Political party update: Tunisian felloul step out, Communists rise, and Ennahdha stumbles

Last weekend, in the midst of instability caused by rioting across the country, Beji Caid Essebsi launched a political initiative aimed at being a unifying, secular force in Tunisian politics. Eighty-six year old Essebsi played an important role in Tunisia’s transition last year, balancing the interests of revolutionaries, Islamists, and former regime folks for just long enough to hold free elections. While many respected his role in the transition, his political ambitions have caused uproar among those who think that he represents a return to the past.

Leaders.com reports on the initiative:

“The least we can say is that “the initiative” has left no one indifferent. 48 hours after the announcement of the party, “The Call for Tunisia,” the controversy is not likely to subside in the political microcosm. While its supporters see it as the hope for salvation that will save the country from Ennahdha’s grip, his opponents denounce the return of former regime officials (fouloul)….Of the three-party coalition government, Ettakatol is the one most threatened by the initiative of Caid Essebsi.”

During the meeting Essebsi called for Tunisians to unify behind the new movement and to accept the gains of the past 50 years, including the rights of women. Many also saw this as a call for former regime officials to come into the fold. Lilia Weslaty, critical of the project, writes in Nawaat:

Thus, a war of identity seems increasingly visible between the two major political camps in Tunisia. Between Ennahdha and RCD, some Tunisians are faced with choosing between the plague and cholera.

Tunisian blogger Sarah Ben Hamadi calls for action against the two fronts:

This…is the result of the absence of an opposition worthy of the name. That’s the real problem, the opposition is not organized and is not ready to be (a true opposition). Why do we gather behind Caid Essebsi when we could come together without him and without remnants of the old regime? A third way is possible and it must exist. I dreamed of a new Tunisia, opposite to that shown to us by Ennahdha, different from that spoken by Béji Caid Essebsi. It is not yet born, we must act!

———-

With a clear platform, no associations with Islamists or the former regime, and a decidedly non-elitist approach, the Tunisian Communist Party (POCT) appears to continue to gain ground in Tunisia. A recent poll has shown that POCT leader Hamma Hammami’s popularity continues to increase, now surpassing Ahmed Chebbi of the PDP. While polls are notoriously difficult to read in Tunisia, the numbers do correspond to what appears to be a solid grassroots backing for the long-time resistance leader. There is likely a limit to communist popularity in Tunisia due to the association many have with the party as atheistic, but it nevertheless seems to be showing a way forward for liberal, secular groups who have yet to galvanize grassroots supporters.

—————-

It was arguably a bad week for Ennahdha as party leader Rached Ghannouchi’s call on his supporters to march last Friday was rejected by the Interior Ministry. Following riots across the country, Ghannouchi had called on supporters to support sacred values (as a counter to the supposedly offensive artwork shown in La Marsa).

But with tensions high and violence widespread, the government finally decided that a march would only risk inflaming tensions. The Interior Ministry, led by Ennahdha member Ali Lariyedh, however, showed its ability to mobilize when necessary and take control of the situation. Speculation over Lariyedh’s role in the party will only increase in the run up to the Ennahdha party congress next month – rumors of his rivalry with Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali have been reported.

Finally, after the most difficult week yet for the government since their elections, rumors have been spreading about a possible split in the party between its more moderate and more conservative sides. While the rumors remain just that, many have speculated about the party’s ability to hold these two sides together. The discourse last week by many Ennahdha officials, which put blame on both artists and rioters, was condemned by many as too deferential to the party’s conservative branch.

In other Ennahdha news, Ennahdha party cofounder Salah Karker, who had been in exile for 20 years returned to Tunisia from France.

——-

Ettakatol, led by Constituent Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, announced a merger with the Tunisian Worker’s Party. Further evidence of political consolidation in Tunisia.

More on Tunisian political parties hereherehere, and here.

Setting the reset button on Franco-Tunisian relations

Just minutes after French election results were reported, showing that Socialist candidate Francois Hollande had defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, Tunisian leaders celebrated the socialist’s victory. Hollande’s victory opens the possibility for improvement in the declining relationship between Tunisia and its number one trading partner.

First the political reactions: Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president, released a statement less than an hour after Hollande’s victory, saying:

On the occasion of your election to the presidency of the French Republic, I am pleased,on behalf of all the Tunisian people, to give you my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to you and all the French people….We hope your election as head of the French Republic will restore momentum to our two countries with the aim to restore and strengthen their long-term partnership.

Mustapha ben Jaafar, speaker of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly and leader of the Ettakatol party, endorsed Hollande as a fellow social democrat:

We are hopeful that the arrival of the Socialists (in France) will give impetus to the historically strong relationships between our two countries….With France, the new democratic Tunisia wants to build a true partnership that respects the values of freedom and human rights, based on a strategy of co-development and shared prosperity. The special relationship of friendship and solidarity forged between Ettakatol and the Socialist Party are an added impetus for relations between France and Tunisia.

As Maghreb Emergent reports, it is not just Tunisia’s elites who are happy about the change – ordinary Tunisians are happy to see a change from a regime that they saw supporting their former dictator:

Compromised by his ties with Arab dictators and his lack of judgment during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Nicolas Sarkozy has lost the confidence of Arab countries. Anxious to restore the image of France on the international scene, Francois Hollande has surrounded himself with new personalities who will be competent in changing these policies over his coming term.

Implications for Tunisian relations: France’s actions following the uprisings in Tunisia have not been forgotten. French Defense minister Michelle Alliot-Marie’s name continues to be invoked regularly as a symbol of France’s close ties with deposed dictator Ben Ali (she offered Tunisia support to quell the January 2011 uprising).

Ties between the countries have continued to be strained. Tunisia’s Islamist government has made it a priority to reduce study of the French language and to expand relationships beyond the traditional colonial relationship that has endured since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

Despite these political tensions, commercial ties between the two countries remain important. While Tunisian newspapers report on new agreements with Gulf countries for golf courses or hotels, it is the ~3,000 French companies operating in Tunisia that remain the backbone of Tunisia’s trading partnerships. For more on Tunisia’s international relations, see this article from February 2012)

It is in this context that Hollande’s victory tonight is so important. Hollande has the opportunity now to reset the relationship that had been so fraught between Tunisia’s transitional government and the Sarkozy administration. Most importantly, it opens the door, as Marzouki and Ben Jaafar’s statements show, for Tunisian politicians to engage with France without losing political credibility.

International relationships remain based on complex political interests and it is wishful thinking that Tunisia’s relationship with France will change overnight with a new French administration. The historical relationship between the two countries remains complex. Nevertheless, the cloud that hung over Franco-Tunisian relations since January 2011 may be lifted with Hollande’s victory.