Will Tunisia's ruling party resolve its internal conflicts or split on November 12?
Nidaa Tounes’ executive constituency meeting, scheduled for November 12, could either lead the ruling party away from its current infighting or definitively split the party in two and give Ennahda another go at controlling the parliament.
Earlier this month, an ordinary meeting of the Executive Bureau of the Nidaa Tounes Party in Hammamet, in northern Tunisia, summoned by Secretary General Mohsen Marzouk turned into an internal conflict.
On the one side, is Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the son of President Beji Caid Essebsi, who is backed by ministers, MPs, businessmen, and members of the dissolved Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) of the former regime. On the other side is Marzouk, interim chairperson of the party and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Mohamed Ennaceur, who is backed by a number of deputies, leftists and trade unionists in the heterogeneous party.
They disagreed about everything from how to organize the party’s first constituent conference, to a structure that will lead the party during its first elections. Bickering about the date of the conference, whether its participants would elect or agree on the party’s leader, as well as the composition of the body managing the conference all helped fuel the fire.
The resignation of Beji Caid Essebsi, the founder of the party, right after he won the presidential elections in 2014 created a leadership vacuum, previously coherent under Essebsi.
It was then decided that leadership was to be shared by expanding the constituent board and consensually electing Marzouk as general secretary, as well as electing Ennaceur as chairperson, and Hafedh Caid Essebsi as vice-chairperson.
But the conflict between Marzouk and Essebsi escalated to the point that 32 MPs in support of Marzouk suspended their membership in the party’s parliamentary bloc, threatening to resign and perhaps form a new party.
“This is a normal result of a party that was formed by bringing together leaders and grassroots activists from different intellectual and ideological backgrounds to carry out a single mission— to defy the Ennahda-led Troika” says political analyst Jawhar Bin Mubarak. “That explosion was expected within the party after succeeding in the elections.”
Mubarak argues that the split will continue until the political identity of the party is identified, following the constituent conference. The party, says Mubarak, is split into two: the group of the RCD-Destour Party – supporters of the former regime and supporter of Habib Bourguiba’s regime – which believes it should be credited for winning the elections by recruiting RCD grassroots organizers, and a leftist-unionist group which believes that without it, the party would not have shed RCD’s stigma and thus given the party the required popular credibility.
Mubarak believes that the first group is the dominant one and that it wants to get rid of the leftists whose mission, according to that group, ended when winning the elections.
Who will be helped by the meeting?
Some observers say that Hafedh Essebsi is supported by the majority of the party’s branches in the governorates. He therefore wants to quickly hold the constituent conference to win the party’s elections and manage the party.
Marzouk does not seem to be in a rush to hold the constituent conference, and is seeking to change the leadership of the branches through local elections to ensure his win in the party’s elections.
Is Ennahda Involved?
The crisis within Nidaa Tounes is diverging and taking several dimensions. Acting behind the scenes, external factors are fueling the struggle over the party’s chairmanship between Essebsi and Marzouk.
A political party accused of fanning the flame of the Nidaa Tounes’ crisis from within is the Islamist Ennahda Movement, its political rival and partner in power. “We have evidence of Ennahda penetrating Nidaa Tounes and trying to blow it up from within” says MP Sahbi Ben Fraj, who supports Marzouk.
He believes that Ennahda is behind Hafedh Caid Essebsi’s visit to Turkey and meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdogan a few months ago. The attempts of newspapers close to Ennahda, to support Essebsi’s group and demonize Marzouk’s group, says Fraj, “proves that Ennahda is behind fueling the conflict.”
He claims that the rapprochement between Essebsi and Ennahda has reached a point that they are now thinking of running for the elections with joint lists, although several leaders and members of Nidaa Tounes have objected to this alliance.
“Ennahda is indirectly involved in the crisis of Nidaa Tounes by investing in lobbies of suspicious money,” says Jilani Hammami, an MP for the opponent leftist Popular Front.
He believes that businessman Chefik Jaraya, a supporter of Essebsi and whose source of wealth is unclear, has played a suspicious role. “He is always in the picture, has connections with Ennahda and some parties in Libya, and plays an important role in fueling the conflict between the two groups of Nidaa Tounes,” says Hammami.
Some members of Nidaa Tounes accuse Jaraya of being behind the acts of violence during the meeting of the Executive Bureau. They also accuse him of inciting Essebsi to face Marzouk and of funding the Djerba meeting in which Essebsi’s group tried to completely control the party.
“Lobbies comprised of businessmen and media and cooperating with Essebsi want to take control of the party,” says Walid Jalled, an MP for Nidaa Tounes.
While Jaraya has not commented on these accusations, both Essebsi and Ennahda have denied all of them. Following his meeting with the President Essebsi, Rached Ghannouchi last week, the leader of Ennahda, said his party would continue to support the government and the Tunisian administration.
An Ennahda leader Samir Dilou says while Ennahda fears the crisis of Nidaa Tounes might move to state institutions, Ennahda has nothing to do with it.