When the then Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ousted Bourguiba in a bloodless coup, in what was known as the 7 November Movement in Tunisia, it was natural that the transfer of presidential powers to the new president (Ben Ali) would pose a challenge to article 57 of the Tunisian constitution. The article stipulated: “Should the office of President of the Republic become vacant because of death, resignation, or absolute disability . . . the President of the Chamber of Advisors and the President of the Chamber of Deputies shall immediately be vested with the functions of interim president of the republic.”
Yet despite this constitutional challenge, the overall atmosphere was positive, especially following Ben Ali’s historic statement which promised democratic openness and a political amnesty for members of the opposition in prison or in exile. The Islamic Tendency Movement (ITM)—or Ennahda as it later became known—was the main beneficiary of this initiative, as many of its members were released from prison or returned from abroad.
The dawning of a new era seemed clear; state television and radio stations began airing the call to prayer and broadcasting recordings of Friday sermons. However, the most important change was the announcement of the decision to open up the political arena to political parties and groups—including Islamist ones—to participate in previously outlawed political activities or to establish new political blocs.
At the time, The Majalla magazine conducted an interview with a young leader of the ITM, Hamadi Jebali, who had just returned from exile—although some claim he was living in hiding in the outskirts of the country—having been sentenced to death by the former regime. Jebali spoke to Professor Saleh Qallab—The Majalla’s representative—about the “tolerance” of the new era, and the policies that “herald the Tunisian example as a leading and unique one”. He defended the outbreaks of violence that had accompanied the dawning of this new era, describing them as acts of self-defense on the part of ITM youths. However, what was most startling was his answer about the relationship between the ITM and the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, whereby he denied any organizational relationship with the Brotherhood or any other foreign group. With regards to these other Islamist entities, Jebali outlined the ITM rationale as: “There are common interests, but there is no umbrella organization that combines these forces into a single movement. We believe that this would not be in the interests of our movement and that every Islamist movement has its own unique circumstances” (Tunisia and the Parties’ Law, The Majalla, Issue No. 405, 17 November 1987).
In truth, that interview reveals something of the political realism that characterized Jebali’s thinking at the time, particularly his rejection of violence and emphasis on the need to commit to the constitution and laws within a democratic framework. However, conditions at the time were ultimately not in his favor, as Jebali would go on to serve a prison sentence for nearly 16 years. Meanwhile Rachid Ghannouchi went into exile, effectively dividing the Ennahda movement between two leaderships, one in prison and the other in exile, until the movement united following the overthrow of former president Ben Ali in 2011.
This long introduction is necessary to understand what is going on in Tunisia today, where there is now talk of divergence—or division—within Ennahda between Jebali, who led the Tunisian government after being elected by the constituent assembly on the one hand, and Ghannouchi, the movement’s historic and controversial leader on the other. Some are trying to characterize what is happening as a difference between two camps: the moderates (Jebali) and the radicals (Ghannouchi), or the doves and the hawks, or the former prisoners and former exiles. It is true that it is too early to judge the nature of this dispute, or even its viability, but there is no doubt that Jebali’s stance in solidarity with the street, outraged at the assassination of Chokri Belaid, and his call to replace Ennahda government ministers with more efficient “technocrats”, has sparked a heated controversy both inside and outside the Ennahda movement. Some considered his stance to be a positive indication that the Arab Spring Islamists were in fact prepared to prioritize the national interest of their country ahead of narrow party interests, which in turn prompted discord among some Islamists themselves. But will Jebali continue in this way?
In an interview conducted by an Islamist website ten years ago with Abdallah Zouari, a veteran member of Ennahda and one of its oldest political prisoners, Zouari pointed out that Ennahda’s biggest mistake was to enter into elections [in 1989 as independents] intending to achieve a landslide victory without taking other societal forces into consideration. As a result, an overwhelming fear of religious parties taking control dominated the electoral scene at the time. Furthermore, in his interview Zouari criticized the control exercised by figures based abroad—most prominently Ghannouchi—over Ennahda’s decisions. The former prisoner said, “Internal complexities, the reality on the ground, and all the relevant details remain more visible to those on the inside, by virtue of the fact they actually live there, experience the daily sufferings, and know all the particularities on the ground. The people on the inside are the closest to seeing the real picture.”
There is no doubt that exiled leaders are usually more rigid and radical than leaders at home. While the latter suffer from imprisonment and restrictions on freedom and living, the former living in exile usually enjoys relatively better conditions. Also, leaders abroad are often tied to the interests of other countries providing them with protection or support, and this may detract a movement or party from its natural course. For example, the Iranian Mujahedin-e-Khalq, after being exiled from Tehran, was forced to operate in the interests of the Saddam Hussein regime, and the same goes for a number of Palestinian factions that have been subjected to one regime or another.
In Tunisia, Ghannouchi tried to tie the interests of his party sometimes to Iran, other times to Sudan, and then to “multiple guarantors”, as they say in the Gulf. Today there is an important opportunity for Tunisia to put itself first, and for Tunisia’s political choices to be free from links to any foreign country, including other Islamist regimes and umbrella parties, but unfortunately there are still those inside Tunisia who want to monopolize political decisions under the banner of “legitimacy”. It is true that the winner of the elections has the right to form the government, but that does not mean they can monopolize all decision making, for this goes against the origins and traditions of democracy.
It is noticeable that a former member of Ennahda accused Jebali of undertaking a “dictatorship project”, or of being a “dictocrat” who has incited the left and the Salafists against him, purely because he decided to promote the interests of the state over the interest of his party. Egypt’s President Mursi granted himself sweeping powers, and with that the Islamists rushed to support him in the streets, but in the Tunisian case it was the opposite, simply because Jebali acknowledged that the Islamists were not proficient in administering the state apparatus.
It must be said that after the popular uprisings that have taken place, and the overthrow of the former regimes, the Arab Spring states may yet fall into an institutional vacuum, whereby existing institutions—if any—would be demolished but with no new foundations to build upon. Experts are divided about what would be more appropriate: a parliamentary or a presidential system? Advocates of the parliamentary system argue that the presidential experience in the Middle East has led mostly to dictatorial regimes, while the supporters of a presidential system argue that a parliamentary system is not suitable for the Arab states given the lack of successful parliamentary experience, and political parties resorting to the street to settle their differences, which is exactly what is happening in Tunisia.
The secular parties supported Jebali’s initiative because in supporting it they strengthened their own position; attempting to overcome the dominance of the Islamist parties. As for Ennahda and its Islamist allies, they justified their rejection of Jebali’s initiative on the basis that they would be dismissed from the state administration if it were to come into effect. The insistence of the Islamists on prioritizing loyalty over efficiency when it comes to administering the affairs of the country reflects a crisis in their concept of nationalism, for they are patriots when they are voting, but partisans after that. In turn, this does not bode well for the future of these countries.
Standard & Poor’s recently downgraded Tunisia’s sovereign credit rating, lowering the long-term foreign and local currency ratings by one level to BB-, with a negative outlook for the future. A report from the institution stated: “We think that political tensions have risen sharply in Tunisia, leading to increasing risks to Tunisia’s transition to democracy. Accordingly, we are lowering our long-term foreign and local currency sovereign credit ratings on Tunisia to ‘BB-‘ from ‘BB’”. There is no doubt that Tunisia—which inspired the Arab uprisings—is at a crossroads, the Islamists will now either choose the path of openness and efficiency, or invoke a system of hereditary rule for them and their affiliates. What happens in Tunisia could provide lessons for others.