Ennahdha’s real vulnerability – they’re amateurs

Tunisia’s continuing strikes and sit ins have put the ruling Ennahdha party in an uncomfortable and tenuous position. While the social troubles in Tunisia pale in comparison to those in its fellow reolutionary countries, try telling that to a mother who has to walk her children through a growing mountain of trash on the way to school because of an ongoing dispute between sanitation workers and the local government.

Ennahdha’s reaction has been halting and convoluted – and shown just how much they are new to the process of governing. In a word, they’re amateurs.

The government of Ennahdha has been pressed to put an end to these work stoppages. They know well that governments can rise and fall based on popular revolt and they need to show their ability to run government effectively. The problem is that the very nature of Tunisia’s revolution has made them vulnerable to any action which can be construed to go against the popular wishes of the people.

Thus, when Ennahdha calls for an end to work stoppages, they get slammed from the left – after all, wasn’t one of Ben Ali’s biggest crimes the suppression of wages and the cooption of unions? They also get slammed from the right, which doesn’t object a priori to a law and order party – but remains distrustful of the still un-reformed police.

On top of it, Ennahdha’s right wing has made life difficult for centrists. Last week constituent assembly member Sadok Chorou called for a hard crackdown on protesters, invoking medieval punishments such as crucifixion.  Prior to his recent comments, Chorou was already known as a hardliner who had spent 18 years in jail under Ben Ali, after leading Ennahdha in the early 199os.

While his comments sparked outrage and protest among Tunisia’s left wing, it was Ennahdha’s official reaction that was more telling. According to Magharabia.com:

Lotfi Zitoun, conseiller auprès du Premier ministre Hamadi Jebali, a expliqué quant à lui que les paroles de Chourou ne devaient pas être prises “au sens littéral”.

“Il estime que ces sit-ins font du tort à l’économie”, a-t-il déclaré. “Cet homme a passé plus de vingt ans en prison et a été interdit de parole pendant seize ans en détention solitaire, il a le droit de dire ce qu’il souhaite, bénéficie de l’immunité en tant que membre de l’assemblée constituante, et ne peut être jugé sur ses intentions.”

My translation:

Lotfi Zitoun, adviser to Prime Minister Jebali, explained that Chorou’s comments should not be taken “literally.”

“He thinks that these protesters have hurt the economy,” he stated. “This man spent more than 20 years in prison [sic] and  was forbidden from speaking during 16 years of solitary confinement, he has the right to say what he wants, and with immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament, he cannot be judged based on his intentions.”

According to Businessnews, when asked about Chorou’s comments, Samir Dilou, Ennahdha’s spokesman, stated:

il ne faut pas trop s’y attarder, c’est une affaire morte. M. Ellouze s’est d’ailleurs exprimé au nom de tous les Nahdhaouis à la Constituante pour expliquer que le but de la citation coranique n’est autre que de dénoncer les sit-in et leurs méfaits

My translation:

We shouldn’t dwell on this, it’s over. Mr. Ellouze [Ennahdha representative from Sfax] has already stated in the name of all Ennahdha supporters in the parliament that the goal of citing this Quranic verse is for no other reason that to denounce protesters and their misdeeds.

This is but one example of Ennahdha leaders downplaying comments by more extreme elements in their movement. In the case of the Tunisian television head who is being tried in criminal court for airing the cartoon Persepolis, Ennahdha’s official reaction has been that there should not have been violence against the station or its staff, but that the broadcast was inflammatory. In the case of the ongoing sit-in by niqab wearing students at Manouba university, Ennahdha has refused to take a stand one way or another.

It’s these kinds of statements that make Tunisian secularists label Ennahdha the party of multiple discourses, saying one thing to their hardline constituents while saying another to the general public. This very well may be true. Though it should be noted, political parties often have multiple discourses. In the United States, a democrat running for office in Idaho will have a very different message than a democrat running for office in New York City.

But perhaps there is an alternate explanation altogether: Ennahdha are simply amateurs, too used to being opposition members and never really having to lead or confront hostile audiences.

In many ways, Ennahdha’s situation is like that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As Khalil al-Anani wrote recently in Foreign Policy [hat tip Issander el Amrani at the Arabist]:

Paradoxically, despite the outright majority attained by its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the MB is still thinking and acting as an opposition movement rather than a responsible power-holder. It seems reluctant to take full power over the country or as Nathan Brown aptly puts it, “the MB confronts its success.” Hence the MB’s leaders are grappling with making the shift from long-standing repressed mentalities to those of statesmen…

Time after time, Ennahdha has hedged words and responded re-actively to the problems they have faced. While their platform was extensive, they seem vulnerable to attacks by a small minority of secularists. This in spite of the fact that they still enjoy popular support and that most Tunisians genuinely want the government to succeed.

But Tunisia’s Islamist leaders are afflicted by two distinct problems:

1) the breadth of views among their constituents (they were supported by moderate, urban middle class voters, overseas constituencies, the rural poor, as well as hardline religious zealots). Pary leader Rached Ghannouchi shows the moderate, polished, educated version of Ennahdha, while Chorou represents the wing of Ennahdha that languished for years in Ben Ali’s torture chambers prisons.

2) The contradictory message of Tunisian voters. Tunisians overwhelmingly want a return to the calm and order of Ben Ali. At the same time, Tunisians mistrust their police force and want the right to protest against their employers – many of whom supported Ben Ali’s kleptocracy.

Ennahdha’s amateurism would likely have afflicted any other party – it’s always easier to criticize than to lead. But right now, since the elections, Tunisians expect Ennahdha to lead, not to mince words. Time will tell if Ennahdha gets its voice back.

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4 thoughts on “Ennahdha’s real vulnerability – they’re amateurs

  1. Pingback: Can nepotism bring down Ghannouchi? « A 21st Century Social Contract

  2. I have read your writings for a while and was pleased with your coverage of the Tunisian revolution. I do however take issue with this supposed amateurism. Decades of dictatorship made it impossible for any but the lowest and scummiest opportunists to ascend to majors positions in the tunisian administration and to acquire some experience in running the country. For those who did get experience, aside from the election loosers, no one wants them to even dream setting feet any where near a government building. Many of those employed in the government are still under a denial shock and resist simply serving as they were hired to do. They see in the new leaders a danger to their privileges and future .With time they will realize their ultimate boss is the people. that The people chose to be governed by victims of decades of oppression.
    In an ideal situation left and right victims of the defunct regime should have agreed to join a rescue gvt to reestablish order justice and give our new republic a strong foot hold.

    • Thanks, Lotfi. YOu make a good point, that I probably wasn’t as clear about as I should have been. Anyone except for RCDists would be in the same situation as Ennahdha is right now. Ennahdha is the easiest target because they won. But you can also see “amateurism” in the disorder on the far left (like in PDM and Afek), as well as in Ettakatol.

  3. Pingback: La fin du double discours d’Ennahdha? – Tawa fi Tunis

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