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Intra-Party Democracy in Tunisia’s Ennahda: Ghannouchi and the Pitfalls of “Charismatic” Leadership

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Rached Ghannouchi, president of the Islamist party Ennahda and speaker of Parliament, has been a voice of moderation and reason contributing to Tunisia’s incipient democratization. While there is much to praise in Ghannouchi’s stewardship of Ennahda, he should consider the pitfalls of longevity in power. This article examines the ongoing debate on Ennahda’s leadership crisis, considering it from the vantage point of intra-party democracy. 

So far, Ghannouchi’s ethical standards, political skills, and leadership qualities have helped save his party from unnecessary infighting. If, however, he ignores the voices from with his party calling on him to step down as the head of Ennahda, he risks dividing it over the question of his continued leadership. The most recent twist in this still-unfolding saga has been Ghannouchi’s remarks to Aljazeera (full interview to be aired in a few days) that he will “respect Ennahda’s bylaws,” which do not allow him a third term as head of the party.1 The exact implications of these comments are as yet unclear at the time of writing. 

Ennahda midwifed Tunisia’s democracy. Now it faces what a group of Ghannouchi’s critics have called a “true test” of its own internal democracy.2 Will Ennahda become a “living example” of the values that it and its leader have long espoused and fought for? Ghannouchi is well known in the Arab and Islamic world for his contributions to democratic theory; will he practice what he preaches when it comes to his own his own party and his own power? At stake, according to some within Ennahda, are the Islamist leader’s “personal credibility,” the party’s principles, and Tunisia’s model of democracy.3

For the sake of his legacy, Ghannouchi should take heed of these warnings — and he seems to be beginning to do so. Some of this may be necessary to satisfy foreign observers. Ghannouchi and his PR “machine” may listen to the words of world leaders from Germany to the U.S. about the need to follow the rules of the democratic game within his own party. Especially with Joe Biden’s new presidency, Islamist leaders (including perhaps Ghannouchi) will be queuing up, if granted an audience, to present a strong case for “democratic Islam.” Before entering electoral politics in 2019, he built his reputation on writing and speaking of two things. First, political Islam, which he gave up at the 10th Ennahda Congress in 2016, when he announced the party would split its religious (da’awi)4 from its political (siyasi) activities. Second, no to dictatorship and presidencies for life, yes to democracy. Renewing his own leadership of Ennahda would mean giving up this second mantra as well.

If he does decide to step aside, his party may risk infighting over succession, but this will be a challenge whether he stays or goes. It is better to withdraw gracefully than to be a cause of his party’s disunity. As a respected elder statesman, he might even be able to offer some gentle steering after retirement. There is a great deal that Ghannouchi can do. Perhaps he could work as a special envoy for the presidency, tasked with conflict resolution in Tunisia’s neighborhood, lobbying for reducing the country’s debt, or mediating Palestinian reconciliation.


Ennahda: Democracy within parties matters

With 54 seats in the 217-member Parliament, Ennahda is the largest political party in Tunisia. It also appears to be at a crossroads. In recent weeks, Ennahda has grappled publicly with the issue of a looming power transition. The big question is this: Will Ghannouchi, who co-founded Ennahda in 1981, hand over his position as leader of the party at its upcoming 11th Congress? Or will he instead breach, or seek to amend, Article 31 of Ennahda’s bylaws, which sets a limit of two consecutive terms?

This article offers an analysis of the debate that is raging within the party — and spilling over into the public sphere through the media — on the question of Ghannouchi’s possible tamdid or extension. The method that the party chooses to resolve the leadership question will reveal if and how far its democratic principles extend to its internal decisions. The questions involved in the debate about the extension have implications beyond Ennahda, as the party’s actions will set a precedent for intra-party democracy in the country.

Debate about how long Ghannouchi should remain at the helm has raged within Ennahda’s leadership circles for years. High-level resignations this year alone include Abdelhamid Jlassi and even co-founder Abdelfattah Morou, the presidential candidate in the 2019 race. Lotfi Zitoun, former minister of local affairs and the environment and previously a longstanding aide to Ghannouchi, resigned recently from the Shura Council, the party’s legislative wing. Jawhara Tiss, a rising star among Ennahda’s youth and women cadres, has also announced her departure. What propelled the issue of succession to the public’s attention, through local Tunisian and even Arab media, was a declaration that has been dubbed Risalat al-mi’ah, or Letter of the 100.5

In September, 100 members of Ennahda, including leading names like Samir Dilou, Abdellatif Mekki, Mohammed Ben Salem, Jalel Ouerghi, Habib Ellouz, Jamila Eksiski, and Amal Azzouz, signed a letter to Ghannouchi. They called on him to respect the party’s legal and institutional structures and long history of resisting dictatorship. Forego the legal contortions, they entreated him, and do not try to change Article 31. Step down from the head of the party to embody the “value and mechanism” of al-tadawul (alternation of power). Otherwise, party unity and even the “values of freedom and democracy, major gains from the revolution,” would be in danger. Save us a showdown at the next Congress, they wrote. Spare us the pain of a split in this party whose unity and solidarity were so vital to its resilience in the face of Habib Bourguiba’s presidency for life and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Give a younger generation a chance to seek leadership positions in Ennahda and to elect a new head. The letter elicited several responses, including one understood to be representative of Ghannouchi’s position.

