Tunisia Islamist party counters president

Photo: AP Rachid Ghannouchi

The leader of Tunisia’s Islamist party and speaker of parliament that his party is working to form a “national front” to counter President Kais Saied’s decision to suspend the legislature, fire top government officials and take control of the fragile democracy amid the country’s multi-layered crisis.

Ennahdha party head Rachid Ghannouchi told The Associated Press in a video call that the goal is to pressure the president “to demand the return to a democratic system.”

Ghannouchi claimed that groups that attacked his party’s offices in several cities during nationwide demonstrations leading up to the president’s actions Sunday night organized online and were the same that later celebrated the president’s actions in the streets of Tunis, the capital.

The groups “are closer to anarchist groups,” and “attribute themselves” to the president, he alleged, rejecting the suggestion that they may be citizens expressing discontent with the nation’s largest party.

Widespread concern in Tunisia and abroad has been voiced since the series of decisions by Saied to halt political life and most government action with the sudden firing of the prime minister, the defense and justice ministers and the freezing of parliament.

Ghannouchi and others were locked out of parliament on Monday.

More than a half-dozen civil organizations, including the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union, issued a joint statement Tuesday asking Saied for a road map of fixes to the country’s problems. They also warned against “any illegitimate and unjustified extension of the suspension of the activities of state institutions,” and said a one-month deadline in the Tunisian Constitution must be respected.

The president invoked a constitutional article that allows him to assume executive power in cases of “imminent danger threatening the institutions of the nation and the independence of the country and hindering the regular functioning of the public powers.”

Saied was formerly a constitutional law professor and has stressed that he wasn’t acting outside the constitution.

Ghannouchi reiterated his statement that the moves amount to a coup, “and we have called on the president to reverse these announcements and return to the constitutional democratic order of the state.”

In a pressure tactic, the Ennahdha leader said his party and other parliamentary blocs are organizing.

“We are moving toward escalating pressure on the president, of course peacefully … to demand the return to a democratic system and respecting the will of the Tunisian people,” he said. Among pressure tactics, he cited plans for protests and sit-ins. “We are seeking to work, not as separate parties, but as a national front building the broadest possible front in order to eventually convince the president to submit to the will of the people and return to the democratic order,” Ghannouchi said.

He added that parliamentary work would continue despite the presidential freeze via digital methods, a means formally approved earlier because of the pandemic.

Saied’s decisions to at least temporarily centralize decision-making and most state functions comes amid a crescendo of crises in Tunisia, battling coronavirus infections that are ravaging the nation and growing social and economic woes.

Tunisia, which ignited the Arab Spring in 2011 when protests led to the overthrow of its longtime autocratic leader, is often regarded as the only success story of those uprisings. But democracy didn’t bring prosperity. Tunisia’s economy was already flailing before the pandemic hit, with 18% unemployment, and young people demanding jobs and an end to police brutality protested in large numbers earlier this year.

These crises need to be addressed, “rather than seek to create other problems or to create ideological conflicts,” Ghannouchi said, adding that everyone must work to prevent Tunisia “from being dragged into violence.”

He conceded that Ennahdha, which has been accused of focusing on its internal concerns instead of managing the coronavirus, “needs to review itself, as do other parties.”

Ennahdha, with its high political profile, is a perfect target to blame for Tunisia’s economic and other problems, Ghannouchi maintained.

“And they succeeded at some of their objectives in inciting hatred against Ennahda,” he said.

The Islamist leader hastened to add, “However, it is through elections the popularity of parties is measured,” and Ennahdha remains the largest.

But all parties “must come together … to save Tunisia and not this or that party,” Ghannouchi said.

The 80-year-old Ghannouchi, a co-founder of Ennahdha, also said that he wouldn’t seek a new term as its president at a party congress later this year.

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