This past weekend, Tunisians protested parliament’s decision to reconsider a controversial law offering conditional amnesty to corrupt business executives and old regime officials. President Beji Caid Essebsi introduced the law — now in its third draft — in 2015 as a way to reintegrate businesspeople sidelined by the revolution. Civil society leaders want to bury the bill, but it has reappeared, haunting post-revolutionary progress toward transparency and accountability.
Many Tunisians are dismayed that the country’s largest party, Ennahda, hasn’t done more to scuttle the bill. Before the revolution, Ennahda’s supporters were blacklisted from employment, jailed by the tens of thousands, tortured, raped and forced into exile. Its base would prefer laws that hold these figures accountable. Yet party leaders, while opposing language in the law’s current iteration, are supporting its core principle: economic amnesty.
Tunisia’s current coalition government supports the law. At its heart are two strange bedfellows: the Ennahda and Nidaa Tunis parties. After the revolution, the Islamist party Ennahda had dominated the 2011 elections. After those elections, in 2012, President Essebsi founded Nidaa — an eclectic patchwork of anti-Islamist forces and vestiges of the former regime — to defeat Ennahda.
Nidaa succeeded, but imploded shortly thereafter. Succession tensions roiling the party erupted in November 2015 when thugs serving Essebsi’s son, Hafedh — who was maneuvering to seize control of Nidaa — prevented its executive committee from meeting. Hafedh’s main rival created a breakaway party, taking with him more than 30 Nidaa MPs. Nidaa managed to lure some of them back, but still holds five fewer parliamentary seats than Ennahda’s 69.
Nevertheless, Ennahda garnered just three of 26 posts in the last cabinet reshuffle. Token representation, said former prime minister Hamadi Jebali. In a January interview at his home, Jebali blamed Ennahda, which he left in 2014, for underutilizing its power. “Ennahda isn’t ruling,” he said. “It’s being ruled.”
His critique echoed the sentiments of more than 80 Ennahda members I have interviewed since the party entered coalition with Nidaa in 2015. Many believe Ennahda has become a kind of self-emasculating giant, underplaying a strong political hand to enable counterrevolutionary resurgence. Jebali suggests hyper-awareness of the transition’s reversibility, paired with fear of political re-marginalization, made its leaders overly eager to embrace old regime forces.
Egypt’s 2013 coup against a democratically elected president sent shock waves through Tunisia, reinforcing Ennahda’s accommodationist bent. Cooperating with old regime elements under the banner of consensus, Jebali said, became like a life preserver, keeping Ennahda afloat in choppy counterrevolutionary seas.
Ennahda leaders know perceived kowtowing to old regime forces incenses their base. Concessions on revolutionary principles have cleaved wider rifts than concessions on religion. The most controversial issue in Ennahda since 2011 was party President Rached Ghannouchi’s insistence that Ennahda MPs reject a popular law that would have excluded former regime officials from office. Essebsi owes his presidency to Ghannouchi’s dramatic descent onto the parliamentary floor to lobby against the law. It failed by one vote, triggering even more disaffection within Ennahda than leaders’ decisions against referencing sharia in Tunisia’s constitution.
But appeasing their base is not Ennahda’s main concern. The stakes for Tunisia’s transition, leaders claim, are too high to prioritize short-term populism over savvy long-termism. Ennahda’s political integration and responsible stewardship, they say, are necessary for the transition’s survival. And, by showing young people prone to violent extremism that political space exists for democratic Islamism, Tunisia offers important dividends for regional security.
Ennahda leaders portray self-preservation as brave and sacrificial. Political bureau member Said Ferjani said that Ennahda has guarded Tunisia’s fledgling democracy against populist threats. “We’ve sacrificed a lot. We’re prepared to sacrifice more.” Influential Ennahda leader Nourredine Bhiri agreed, saying: “Maybe we have to sacrifice votes. But we’ll be prisoners of the past if we don’t move forward.”
Radical pragmatism has become an article of faith among some Ennahda leaders. “We’ve learned that you must do politics with your head, not your heart,” said MP Naoufel El-Jemali. The contrast with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is stark. Whereas the MB blames failure largely on its military alliance, Ennahda’s leadership sees a comparable alliance as key to survival.
Tunisians, however, increasingly look askance on this alliance, which appears grounded in mutual self-preservation. Some criticize the functional partnership between Ghannouchi and Essebsi, who keynoted Ennahda’s historic May 2016 congress, as cynically opportunistic. Outside Ennahda, some speculate old regime remnants are enticing its leaders with lucrative payoffs. Inside Ennahda, others lambaste their leaders for entering self-denigrating deals with the devil. Some struggle to identify principles for which Ennahda stands. “I want my leaders to lead on what’s right,” said Fatma, a 26-year-old member. Otherwise, “What’s the point of all those years in prison?”
Even those who support accommodation feel Ennahda leaders have gone too far. Prominent leader Rafik Abdessalem unapologetically said on national radio that Ghannouchi, his father-in-law, voted Essebsi for president — a distasteful assertion for many Ennahda members. Likewise, even Ennahda members who believe the proposed reconciliation law could speed economic recovery question why party leaders have been outspoken in their support rather than quietly cooperating.
In clinging to “consensus” as a life preserver, Ennahda has tied its success for now to Nidaa Tunis and the ruling coalition. Despite token representation, Ennahda is widely perceived to share responsibility for this government’s success or failure.
Protests in Kasserine last year and in Kef and Tataouine last month — driven by socio-economic marginalization in Tunisia’s long-suffering interior — underscore that no post-revolutionary government has substantially mitigated grievances that provoked Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. Upcoming local elections will gauge the cost of Ennahda’s strategy. The stakes are high, and socio-economic conditions worsening. The Tunisian government’s ability to deliver on revolutionary promises nationally and locally carries with it the fate of the Arab world’s best democratic experiment.
Monica Marks is an Oxford PhD candidate and research fellow with the WAFAW program in Aix-en-Provence, France. This piece was adapted from a longer analysis for the Project on Middle East Political Science.