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Africa Last Updated: Jan 14, 2021 - 11:40:07 AM

The Long Night of Tunisian Liberalism
By Federica Zoja, ISPI, 14 gennaio 2021
Jan 14, 2021 - 11:39:16 AM

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The Tunisian liberal front has not yet recovered following its severe defeat in the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections[1]. Fragmented and disoriented, it is in search of a new identity and charismatic leadership.

“We need to break with the 2012-2019 experience, especially the one with Nidaa Tounès[2] party, created to rebalance the Tunisian political landscape and counteract bad projects. In my opinion, specifically to counter Ennahda”.[3] These are the words of Mohsen Marzouk,[4] interviewed at the end of 2020 by the newspaper l’Economiste Maghrébin.

Marzouk, political activist since his adolescence, trade unionist, political scientist, was one of the founders of Nidaa in 2012, as well as a close collaborator of the late president Béji Caïd Essebsi in his first two years of mandate, between 2014 and 2016.Then, he abruptly turned away from his companions and created a new secular, liberal, modernist movement: The Project of Tunisia, Machrou Tounès. In the 2019 presidential elections, Marzouk attempted to take Essebsi's baton, but was unsuccessful. In a climate of general disappointment, populists and conservatives got the better of all traditional opponents in both the presidential and parliamentary votes.

As a result, all the liberal formations have been struggling in a painful mea culpa for over a year, seeking common foundations on which to rebuild the “centrist family”.
Their failure is on display for all to see: corruption, patronage, and nepotism poison Tunisian society. Meanwhile, social justice, administrative decentralization, widespread economic development have remained merely on paper.

Now Machrou Tounès proposes itself as the leader of a government of national salvation, after the horrible year of the Covid-19 pandemic: the health emergency has brought back to life totalitarian and conservative temptations, dangerous for the decade old democratic project.

Marzouk and his associates do not mince words: Nidaa, conceived in opposition to political Islam, has never been able to govern, but only to avoid civil war in a particularly delicate phase. At this point, what the Tunisian liberal front needs is not just an examination of conscience, but a process of refoundation from the roots.

What Happened To the Liberal Protagonists Of the First Post-Revolutionary Decade?

Following the Extraordinary Congress in July 2020, the Nidaa Tounès party is in fact dead: its three deputies in Parliament resigned definitively; Hafedh Essebsi, son of the late President, was expelled; Ali Hafsi, minister in Elyas Fakhfakh's Government[5], left the party too. A complete debâcle, furthermore just one year after the death of founder Béji Caïd Essebsi.

Today, former Prime Minister Youssef Chahed is committed to defending his honor and that of Tahya Tounès,[6] both victims of media crossfire and fake news. The confusion is such that citizens are no longer able to recognize the truth from fakes: recently, some newspapers reported investigations against Chahed, accused of stealing gifts offered by Saudi Arabia shortly before his term ended. A news denied by the judicial authorities.

But the party's weak point is another one: in the absence of a clear political project for the country, Tahya too is losing important members. In June, three of the 14 members of Tahya’s parliamentarian bloc resigned. Then, in mid-December, Tahya’s secretary Slim Azzabi announced his resignation “due to professional commitments”.

There are no official statements, but at the heart of the resignation is the closeness between Chahed himself and the leaders of Ennahda, unwelcome to the more secular current of the party.

In any case, Tahya's political influence on Hichem Mechichi’s Government[7] is minimal. Although the Cabinet consists mainly of technicians and proclaims itself secular and independent, according to the main media groups the premier is on the verge of a reshuffle, under pressure from Ennahda and Qalb Tounès,[8] described in the press as the Prime minister's real political “cushion”.

As for Afek Tounès (Tunisian Horizons, social-liberal party, with 2 seats in Parliament) and al-Badil Ettounsi (Tunisian Alternative, founded by former Prime minister Mehdi Jomaa, lost one of its 3 Pms over the Summer), they simply play the role of background actors.

Following the 2019 elections, left-wing parties accounted for 26 seats, only slightly more than 10% of the parliament’s total of 217. After the string of recent defections, the liberal presence has collapsed further, and is now below 10%.

The New Political Compromise Ten Years After the Revolution

The political axis that withstood the tumultuous years after the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has come to an end, replaced by a new political agreement[9].

In fact, while Tunisian liberals face an existential challenge and the increasingly tangible risk of being swept away, the populist Qalb Tounès have now taken their seat at the political “compromise table” with the Islamists of Ennahda.