In the response attributed to Ghannouchi (though not officially signed by him), the party leader more or less dug in his heels. He rejected the argument that the democracy of political parties is underpinned by the same principles and mechanisms as national governments. Within parties, some personalities are zu’amaa, charismatic leaders who withstand the otherwise natural “decay” of leadership, according to the letter. These “exceptions” need not, and should not, be confined by term limits. Likening the intervention of the 100 to the announcement of a military coup, Ghannouchi’s accused the “Group of 100” of attempting to preempt the 11th Congress, suggesting their insistence that he not run was “exclusionary.” In turn, the 100’s counter-response addressed all of Ennahda, insisting that their tone was respectful and that they were simply asking Ghannouchi to “respect the law” after he had repeatedly spurned their private entreaties to make reforms within the party.

Polemics aside, what seems to be Ghannouchi’s counter has not helped to resolve internal dissension. What the party must acknowledge is that the chosen leader should have performance legitimacy and electoral legitimacy. The first entails a track record of legislative and electoral success, the second that Ennahda’s members, both leaders and rank-and-file,  should select their leader at the 11th party Congress. The importance of these kinds of legitimacy seems to be a blind spot for his close coterie of advisers, some of whom stand to lose a great deal politically within Ennahda if Ghannouchi departs. Ghannouchi’s performance is less than stellar in certain regards: A failed presidential bid, a declining vote share (69 seats in 2014 to 54 in 2019) for his party, a no-confidence vote against him that failed by a slim margin, an inability to secure parliamentary votes for Ennahda’s nominee for head of government in early 2020. On top of this, he voted yes for the government of Elyes Fakhfakh that collapsed because of a conflict-of-interest scandal.

Defenders of Ghannouchi cite his “charisma” as a reason for keeping him on as party leader. What does “charisma” mean, exactly, and why should it matter? Charisma does not create jobs, peace, or justice, the issues that people everywhere care about. Charisma will not push down the unemployment rate. It will not save small businesses hemorrhaging under COVID lockdowns. Neither does it meet the demands of Kamour protestors clamoring for oil jobs. Nor will it fix the 14 percent deficit6 in the Tunisian budget this year.

Since 2016, Ghannouchi has proclaimed Ennahda to be a party of “Muslim democrats.” Attempting now to rebrand the party as one where za’amah take precedence over rules and institutions raises pointed questions about the future of its internal democratic, as well as its place within Tunisia’s democratization.

Ennahda has been a leading and active participant in Tunisia’s democratization, including the crowning glory of the 2014 Constitution. Given its democratic discourse and political standing, it simply should not deviate from certain principles and practices. These include due process, institutional procedures, and internal bylaws, not least of which are term limits.

When political parties and systems have well-functioning institutions, decisions are reached through open debate and majority rule. As a result, these decisions are widely viewed as legitimate. Therein lies their importance as guarantors of peaceful transfer of power in democracies. What does it mean for Tunisia’s young democratic institutions if its own political parties suffer from glaring democratic deficits? Faqidu al-shayi’ la yu’teeh, the Arabic saying goes. (“You cannot give what you do not possess.”)

Wheeling and dealing behind closed doors, whether by Ghannouchi or any other Ennahda leader, is antithetical to democracy. Bypassing party institutions and procedures is no way to govern democratically because it escapes accountability. When negotiations and decision making are extra-institutional and off-the-record, the final terms of agreements become subject to interpretation. This is a recipe for conflict or political paralysis, as in the Ghannouchi-Essebsi Carthage agreements between al-shaykhain (“the Two Elders”).

Ghannouchi’s ambitions to run in the 2024 presidential elections face obstacles both personal (age and health may be complicating factors) and political. In politics, four years is a long time, and anything can happen. Ghannouchi trails in Tunisian public opinion polls, featuring as the least trusted politician in the country.7 He may have survived the no-confidence vote as speaker of Parliament this past July, but he might not withstand the continuing onslaught of challenges by independent blocs, Abir Moussi’s Free Destour Party, and even former allies like al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati. Ennahda’s future should not be held ransom by its leader’s presidential ambitions. Ghannouchi is free to run in 2024 even if he is not head of Ennahda. Common sense would say to step aside and prepare for the race. The dual presidency of the party and the Parliament has been a sort of poison chalice for him so far, and his credibility in both positions is diminished.

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