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There was an atmosphere of jubilation following Tunisia’s 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections, the country’s first free elections after the fall of autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. The newly formed Nidaa Tounes won 86 of the 217 parliamentary seats and Nidaa’s founder and leader, Beji Caïd Essebsi, was elected to the presidency. Muslim-democratic Ennahda, winners of the 2011 elections, came in second with 69 seats.
A veteran politician, Essebsi had distinguished himself by playing a key role in country’s first transitional government, as well as having served under the successive governments of both President Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Ironically, Essebsi’s presidency was not in the best interest of his party and set the scene for a real-life political drama starring Essebsi’s son Hafedh (nominated in 2013). Backed by his father and in an attempt to maintain the family’s influence, he went head-to-head with other leading party players who were equally determined to elevate their own status. The prolonged infighting was the primary cause of a number of government crises complicating Tunisia’s efforts to find a way out of its economic quagmire. As a result, since the 2014 elections, Nidaa Tounes has lost most of its founders, its principal leadership and nearly half of the parliamentary bloc.
Nidaa Tounes, a centrist, secular party founded in mid-2012, can best be described as the successful outcome of an ‘everyone-against-Ennahda’ strategy, led by representatives of the old regime (the Constitutional Democratic Rally, or RCD) alongside businessmen (represented by the employers’ organization UTICA), the union elite (represented by the UGTT) and supported by a broad range of leftists and liberals.
Following Tunisia’s first democratic parliamentary elections in 2011, the so-called ‘Troika coalition’, comprising Ennahda (89 seats) and two other non-establishment, social democratic parties – the Congress for the Republic (29 seats) and Ettakatol (26 seats) – formed a parliamentary majority. The Troika uprooted the country’s historical power equilibrium and therefore posed a threat to the old centres of power who, afraid of being stripped of their privileges, united around a ‘modern democratic project,’ copied verbatim from former president Habib Ben-Ali Bourguiba.
Despite well-documented human rights violations and the oppression of his adversaries, Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first post-independence president and an excellent marketer, became the symbol of Tunisia’s brand as the “Liberal exception in the Arab world,” particularly based on his women’s rights reforms, which he viewed as a basic condition to modernize Tunisia and integrate the country into an international, i.e. French, civilisation.
Following in the footsteps of the former charismatic and durable leader, Essebsi noted that he, unlike Nidaa’s rival Ennahda, wanted to continue “Tunisia’s modernization path” and bring Tunisia into the 21st century.
Before the uprisings that led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in 2010-11, Ennahda had been banned by both Bourguiba and Ben-Ali, successfully portrayed as “backward fanatics who would destroy the progressive and pro-Western country they were building.” This image of Ennahda, as promising nothing but bad news for the country’s ‘modern values,’ was partly reinforced in 2011 by the freshly-elected Ennahda itself, when openly flirting with Sharia law and defending its inclusion in the new constitution, a position that provoked a long-standing, heated national debate on the identity of the country.
“We had to counter the rise of Ennahda and save the country from political Islam,” says Khaled Chouket, a left-wing co-founder, when asked by Fanack to explain the rationale behind Nidaa Tounes. “The existing secular parties were split and too weak, so we needed a united front around a charismatic leader,” he added, to further clarify the sense of urgency felt by many to create another party in the then already-proliferating political landscape of 80 political parties and hundreds of independent candidates. Internal mismanagement, personal rivalries and dissatisfaction with top-down decision-making had fragmented the secular/leftist parties and weakened them in comparison with grassroots party Ennahda, known for their lively internal democracy.
In Chouket’s view, the revolt of 2010-11 must not be understood as a prelude to a revolution, but rather as a stepping stone towards another political system. When asked about the controversial collaboration of Nidaa Tounes with the old regime, he explains that “reconciliation was part and parcel of Nidaa’s project; their integration was indispensable to stabilisation.”
Strategically capitalizing on a series of destabilizing events, including the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Tunis and two high-profile political assassinations, Nidaa Tounes, relying on the money and manpower of the old regime, emerged quickly in 2013 at the centre of the political spectrum as the opposition movement that could not be ignored. Essebsi, knowing the party could count on the support of its broad anti-Islamist coalition, seized on his guaranteed media exposure. He called for the resignation of the government and the replacement of Tunisia’s first transition assembly in televised shows, blaming the Troika, especially Ennahda, for poor governance and deliberately postponing necessary reforms. Though unproven, many secularists and leftists saw the verbal assassinations as clear confirmation of what they had always believed: that Ennahda was a ‘sheep in wolf’s clothing;’ a political party supporting violent jihadism masked by their ‘moderate’ face. Fostered by the calls from Essebsi and other political elites, these accusations sparked a summer of massive protests and counter-protests that weakened Ennahda and crippled the Ennahda government. The crisis was eventually resolved by the establishment of the Nobel prize-winning ‘2013 national dialogue’ and followed by the Troika stepping down.
