Ennahda vs. Nidaa Tounes: Fighting Politics with Human Rights

2018-03-19    |   

During its early phase, Ennahda’s relationship with the Nidaa Tounes party and its founder, current Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, seemed to be a conflict between two opposing forces that was exacerbated by the intransigence of each. Essebsi depicted the conflict as one about the preservation of the modernism of Tunisian society. The conflict gave him the justification to establish his party and enabled him to become a de-facto leader of the political opposition to Ennahda’s rule at the time. On the other hand, hostility towards “Beji” and his party has been a tenet of Ennahda. The party accused Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes of leading the counter-revolution, and its supporters have found little else to get riled up about in their public meetings other than zealous slogans against “Beji” and his party.

Against such a bleak backdrop, Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, decided to end the estrangement between them in a secret meeting in Paris on August 12, 2013. It was not known who organized the meeting or sponsored the discussions, but it resulted in a consensus on finding a way out of the existing crisis and a tentative pledge to share power between the two political forces in the context of setting up the Second Republic’s political institutions. Reality and political calculations forced the two to become allies. This did not, however, stop either one from searching, unbeknownst to the other, for alternative solutions that would guarantee their own interests should the alliance collapse. And so they invoked the rights discourse as a weapon to conduct the otherwise suppressed conflict.

Ghannouchi chose the French media to launch a progressive rights discourse that dispeled foreign concerns about his party’s ideological background or even to undermine the other side’s claim that it held a monopoly on upholding modernism. Accordingly, in 2015 Ghannouchi announced that he does not oppose abortion if it occurs in the first months of pregnancy and that he rejects the criminalization of homosexuality, which he described as a matter of private life. This discourse was confirmed in the same media sphere in early 2017 by Ghannouchi’s political advisor Lotfi Zitoun, who categorically rejected the criminalization of homosexuality and called for drug consumption not to be criminalized. The same discourse was adopted by Ennahda MP Yamina Zoghlami, who, in a statement to The Legal Agenda, called for the taboo on the subject of homosexuals to be lifted and for the state to “protect them and their rights so that they are not sexually exploited”. The boldness of the Ennahda figures’ discourse succeeded greatly in marketing them as pioneers of a modernist political Islam, thereby confirming the effectiveness of the rights discourse as a weapon.

On the opposite side, Essebsi chose 2017 to start using the rights discourse as a political weapon. His timing may be related to the proximity of the 2019 elections at the municipal, parliamentary and presidential levels. The goal is probably to differentiate the two political lines, which would regroup “modernists” as supporters of the president and his party. Firstly, the president reminded his ally that he is to thank for their acceptance internationally. As a second step, Essebsi declared himself the authority figure that evaluates Ennahda’s performance in relation to the question of [supporting] civil [rights], thanking it for its efforts as a segway to indicate that it had not done enough. The third step, which occurred a short time after Ennahda’s MPs approved a bill to punish violence against women, was to raise the bar of rights awareness to a level higher than Ennahda could jump. During the 2017 celebrations for Women’s Day in Tunisia, Essebsi decided to up the challenge against his ally – during his speech he called for gender equality in inheritance and revealed that he had charged a committee of experts with preparing a report containing recommendations for reforms that would allow Tunisian legislation to protect individual freedoms and the values of equality. Leaks from within the committee revealed that it would request the amendment of more than 20 legal texts, establishing a civil inheritance system, granting children the right to decide whether to take their mother’s or father’s family name, and ending dowry as a cornerstone of marriage contracts. At this point, Essebsi had succeeded in regaining the initiative in the modernism discourse and in embarrassing his ally, who is constantly accused of not recognizing gender equality while his supporters accuse him of deviating from their fixed tenets to please others. However, Essebsi failed to settle the rights battle because his adversary dealt with his steps tactfully and avoided taking stances. Hence, the maneuver remained a theme of their battle, which will likely continue.

The political savvy with which the rights discourse battle has been handled imposed an important development in the uses of rights slogans in political work by parties traditionally categorized as conservative and right-wing. This usage is expected to spread collective awareness of the justness of rights issues, even if it is not always accompanied by practical steps to implement its implications. For example, Parliament’s consideration of Bill no. 79 of 2015 on drugs was halted because some MPs, including those of Ennahda, refused to approach drug users as victims even though this approach is in keeping with the slogans raised by their party’s leaders. Similarly, Ennahda’s MPs have not presented any legislative initiative to amend Article 230 of the Penal Code despite their party’s vocal adoption of this rights demand. On the other hand, the presentation of the recommendations of the committee that the president formed at the end of February 2018 will probably be merely an opportunity to register pro-rights stances that reach a high bar. This presentation will occur as the Tunisian political sphere enters the electoral seasons, when passing major legislative reforms is difficult. Hence, the use of the rights discourse in the political struggle was, from beginning to end, an event whose engineers aimed more at publicity than at action, although their effort in selecting its arenas opens the way for increased social awareness that may subsequently achieve what to them are mere slogans.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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