Reviewing the history of the Tunisian Ennahda (Renaissance) movement, it has witnessed stages of ups and downs in its political path. Several features of its social and political decline have emerged since 2011, beginning with the decline in its popularity, divisions among its leaders, and the loss of its power in the former Tunisian parliament. In addition, some of its members refused Ghannouchi’s candidacy for another term, and some of its members and leaders were involved in corruption cases and others that harm national security in Tunisia, including political assassinations and the deportation of young people to hotbeds of conflict. These peaked with the arrest of Ghannouchi, the movement’s head and former Parliament Speaker on 17 April, and led to questioning the impact of these factors on the movement’s trajectory: whether it ended with the arrest of one of its symbols, or does it have the ability to readapt and reintegrate given its previous history.
Indications of Regression
Throughout its history, Ennahda has undergone several transformations. It changed from what was called the Islamic Trend Movement (banned) during the reign of former presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to Ennahda Movement in February 1989, and then into a political party after 2011, thus gradually growing from an Islamic movement to a political party. Tracing its political path, it witnessed stages of ups and downs and did not go at the same pace. The Ennahda movement had an advocacy role in the 1960s before its political practice as an opposition movement to the regime of former President Habib Bourguiba in the late 1970s. After former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took power in 1987, Ennahda faced fierce crackdowns and thousands of its members were imprisoned. Ghannouchi and other leaders were exiled for two decades before returning to Tunisia in 2011 after the Tunisian Revolution. After the fall of the Ben Ali regime, the movement participated in the coalition government, and in drafting the 2014 constitution. However, since its participation in the 2019 elections, societal discontent towards the movement became clearer, in addition to its decline on the level of political practices in parliament. Indicators of the movement’s decline worsened as follows:
Failure to strengthen the Brotherhood project: Following the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, Ghannouchi was able to reengage in political practices. A coalition of 3 parties with a majority in the National Constituent Assembly was formed. Consequently, Moncef Marzouki was chosen as President of State, Mustapha Ben Jaafar as Speaker of the Constituent Parliament, and Hamadi Jebali as Head of government. After the resignation of the Troika government, it was agreed to form a technocratic government headed by Mehdi Jomaa on 29 January 2014. After joining parliament in 2019, Ennahda and its leaders attempted to strengthen the Brotherhood’s project in the region, but to no avail. Ghannouchi, Head of the Ennahda movement, defended the government of Fayez Al-Sarraj in Libya. In a television statement on Nessma TV, he announced that the Head of the Libyan Government of National Accord represents international legitimacy in Libya. As Parliament Speaker, he also sought to have Tunisia involved in conflicts and joining regional axes in contravention of the Tunisian state positions at the time and exceeded his role as Parliament Speaker because of his contact with the Fayez Al-Sarraj.
Poor parliamentary performance: Although the movement won 89 seats out of 217 in the 2011 elections, the number of seats declined in 2014 to 69 seats, and to 52 seats in 2019. With Ghannouchi’s assumption of the presidency of the parliament after the 2019 elections, the parliamentary arena witnessed a state of fragmentation and poor performance. The situation during his presidency was characterized by chaos and loss of confidence in the movement members, until Tunisian President Kais Saied took exceptional measures on 25 July 2021, beginning with freezing the parliament and later dissolving it.
Internal crises: The movement suffers from internal crises and dissatisfaction among youth sectors with the performance of the movement’s leaders. Around 130 young people signed a statement in July 2021 accusing the party’s leaders of failure and negligence, and expressing the need for the Tunisian national interest to prevail over the narrow calculations of the movement’s leaders. Yet, the statement did not meet acceptance from Ghannouchi.
Increasing divisions: The number of divisions among the movement members increased during Ghannouchi’s tenure, along with dissatisfaction with the authoritarian approach he followed in the movement management, and the decline in its popularity as a result of wrong political decisions. Hence, its eleventh congress was postponed at the end of 2021, and many members rejected Ghannouchi’s candidacy for a third term as movement Head because of his unilateral decision and the lack of democratic rotation of the position of movement Head. They referred to the internal by-law and regulations stating that “the head of the movement shall not run for more than two terms”.
The number of resignations in the movement ranks reached about 131 leaders and members of the Ennahda movement in September 2021, most notably: Mohamed Ennouri, one of the movement’s leader and member of the General Shura Council, Abdellatif Al-Makki, Samir Dilou, Mohamed bin Salem, Tawfiq Al-Saiedi, as well as a number of the frozen House of Representatives members such as Jamila Al-Ksiksi, Al-Tomi Al-Hamrouni, Rabab Al-Latif, and Nusseiba Ben Ali, and a number of the National Constituent Assembly members such as Amal Azzouz, the movement’s Vice President Abdel Fattah Mourou, Abdelhamid Jelassi, the movement’s Secretary-General Ziad Al-Adhari, Riyad Shuaibi and Zubair al-Shahoudi). This indicates the internal fragility and divisions within the movement.