In the elections that followed in 2014, nurturing the seeds they had carefully planted, Essebsi’s political track record proved to be Nidaa’s trump card. He enabled Nidaa Tounes to exploit the economic downturn and the growing violence, while his previous role as a minister under Bourguiba made him the perfect ‘Bourguiba the second,’ promising his supporters “to restore the prestige of the state and to unite Tunisia.”
Tahar Saher, said to be a supporter of Nidaa from the very beginning but who recently decided to quit, doesn’t need many words to explain to Fanack what he believes will follow: “nothing but personal conflicts and internal settlements.”
To Chouket, however, it is a more complex story: “Nidaa’s issues reflect the obstacles on the path of Tunisia’s democratization,” he says. “Nidaa has made important contributions to the constitution of Tunisia’s democracy. The biggest internal challenges facing the party are accommodating differences, as well as the organisation of Essebsi’s succession, but these problems can be solved,” he summarized the current situation.
Despite his smart-brand strategy, Essebsi’s controversial decision in 2013 to nominate his son Hafedh Caïd Essebsi as the party’s executive director, viewed by a group of party officials as reminiscent of the nepotism of the old regime, can, in hindsight, easily be characterized as a cardinal mistake. In addition, two other game-changing items of internal discord emerged in 2014.
Essebsi’s ascension to the presidency left a power vacuum within Nidaa Tounes and the party found itself in a state of disarray. There were already deepening divides made worse by the step of forming a coalition with Ennahda. The party was divided between those who prioritised inclusion and national consensus and the ‘hardliners’ for whom collaboration felt like capitulation.
After the first government crisis in 2015, the party’s then secretary-general Mohsen Marzouk left the party, together with a group of members and deputies, to create the Machrou Tounes party. Eventually, the resignations reached the point at which Nidaa Tounes’ parliamentary bloc dropped from first place to third (58 seats, whereas Ennahda retained 69 seats).
A second climax would take three years to come to fruition and starred Youssef Chahed, a proverbial new kid on the block when Essebsi parachuted him into the role of Minister of State for Fishing in 2015. Chahed had a meteoric trajectory towards the position of prime minister (PM) in 2016 in a bid to replace the former head of government Habib Essid. He maintained a low-key style during Essid’s first months as PM, but in the second year, rumours about disagreements with the president quickly arose in the media. Many versions of the same story circulated to explain the big plot twist, yet there are a number of indications that political discontent with the younger Essebsi motivated the prime minister to move away from Nidaa Tounes.
In effect, Chahed began to act as actual prime minister, transforming the conflict into one between the executive branches, i.e. the president and the government, while stoically ignoring the call of the Essebsi’s clan to quit, catalysing yet another schism in the party, which resulted in an exodus of Nidaa Tounes representatives from the Essebsi Camp to the Chahed Camp and back. This prompted the president to announce the end of the consensus government with coalition party Ennahda, which sided with Youssef Chahed.
The story moved developed further when Slim Riahi, originally the founder and leader of the liberal Free Patriotic unity, became party leader after his party merged with Nidaa Tounes. Also known for his ‘corrupt businesses,’ he made his entrance by starting legal proceedings against the PM and other officials, charging the PM and other officials with an attempted coup against the president.
This move came in response to a partial cabinet reshuffle by Youssef Chahed, without obtaining the consent of neither Essebsi senior nor Nidaa Tounes. The ruling party had called on its members in parliament to boycott the cabinet changes. Instead a number of them resigned from the party and voted in favour of it. With Nidaa’s parliamentary bloc boycotting the vote of confidence regarding Chahed’s new cabinet, it manoeuvred itself, practically speaking, into the opposition.
Voters now seem to have had enough. The low turnout in Tunisia’s first local elections, held in May 2018, falling from more than 90 per cent in 2011 to 66 per cent in 2014 to only 33.7 per cent of registered voters, might be a bad omen. This should arguably be a bigger concern than the future of Nidaa Tounes. Is Tunisia heading to a democracy without voters?