Populism on the rise in Tunisia


Annoyance among voters in the hilltop town al-Alia illustrates the dilemma facing Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party as it seeks to win Sunday’s parliamentary election after sharing power with the secular political elite.

Ennahda’s fate will not only resonate in Tunisia. Its effort to chart a moderate path is being watched across an Arab world that for decades failed to peacefully accommodate Islamist and nationalist movements.

“Ennahda sympathisers abandoned it because of concessions and only its own people are left,” said Mohammed Amin (35) a truck driver near an Ennahda election stand opposite the town hall.

Ennahda’s national vote share has steadily fallen since Tunisia’s first free election in 2011, raising questions over strategy and ideology as it seeks to recover from a presidential vote last month in which it came third.

Where once it could rely on the support of Tunisia’s socially conservative, less developed interior, it now faces a challenge from populist outsiders who challenge the main parties over poverty.

Having disappointed Islamists by rebranding itself a “Muslim democrat” party and poor Tunisians by joining governments that failed to improve their lot, it is trying to woo back its base.

After years in government making compromises necessary to maintain social order and tackle deficits, it cannot easily regain its previous, popular image as a party of revolution without rejecting its own recent history.

It embraced Kais Saied, a socially conservative law professor an independent candidate who got most votes in the first round of the presidential election, formally backing him in the October 13 second round run-off.

In doing so, it is positioning itself against Saied’s opponent, television mogul Nabil Karoui, who faces trial for tax evasion and money laundering, which he denies.

Karoui uses his television station and his anti-poverty charity to develop an image as the champion of Tunisia’s poor, though his rivals paint him corrupt for his personal wealth and ties to the old ruling elite.


In al-Alia, a party stronghold Ennahda activists blame Karoui for their problems.

“He worked for three years targeting poverty and he is what led to reverses for all parties, not just Ennahda,” said party member Mehdi al-Habib.

Last week veteran Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi ripped into Karoui at a news conference, promoting the advantages of any future alliance between Said and Ennahda MPs.

The parliamentary election os Ennahda’s focus because the party with most seats stands the best chance of choosing a prime minister and forming a government, while the president’s powers are relatively limited.

Banned before the 2011 uprising, Ennahda emerged as the strongest party, seen by opponents as reactionary and dangerous and by supporters as the voice of the revolution.

Its election victory that year with 1,5 million votes, 37% of the total, led secular Tunisians to push back, unnerved by hard-line Islamist attacks and the example of Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood took charge.

With Tunisia polarised and facing an economic crisis, Ennahda adopted moderate social positions and joined secular parties in a series of coalitions to tackle public debt.

Party leaders believe those decisions helped avert unrest of the kind that accompanied the Brotherhood’s rise and fall in Egypt and economic disaster. They also diluted its identity and tied it to unpopular government policies.

By 2014 Ennahda’s share in the parliamentary election was 28%, with 947,000 votes and last month its presidential candidate garnered 12%, with 434,000 votes.


At al-Alia’s weekly market, Ennahda was one of several parties to set up a stall, blasting music and slogans and handing out fliers.

A group of young men distributing election material were former Ennahda voters, but now standing for a new party focused on agricultural development.

Surrounded by fields and lines of olive trees, al-Alia is a farming district and its inhabitants see themselves as cut off from the wealth of Tunis.

Hassan al-Majoubi, who voted for Ennahda in 2011, no longer supports it for economic reasons. “It did not keep its promises,” he said.

When Zoubeir Choudi, a senior Ennahda leader, resigned last week and called for Ghannouchi to step down, it pointed to the depth of internal divisions.

Ennahda remains Tunisia’s best-organised political movement, competing against ever-changing, fly-by-night rivals.

It has a good chance of coming first in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, with polls showing it and Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia party with most support.

Ghannouchi, seeking to capitalise on the populist, outsider mood, last week swore to enter coalition with other “revolutionary forces” after the election.
Depending on the outcome, he may have little choice but to share power with secular parties in a government still facing difficult fiscal choices.

Voters like Amin, a strong believer in Islamist politics, abandoned Ennahda. He wants “an Islamic president who sticks to his principles”.

Caught between the unpopular necessities of governance and the irrelevance of opposition, Ennahda stands little chance of winning him back.