Ennahda’s involvement in security cases: A number of its members and leaders were involved in security cases, including accusing the movement of establishing a secret apparatus to supervise assassinations of political figures such as the assassination of activists Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi according to their defense committee. In addition, the movement members are accused of deporting young people to conflict zones in Libya, Iraq and Syria. According to the Tunisian Counter-Terrorism Committee, 3000 Tunisian were in conflict zones in 2019. Former Prime Minister Ali Larayedh and Noureddine Bhiri, Minister of Justice 2011-2013, were arrested as a result of their involvement in granting passports to militants.
Imprisonment of its leaders: Throughout the history of the movement, its leaders have witnessed prisons and exile, and in some periods power and authority. Former prime minister and former leader of Ennahda, Sahbi Omari, and former Secretary-General Hamadi Jebali were accused of engineering the hotel bombings of the cities of Sousse and Monastir on the east coast in 1986. A number of its leaders were prosecuted recently, including former Minister of Justice Noureddine Beheiri, Ali Larayedh and Hamadi Jebali former prime ministers, former parliamentarian Sayed Ferjani, and Abdelhamid Jelassi, a resigned leader.
These in addition to the arrest of Ghannouchi on 17 April 2023 as a result of inciting statements harming Tunisia. The Public Prosecution at the Court of First Instance in Tunis entrusted the Fifth Central Brigade for Combating Information Technology and Communication Crimes to initiate investigations regarding his statements, which carried threatening language: his rejection of the elite’s celebration of the path followed by President Kais Saied, describing them as terrorists, and his expression that Tunisia without Ennahda and political Islam is a civil war project. After the detention decision, security forces searched the headquarters of the Ennahda movement, and arrested a number of members of its political bureau, including Mohamed El-Koumani, Belqassem Hassan and Mohamed Sheniba. The following day the Minister of Interior issued a decision to ban meetings at the Ennahda movement headquarters, as well as preventing meetings of the National Salvation Front in all governorates.
Ghannouchi was previously involved in a number of cases such as financial corruption, money laundering, youth deportation, and supporting terrorism. He had appeared before the Anti-Terrorism Judicial Pole on charges of describing the police as “tyrants”, and was interrogated in cases of corruption and money laundering against the background of transferring funds from abroad to a charitable organization affiliated with the Ennahda Movement in July 2022. He was released with penalties such as freezing his financial assets and travel ban. However, throughout the history of movement’s relationship with the state/ the political regime, its president Ghannouchi was previously detained during the reigns of both Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali.
In light of the aforementioned indicators, and by tracing the historical course of the movement, two possible paths can be indicated as follows:
First: The movement will only be undermined by Tunisian authorities’ measures while readapting to its current state of weakness through the development of a strategy- which it has been accustomed to practice throughout its history- based on developing its external facade, with an intellectual revision more suitable to the society, and diversifying mobilization methods to serve its agendas and achieve its political goals to reach power and authority again.
Following the decision to detain Ghannouchi, Munther Onissi was assigned with his duties and managing the affairs of the movement as its interim president. At the same time, there were subtle messages in Onissi’s words that Ghannouchi is the current and future head of the movement, and his denial of the existence of a vacancy in his position. This suggests that some Ennahda leaders adhere to having Ghannouchi on top of the movement despite all challenges. According to Article 33 of the movement’s Basic Law, “in the event of a vacancy in the position of the head of the movement in cases of impediment to perform his duties, determined by the Shura Council, or submitting a resignation accepted by the Shura Council, or in the event of death, within one month from the date of the vacancy, the Shura Council invites members of the last general conference to elect a new president to complete the mandate in accordance with the Basic Law of the Movement. If it is less than six months until the following the conference, the Shura Council elects a new president to complete the remaining term by a majority of its members”.
Throughout the movement’s history, it has witnessed arrests and sometimes undercover work during the reign of former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali. It was banned from any activity or practice for some time, and had its leaders arrested and displaced. This was not the first time that Ghannouchi faces arrest; in 1981 he was sentenced to 11 years in prison, served about 3 years and was released within a general pardon. He was also sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment in 1988 and 1991, but fled to Algeria, Sudan, and then London. He was granted political asylum in 1993 for about 21 years, and later returned to Tunisia with the revolution. Accordingly, if Ghannouchi is imprisoned and serves some time, he is most likely to resume his political work.
Second: It is expected that the decision to prevent meetings at Ennahda headquarters will lead to the possibility of its dissolution, especially if the authorities in Tunisia issue a ruling to terminate the movement’s activity after the involvement of a large number of its members in several cases such as political assassinations, terrorism, secret apparatus, and conspiracy against state security. Nonetheless, the decision to dissolve the movement may face external pressure from countries supporting it such as the United States, Britain and Germany. This may also meet support by other countries that have a counter-position to the Political Islam currents in Tunisia such as Italy and France.
In conclusion, the imprisonment of its most prominent leaders will not lead to ending the movement’s future. It is likely that Ennahda will adapt to the new changes and have the current leaders managing the next phase of the movement’s history, especially since its members are determined to appeal the decision to ban meetings of the Ennahda Movement and the National Salvation Front.