The two new allies oppose the presidency of the conservative Kaïs Saïed, who in his election campaign staked everything on the fight against corruption. The president is also a staunch enemy of the party system and the ineffectiveness of democracy, as opposed to a nationalist and conservative authoritarianism. The clash could reach a climax in the first weeks of 2021, precisely in correspondence with the 10th anniversary of Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia.

On the 24th of December 2020, the Tunisian judicial authority issued a prison warrant against Nabil Karoui, a TV magnate, and founder and president of the Qalb Tounès party, already a candidate for the presidential elections in 2019.

Karoui was summoned to be heard on the same facts of tax evasion and money laundering for which he had already been detained between the 23rd of August to the 9th of October 2019, when the Court of Cassation ordered his release. That decision of the Court was fundamental in allowing the businessman to participate in the elections and his political formation to gain momentum.

At that time, a contrary judgment could have cast suspicion of judicial ruthlessness and censorship against Qalb Tounès. Since then, a special commission made up of three experts has worked on a report on the matter: the final document was delivered to the judges at the end of December.
The suspicion of having financed the party with dirty money, the result of laundering, also hovers over the management of Ennahda. The Democratic Bloc[10] openly accuses Ghannouchi of having made, together with his liberal allies, illicit profits during his rule of Tunisia.

In conclusion, the axis between moderate Islamists and secular populists is faced with a first test, as well as the Mechichi’s government: everything will depend on Ennahda's support for Karoui in his judicial vicissitudes, still unresolved.

The first declarations of the Ennahda executives suggest that the new historical compromise is solid: “Nabil Karoui benefits from the presumption of innocence. On the other hand, the suspicions concern himself and not his parliamentary bloc, legitimate and elected by Tunisian citizens”, declared Khalil Baroumi, a leading member of the moderate Islamist party. Baroumi himself then defined the agreement with Qalb Tounès as “strategic for the parliamentary balance”.

In the coming months, the two parties, supported by what remains of liberals, republicans, democrats, and socialists will have to contain the rising social discontent throughout the country. And prevent radical movements, primarily Islamic but not only (the Free Destourian Party of Abir Moussi, openly nostalgic for Ben Ali regime), from riding the protest wave. They need to hurry, ten years after the Jasmine Revolution and overwhelmed by an economic crisis, Tunisian democracy is hanging by a thread.


[1] The two rounds of the Tunisian presidential elections took place on the 15th of September and the 13th of October 2019, while the parliamentary election took place on the 6th of October 2019.

[2] Haraka Nidaa Tounès, translated as the Movement of the Call of Tunisia, is a party of secular inspiration founded in 2012 by Béji Caïd Essebsi, then Prime minister. In the 2014 political elections, Nidaa overtook Ennahda’s moderate islamists, until that moment dominant into the Constituent Assembly (22 November 2011 - 26 October 2014), and ensured the leadership of the country till 2018. Then, a series of misunderstandings between the Prime minister Youssef Chahed, member of Nidaa, and the President Essebsi provoked a political hemorrhage from the party.

[3] Ennahda, translated as The Rebirth, is a “Muslim Democratic Political Party”, as written in its statute (1981). Rached Ghannouchi has been the unique leader for 39 years.

[4] Liberal party founded by Mohsen Marzouk in 2016, together with representatives of the center right, the center left and nationalists.

[5] Fakhfakh’s Government: 27 February - 2 September 2020.

[6] Tahya Tounès, translated as Hooray for Tunisia, was founded by Youssef Chahed in January 2019. Chahed, then Prime minister, had bitterly clashed with the son of the President Essebsi, Hafedh, leader of the party Nidaa since January 2018. Just born, Tahya absorbed members of Nidaa, representatives of the Dusturian front (from dustur, the Arabic for Constitution), republicans, socialists, communists.

[7] Tunisian Parliament voted Hichem Mechichi’s Government the 1st of September: Ennahda, Qalb Tounès, Tahya Tounès supported the new cabinet of the Government.

[8] Translated as Heart of Tunisia, Qalb Tounès was founded by media tycoon Nabil Karoui in May 2019. It won 38 seats in 2019 political elections: it is the second largest political force in Tunisia, after Ennahda (52 seats).

[9] A personal relationship between the two political leaders of Ennahda and Nidaa Tounès, Rached Ghannouchi and Béji Caïd Essebsi, was at the basis of the political compromise that guaranteed the integrity of the Tunisian State on the brink of civil war.

[10] A (center-left) bloc of 38 deputies, mainly coming from Mohammed Abbou’s Democratic Current, and Zuhair al-Maghzawi’s People's Movement party, fiercely fighting against violence and hate rhetoric in Parliament, islamic extremism, corruption.

Source:Ocnus.net 2021

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