Riadh Sidaoui: “We cannot transform Tunisia into Saudi Arabia. Ennahdha understood it “

The Islamist party is due to announce major changes at the 10th congress held this weekend. Explanations with political scientist Riadh Sidaoui, who tempers the importance of the ongoing moult.
By Céline Lussato

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 3:15 p.m.

This is a historic congress that the leaders of the Tunisian Islamist Ennahdha party are promising between May 20 and 22. The opportunity to put in place the doctrinal review that accompanies the change of the party – it remains however led by the same man since its creation: Rached Ghannouchi. Tunisian political scientist Riadh Sidaoui, director of the Arab Center for Political and Social Research and Analysis (Caraps, Geneva), deciphers the situation.

The historic leader of the Tunisian Islamist Ennahdha party, Rached Ghannouchi, announces profound changes on the eve of this weekend’s Congress. Will the party experience a real internal revolution?

Ennahdha is a front, it is the coming together of several currents. Some are marginalized today, others on the contrary have gained the upper hand over the party. You have to know this structure to understand what will unfold at the Congress this weekend. The strongest of these trends today is that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Conversely, in the 1970s and 1980s there was a fairly strong pro-Iran movement, which has now disappeared.

Structurally, the two most important currents to distinguish are those called “from the outside” and “from the inside”. The first is taken by those who left Tunisia under Ben Ali to live in London. Its leader is Rached Ghannouchi. The second is formed by those who have been oppressed by Ben Ali. Most of them have spent long years in prison.

After the revolution, the more moderate “outside” group, more open to the West, remained at the head of the movement. But the leadership from within has lobbied all these years within the party to radicalize Ennahdha’s speech. But the party is not open. If it is filled with intense conflict, it is rare to know what is really going on inside. The internal discipline is very strong and the conflicts – very numerous – do not come out.

Note that the moderate trend had already scored points during the last legislative election. The Ghannouchi clan had in fact then dismissed two hawks from the party, preventing them from representing themselves: Sadok Chourou and Habib Ellouze.

Another important point to understand what will happen: since the founding of Ennahdah, there is only one real master on board: Rached Ghannouchi. We cannot speak of a democratic party. It is a party founded and embodied by a historic leader who has not given way to a new generation. He continues to dominate the party.


Rached Ghannouchi on March 20, 2015 in Tunis. (AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID)

What then can be the evolutions of the party?

The liberal wing dominates the party and we can expect some changes. But without major turning point in terms of governance it seems to me. The party is in a complicated situation: it did not win the last elections, and the Muslim Brotherhood is suffering a very strong wave of oppression in the Arab world. We know the situation in Egypt, but let us not forget that the Gulf countries have included the movement on the list of terrorist organizations … Distancing oneself from the organization is perhaps only a pragmatic choice.

Moreover, given the Tunisian internal situation, that is to say the relative failure of their last episode of government with the troika, but also the economic situation of the country and the mistrust of part of Tunisian society , the London clan simply seems better able to run the party than the hawks. I also think that the latter will accept the maintenance of Rached Ghannouchi’s control over the party.

Rached Ghannouchi wanted, drawing inspiration from the Turkish model, to advocate a reconciliation between the heritage of the past and modernity, a synthesis between secularism and religion. He presents himself as a man of synthesis. To say that he wants to move towards a more civil party does not go against his previous positions.

The real question that will arise is the post-Ghannouchi period. All the contradictions of the party will appear with its departure or its disappearance. He himself has sometimes had a speech and then his anti-speech, you don’t always know what he’s thinking. If he manages to lead the party with all its tendencies and contradictions, will another succeed in doing so after him?

In these recent interviews, he says he is worried about the radicalization of certain Islamist currents. But Ennahdha himself flirted with the radicals …

After coming to power after 2011, Ennahdha wanted to use the map of the Salafists and even the Takfirists. There was this ambiguous relationship between the heads of Ennahdha and those of, for example, Ansar al-Sharia, now

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