Tunisia's Ennahda vacillating over leader's future in the party

Ennahda is slated to elect a new leader in May, but some members want the vote moved forward in light of the movement's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, now also serving as speaker of parliament, but others appear to want bylaws to be changed to allow him to remain as movement head.

al-monitor Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi attends a campaign event for presidential candidate Abdelfattah Mourou, Tunis, Sept. 13, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

Dec 29, 2019

TUNIS — Amid concerns that a planned electoral conference of Ennahda's Shura Council might be postponed, Abdullatif Mekki, a member of the council, called for expediting the meeting, scheduled to be held in May 2020, four years after the 10th conference in May 2016. The party's 11th electoral conference will select a new leader of the movement, it was announced Dec. 12. 

Mekki accused Ennahda’s current leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, of not being able to fulfill his duties as head of the movement while also serving as parliament speaker. Ghannouchi was elected speaker in November to serve from 2019 to 2024. Mekki, a member of Ennahda's reformist wing, pointed to a clause in Ennahda’s bylaws stipulating that its president must be dedicated to his duties as head of the movement. Mekki said that should he be nominated to succeed Ghannouchi nothing would stop him from running.

Chapter 31 of Ennahda’s bylaws limits the party leader to no more than two consecutive terms. After registering as a political party following the toppling of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Ennahda elected Ghannouchi to head the movement for two consecutive four-year terms, from 2012 to 2020. Prior to that, in 1991, Ennahda had been prohibited from political activity following accusations that its leaders were allegedly trying to overthrow the government.

Shura Council member Mohammed bin Salem told Al-Monitor that the time has come to inject new blood into the movement’s leadership, calling the May meeting a turning point with Ghannouchi stepping down. He also expressed concern, however, that Ghannouchi might remain Ennahda's leader.

 “The conference is scheduled to be held in less than five months, and so far the movement’s Shura Council is still delaying the formation of the elected committees specialized in preparing for it, which shows a deliberate intention to postpone holding the conference,” bin Salem asserted. He also claimed that there had been “unusual” calls suggesting revising the movement’s bylaws to extend Ghannouchi’s tenure.

Ennahda’s Shura Council, consisting of 150 members, is the movement's highest authority. It determines the movement’s direction and major policies and selects candidates to run for the presidency and parliament and to sit in the government.

Bin Salem added that the upcoming conference is particularly important because a radical review of all the results he described as negative for the movement would be conducted, including an electoral decline from attracting 1.5 million voters in 2011 to 950,000 voters in 2014 and this year 450,000 in legislative elections. Ennahda holds 54 of the 217 seats in the parliament.

Ennahda executive office member Rafik Abdel Salam told Diwan FM radio on Nov. 27 that postponing the conference is a possibility since the movement and Ghannouchi were preoccupied with national matters related to forming a government. He stressed that delaying or holding the conference as scheduled is an internal affair, and the party will decide what it sees fit to do politically.

As for the possibility of Ghannouchi stepping down within the party, Abdel Salam acknowledged that no figure is eternal and that parties and institutions are above individuals. He did not, however, exclude the idea of amending the movement's bylaws with the aim of extending Ghannouchi’s leadership and said that it will be discussed within the appropriate party structures.

Abdel Salam’s statements about possibly postponing the conference raised the ire of some Shura Council members. Hamdi al-Zouari responded Nov. 28 in a Facebook post, asserting that the upcoming conference represents a democratic milestone of the utmost significance for Ennahda in terms of accountability, renewal and change. He stressed, “[The conference] is no longer an internal affair but rather a national matter par excellence.”

Political analyst and writer Salah al-Din al-Jourshi told Al-Monitor that the back and forth within Ennahda over the conference is simply the beginning of the political struggle for leadership in the post-Ghannouchi era.

He explained that Ennahda is in an unenviable position of facing calls to respect its bylaws and proceed with a democratic transfer of power versus attempts by pro-Ghannouchi members to find justifications to extend his term so he can serve as both head of the movement and the parliament under the pretext of securing the party's interests and government stability.

Jourshi suggested that the dispute within Ennahda's leadership will be prolonged in the absence of serious signs of holding the conference as scheduled. He believes that moral responsibility requires Ghannouchi to intervene to resolve the matter of either extending or ending his term to avoid aggravating the situation within the movement.

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