façade of moderation, a violent extremism lurks in the heart of En-Nahda were strongly reinforced over the past weekend. An official of the secular Nida Tounes party – which vies for key constituencies coveted by En-Nahda – died during an attack by En-Nahda cadres in the southern city of Tataouine. Nida Tounes leader Beiji Caid Essebsi emotively called Lotfi Nakdh’s death “the first political assassination in the political struggle of Tunisia.” On Monday, a small but passionate protest against En-Nahda, in response to the killing, was held in Tunis. The atmosphere of simmering violence was underscored by a US State Department “travel warning” regarding Tunisia, and a widespread sense the country could fall victim to rival militias.
The violence is compounded by a struggle over control of the media. Most of Tunisia’s journalists mounted a strike against what they see as En-Nahda’s efforts to reassert state control of the press characteristic of the Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali dictatorship. The primary response of En-Nahda and its partners – to try to bypass mainstream media by establishing their own web-based station to highlight “government achievements” – did nothing to inspire greater confidence in their commitment to a free press.
An even more significant potential long-term threat emerged last week, when the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) launched its National Dialogue Congress (NDC), drawing together some 50 opposition groups.
The UGTT has long cast a shadow over En-Nahda’s aspirations. It is the one group that, under current circumstances, might be able to create a large enough coalition with sufficient power to confront or, if it came to it, conceivably even unseat the Islamist group. As Tunisia’s economy continues to founder, with almost no government effective response, labor-led initiatives become all the more potent.
Although leaders of all three troika parties, including Jebali, attended the NDC opening, it is being boycotted by En-Nahda as a party. The Congress for the Republic officially rejects the NDC as well, but its leaders emphasize they don’t intend to remain in coalition with En-Nahda after 1213.
The NDC has now emerged as, in effect, an alternative to parliament, a parallel and more broadly representative national deliberative body that is treating the troika’s decisions on new elections, the draft constitution and so forth as mere suggestions. Depending on En-Nahda’s long-term stance, the NDC could serve as either a life-line of conciliation or a focal point of confrontation.
This isn’t the beginning of the end for Tunisia’s Islamists, but it is the end of the beginning. It’s going to be very difficult for En-Nahda, or any Islamist party, to achieve the level of dominance or influence the party acquired exactly one year ago. En-Nahda may well have squandered its best opportunity to secure control of Tunisia.