Beyond public opinion surveys the issue of religion in the public sphere has impacted political participation tremendously, and has led to divisions and revisions within established political parties and movements in North Africa. Again, the Tunisian example demonstrates the shape and extent of the Islamist-secular debate ongoing in the region. The crisis within the ruling party, Nidaa Tounes led to Mohcen Merzouk’s, secretary general of the party, resignation in December, along with at least 25 MPs, including several founding members of the party. On 10 January, Merzouk held a rally and declared the formation of a new party, set for 2 March. The new party’s ideological reference will be grounded in Bourguiba’s principles of modernism. Abd Essetar El Messaoudi, a leading figure in Merzouk’s group, recently explained that the profound disagreement within Nidaa Tounes was on the issue of forming a coalition with Ennahdha in government. Merzouk held this rally on the same day Nidaa Tounes held its founding congress in Sousse, to prove that he is still able to gather support.
With Merzouk’s camp’s resignation, from Nidaa Tounes, Hafedh Essebsi – son of the President Beji Caid Essebsi – has won the party leadership standoff (not without his father lobbying’s, say some observers), following the president’s intervention to establish a 13-member, ad hoc group to mediate between the two rival camps. Supporters of Essebsi’s wing say that the Tunisian transition was safeguarded by consensus on the importance of cooperation between secularists and Islamists (as enshrined by the National Dialogue), and that Nidaa Tounes is bound to honour its commitment for the national interest.
The Nidaa Tounes founding congress was held on 9-10 January in Sousse, presided over by President Essebsi, a move that has been criticised in Tunisia, because in doing so he lent support to the political group – rather than remaining representative of all Tunisian citizens. Several figures resigned on the day of the congress, because Hafedh Essebsi imposed without internal discussion or consensus, a 14-member executive committee, and party rules of procedure. The surprise of the congress was the speech of Rached Ghannouchi, in which he hailed the spirit of consensus, guaranteed by President Essebsi. This was used by Merzouk’s camp to highlight, what they call the ‘betrayal’ of Tunisian constituents.
Although the party’s crisis is now over, the foundation of a new secularist party of 19 MPs in parliament is the third political force in the Assembly. It is not yet clear who holds a parliamentary majority, as some Nidaa Tounes MPs resigned from the party but remained within the bloc. This new configuration might lead to further polarisation, should Merzouk’s new party form a parliamentary coalition with the leftist Hama Hamami’s Popular Front block of 15 MPs. The Popular Front refused a coalition with Nidaa Tounes a year ago, because of Ennahdha’s presence in Habib Sid’s government.
Another recent development, which might add to Islamist-secularist tensions in Tunisia, is the return of former president Moncef Merzouki, with a new political party called Tounes al Iraada (Tunisian Willingness). At the founding congress on 20 December, Merzouki said that his party would join the opposition to Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha, who, as he put it, a year on have failed miserably to deliver. The announcement came shortly after PM Habib Sid announced a cabinet reshuffle that displaced 11 ministers, including those of interior, justice, foreign affairs, and religious affairs.
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