‘Defining moment’: What’s next for Tunisia’s Ennahdha?

Ennahdha, the largest party in Tunisia’s parliament, is facing its biggest crisis in decades after President Kais Saied’s shock dismissal of the country’s prime minister and suspension of Parliament on July 25.

Rached Ghannouchi, parliament speaker and Ennahdha’s leader, initially called Saied’s activation of Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution – which allows him to assume executive powers in times of national crisis – a “coup” and “unconstitutional”.

Saied said the parliament will only be frozen for 30 days and that he would “not turn into a dictator”. But, after he lifted the immunity of parliamentarians, politicians from various parties and members of Ennahdha have been arrested over the past week.

The president’s actions could not have come at a worse time for 80-year-old Ghannouchi, who is facing health problems after contracting COVID.

Ghannouchi and his party face their biggest existential crisis since 1989 when former strongman President Zine Abbedine ben Ali banned Ennahdha – resulting in many members fleeing into exile or being jailed and tortured.

Now the party’s future once again hangs in the balance.

Growing anger

Ennahdha was founded in 1981 as the Movement of Islamic Tendency. The party has in recent years separated its religious and political activities and prefers the term Muslim Democrat.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution that overthrew Ben Ali, Ennahdha has been a key part of successive coalition governments and is now the largest party in Parliament, albeit it holding only a quarter of the seats in the assembly.

However, in recent years Ennahdha has increasingly become the focus of anger from discontented Tunisians who blame the party and the government formerly led by independent Hichem Mechichi for Tunisia’s political and economic woes.

Protests over skyrocketing COVID infections and deaths, police brutality and repression, and dwindling economic prospects and unemployment at nearly 18 percent have also been simmering for many months.

On July 25, anti-government demonstrations broke out in cities across Tunisia, with protesters attacking several Ennahdha offices – which ostensibly led Saied, a political independent elected in 2019, to suspend Parliament.

Sofiane Achour, an anti-government activist, told Al Jazeera that the final straw for him came on July 7 after Ennahdha had reportedly demanded 3 billion dinars ($2.2bn) in compensation for those imprisoned and tortured under the Ben Ali regime.

“When people are dying at the doors of hospitals, when we have no oxygen for patients, when we don’t have enough doctors and doctors are dying, they are asking for 3 billion dinars, it is shameful!” he said.

Saied’s move to dissolve Parliament appears to be broadly popular in Tunisia, although Ennahdha maintains a strong core base of support.

Mondher Louinissi, a member of Ennahdha’s Shura Council, the party’s highest authority, told Al Jazeera: “We are an elected party, we had elections and the people chose us”.

However, he acknowledged that Ennahdha has made mistakes and “we need to take responsibility for that. We are in the process of an internal analysis of where mistakes were made”.

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