Can nepotism bring down Ghannouchi?

Charges of nepotism have swirled around Rached Ghannouchi, the de-facto leader of Tunisia’s ruling party, Ennahdha. In the weeks since forming a new government, Ghannouchi has shrugged off charges that he is promoting his family members. However, unlike other charges that Ennahdha opponents have hurled at Ghannouchi, these charges might stick – and they could become very destructive to Ghannouchi and his party.

There are three cases of nepotism that have been widely reported on. The first, and most serious, is the inclusion of Ghannouchi’s son-in-law, Rafik Abdessalem, in the new government – in the important position of Minister of Foreign Affairs. Abdessalem, while well-learned and far from a new comer in Ennahdha’s ranks, also has been criticized as having come into his position after a stint at Qatari television station Aljazeera. This latter fact plays into Tunisian fears of foreign interference into their revolution. His nomination was controversial at the time and remains a point of contention for Ennahdha opponents. More importantly, it is a difficult charge for Ennahdha backers to defend against.

A second case, much more trivial, was the recent story about Ghannouchi’s son being part of the official Tunisia delegation to the World Economic Forum summit in Davos last month. Tunisia Live reported that his son “accompanied him reportedly for logistic needs, translation, and secretarial purposes.” But it was nonetheless taken to be another strike against Ghannouchi for promoting family over merit.

A third case has been widely reported on in Tunisian (online) media,, even though is has been debiunked. Hyper partisan and anti-Islamist websites reported that Ghannouchi’s brother had obtained the first McDonald’s franchise in the country. McDonald’s holds an interesting place in Tunisian society. Not only is Tunisia one of the few places in the world that doesn’t have McDonald’s but the reason they don’t have it is that in the 1990s Ben Ali’s in-laws had insisted that any franchise be owned by the family. This played into the mafia image of Ben Ali and his associates and remains a strong link to the kind of corruption that has held Tunisia back. The charge against Ghannouchi, however, turned out to be completely false – but it was only debunked after several days of negative criticism.

Charges against Ghannouchi are but some of the examples that have been trotted out against Tunisia’s new leaders. Every nomination to the government has been scrutinized and will continue to be.

These cases show a vulnerability of Tunisia’s Islamist leaders. The charges against Ghannouchi are not particularly serious. The foreign ministry charge is the most blatant – and is something that Western democracies have battled with for centuries (see JFK’s nomination of RFK, or Sarkozy’s appointment of his son). The other charges include a minor offense and an outright falsehood.

However, Ennahdha among all parties, is uniquely vulnerable to charges of corruption. Riding to power on a platform of restoring morality to the government – Ennahdha voters expect the new government to break from the old ways of doing business. As I have previously written about, Ennahdha leaders sometimes come across as amateurs. The fact that the Davos story garnered as much attention as it did is not, as many Ennahdha supporters think, just because there is a media conspiracy against them. Rather, it is because the bar is set so high for Cheikh Ghannouchi.

The irony is that in the kleptocratic society that Ben Ali engendered there were very few clean hands. Those that throw stones at Ennahdha were likely beneficiaries of the same kinds of treatment, whether it was getting into good French-language schools, getting jobs in the government or at media organs, or being able to start a business with a little help from someone up high. However, Ennahdha’s reputation as being clean was one of the major reasons they were supported by 41 percent of the people. Even many that didn’t vote for Ennahdha expected them to refrain from corruption.

As political parties develop further in Tunisia, my guess is that one will see secular leftists toning down the culture war rhetoric (of niqabs and foreign films), and making the debate about good governance and freedom from corruption – charges that unless Ennahdha is more careful – could stick in the next elections.