Tunisia’s largest political party, Ennahda, has faced its greatest upheaval since coming to power in 2011, after frustrations towards the party and the country’s economic strain culminated into mass protests in July. While the group has repeatedly adapted its image and political alliances, its recent dislodging from power has left its political future in question.

“Ennahda’s time is definitely up. The Tunisian population cannot trust them anymore. We have wanted them out for a while,” said one Tunisian student, who joined the nationwide protests on July 25. His words echo the increasingly negative public sentiment towards the Ennahda party. Such unpopularity has grown since the group became prominent in Tunisia’s government.

Once an outlawed movement with its members living in exile – during former President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali’s reign– Ennahda gained a new lease on life following the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, which toppled the former leader. Hence, the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired group initially gained sympathy, and grew into the country’s largest party as it became associated with overcoming the oppression that many Tunisians endured under Ben Ali’s rule.

However, it later became synonymous with the ills that have befallen Tunisians since the revolution, including the government’s failure to improve people’s livelihoods and the economy.

Indeed, years of growing resentment towards the government led to the mass protests in July. More specifically, the demonstrations were prompted by the country’s troubling economic situation, political discord, and the perceived ineptitude of Ennahda. Some protestors even stormed and torched Ennahda offices and property.

The recent demonstrations were prompted by the country’s troubling economic situation and perceived ineptitude of Ennahda.

Following this national “day of rage,” President Kais Saied invoked emergency powers after months of political deadlock and disputes with Ennahda. The Tunisian President suspended parliament for 30 days, dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and other senior ministers, ended MPs’ immunity from prosecution, and ordered a nightly curfew – amid the country’s worsening COVID-19 crisis.

“The people were really angry at the government, and in particular Ennahda,” Haythem el Mekki, journalist and columnist at the Tunis-based Radio Mosaïque FM, told Inside Arabia. “Mechichi, who was an Ennahda ally, has really mismanaged the coronavirus crisis. They did nothing; they did not bring a single vaccine.”

Ennahda Tunisia

Tunisian security officers hold back protestors outside the parliament building, in the capital Tunis, on July 25, 2021. (AFP Photo)

While many political parties denounced Saied’s freezing of parliament, the public reaction differed. Despite the controversy surrounding Saied’s measures, an opinion poll released just days later indicated that 87 percent of Tunisians overall approved of the President’s decision. In fact, 76 percent of those surveyed voiced full approval for Saied’s move, while 11 percent were relatively favorable. It is also important to note that no significant counter-protests occurred against Saied’s actions, even after Rached Ghannouchi – the now-dismissed Parliament Speaker and co-founder of Ennahda – urged civilians to peacefully protest.

Political Upheaval

As Saied’s move displaced Ennahda from its comfortable position in parliament, the party fell into turmoil. Senior members of the group demanded the resignation of Rached Ghannouchi, according to Reuters. Among those reportedly calling for Ghannouchi’s resignation were dozens of younger party members and even some of its leaders, including MP Samir Dilou.

Ennahda also postponed its annual Shura Council meeting scheduled for early August. Although the event was eventually rescheduled just weeks later, it showed Saied’s move had triggered an internal crisis within the party.

Although Ghannouchi was one of the first prominent figures to call Saied’s actions a “coup,” he soon backtracked on his claims and in a surprise step, announced his support for Saied.

“We will support President Saied and do what contributes to his success, including our willingness to make sacrifices in order to preserve the country’s stability and the continuation of democracy,” Ghannouchi said, as quoted by Arab News. “We are waiting for the President’s roadmap, and there is no solution except through dialogue under his supervision. We received the message of our people, and the Ennahda movement is open to a review of its policies.”

Ennahda’s conciliatory shift towards President Saied indicates it is now in a vulnerable position.

Ennahda’s conciliatory shift towards Saied indicates it is now in a vulnerable position and may face challenges in regrouping and regaining prominence in Tunisian politics. Although, the party has taken mild steps to restructure the party, as Ghannouchi dismissed the party’s executive committee members on August 23.

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Fading Popularity

A key question is: how much faith can Ennahda regain among the Tunisian public? Since the revolution, Tunisians have repeatedly taken to the streets to protest worsening economic conditions and perceived corruption within the government.

“Ennahda was popular in 2011, right after the revolution, because people were convinced [the group] suffered the most [under] Ben Ali’s dictatorship. They had compassion for them in 2011,” said Haythem el Mekki. “But when they took power, people saw the real picture. Ennahda didn’t care about economics, the social situation, the youth, the [demands of] the revolution—they just wanted to gain more power and profit from the privileges that power provided them.”

“They didn’t fulfil their electoral promises either, and even tried to set up an authoritarian rule that controlled everything, including the media and parliament,” el Mekki added.

While Ennahda has sought to present a more reformist image, public opinion has not been so receptive. The decline in Ennahda’s votes indicates the party’s fading popularity. The group won 1.5 million votes in 2011, but this fell to 1 million in the 2014 elections, and in the 2019 parliamentary elections they received just over half a million votes.

Additionally, a June 2020 poll by Sigma Conseil showed 68 percent of respondents distrusted Ghannouchi, while a survey by Emrhod Consulting found that more than 73 percent of participants were dissatisfied with his performance.

“The Tunisian parliament, under the control of Ghannouchi, has become a parliament that only works for the interests of a few businessmen and ignores all the daily problems of Tunisian people,” Mehdi el Behi, a Tunisian affairs commentator, told Inside Arabia.

El Behi added that, because of this neglect, “Tunisians have seen rising prices over the last few years and the middle-class has more or less vanished.”

Changing Public Image

While originally a conservative movement, Ennahda has tried to present itself as liberal and democratic over time and has even distanced itself from political Islam.

In 2011, Tunisia’s first post-revolution Prime Minister and then-Secretary-General of Ennahda, Hamad Jebali, hailed the bloc as Tunisia’s “sixth caliphate.” Yet many Tunisians and some political parties, who hoped the revolution could follow a secular path, denounced such comments, forcing Jebali to retract his statements.

After undergoing a series of compromises, such as fostering an uneasy coalition with the secular Nidaa Tounes party in 2014, Ennahda attempted to halt its proselytizing activities and “specialize” in politics, as Ghannouchi stated during the party’s Tenth General Congress in May 2016. Ghannouchi claimed that this transformation was not only a shift towards “Muslim democracy,” but was a result of the party’s full participation in a democratic society.

Nevertheless, many Tunisians were still suspicious of the group’s conservative nature, and its intentions. Indeed, Ennahda has been viewed as opportunistic and without principles, only seeking to secure its position in power.

Ennahda has been viewed as opportunistic and without principles, only seeking to secure its position in power.

“Before going into coalition with the Nidaa Tounes party in 2014, Ennahda said it was worse than Salafists, but then formed a government with them,” said el Mekki. “Ennahda also called [2019 presidential frontrunner and Qalb Tounes leader] Nabil Kaouri a mafia guy and a fraud in 2019, even though they formed alliance with him. They even supported Saied, before the recent tensions with him. This makes it difficult for Tunisians to trust them.”

While Ennahda has evidently faced significant challenges, el Mekki believes the party has two options, but there is only one way the party can rescue itself.

“If Ennahda kicks out Ghannouchi, sets up new leaders, and prioritizes serving the country as a patriotic political party, they may still have [a future]  . . . as a moderate conservative party,” he said.

“However, if they continue their current path, and do not change, there is no hope for them to have any real position in Tunisian politics.”