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Situation Assessment 13 February, 2019

The Tahya Tounes Movement: A Deeper Look at Youssef Chahed’s New Party

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


The announcement of the establishment of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s new political party has sparked huge interest in Tunisia and abroad with parliamentary and presidential elections expected to be held later this year. This interest centers on the political identity of the new party and its role in enhancing the position of prime minister in his conflict with President Beji Caid Essebsi. This is in addition to the interest sparked by the nature of the possible alliances and consensus that the party will make in order to win positions in the Tunisian political scene after elections.

A New Party or a Restructure?

Following months of paid social media mobilization, and after months of preparatory meetings in a number of cities, the conference hall in the city of Monastir was crowded with participants from all over the country attending the founding meeting of the Tahya Tounes party on 27 January 2019. This was called by the National Coalition that is aligned with Chahed in parliament, as well as leaders who withdrew from the Nidaa Tounes party. The meeting attempted to avoid referring to the conflict between President Beji Caid Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes allies and the Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and his Nidaa Tounes defectors. Yet, the press release indicates that the new party is essentially Nidaa Tounes with a new name and a new organizational structure working during a political stage that differs from when Nidaa Tounes emerged 2012.

The press release stated that it was a “movement based on the concepts and values of modern Tunisian civilization, modernist and open to the global humanistic progressive culture,” and that the party “adheres to the legacy of the Tunisian reform movement and the pioneers of the feminist struggle”.[1] This rhetoric emulates that adopted by Nidaa Tounes since it was founded, distinguishing its political line and intellectual, cultural and social foundations from Ennahda. In this context, and like the founders of Nidaa Tounes before them, the founders of Tahya Tounes were quick invest in the symbolic capital represented in “Bourguibaism”. The hall was overwhelmed with photos of former president Habib Bourguiba, next to pictures of Youssef Chahed.

The political and cultural roots declared by Tahya Tounes were not the only indicator that, to a great extent, the movement is just a new organizational structure. The leadership behind the movement, and its activists, mostly held positions in Nidaa Tounes. The National Coalition (the parliamentary bloc behind the new party) was formed of deputies who had withdrawn from the Nidaa bloc. The rest of the leaders, including Salim al-Azabi, who was appointed interim coordinator of the Tahya Tounes movement, was a leader in Nidaa Tounes, and former director of the office of President Essebsi, and the executive president of his electoral campaign.

There were some new faces not recognizable as Nidaa Tounes members in the meeting, and the accession of some leftist and union elites or the integration of minor parties within Chahed’s party is expected. Yet the general identity of the party, its rhetoric, leaders and rules, indicates that it is, at most, a reconstruction of Nidaa Tounes within the same political box. Accordingly, most of the points listed in the press release about the 27 January meeting fall within a framework of attracting support and attempting to prove that it differs from Nidaa. This is evident in its assertion that the movement “split with the authoritarian [...] and depends on dialogue and free choice and democracy [...] and selects local, regional and national leaders through elections [...] and works to fight corruption of all kinds.[2]All of these are implicit references to the way that the President Essebsi camp in Nidaa Tounes monopolizes opinion and to their relationship with corruption. These represent the most important justifications for the defection of Chahed and his camp.

An Electoral Conflict

Through the announcement of Tahya Tounes, Chahed decisively cut off his relationship with president Essebsi and his party, after many observers had debated the possibility of the two reaching a consensus. By announcing the new party, the conflict between the prime minister and president is entering a new phase just before the legislative and presidential elections, and the timing seems to be directly or indirectly connected. Since Chahed’s decision to break off from Nidaa Tounes, President Essebsi intensified his rhetoric against the prime minister. And in a discussion during the first Tahya Tounes meeting, Essebsi argued that Chahed does not channel its strength from the National Coalition parliamentary bloc but from Ennahda and that without the Islamist party’s support, Chahed would have not weight or ability to retain his current position. He said that Tahya Tounes is based on ideas from Ennahda, which "understood his ambition and dealt with him intelligently, pushing him to form a new party to participate in the government after the elections of 2019". He even claimed that “Rached Ghannouchi will support him in secret to run for president,"[3] and that the formation of Chahed’s party “has contributed to delay the democratic progress of the country”.[4]

These statements express the great disappointment felt by President Essebsi, who backed Chahed’s bid to become prime minister in summer 2016. Seeing himself as a political veteran with more than six decades experience, and Chahed as a newcomer only intensifies these feelings. In fact, Essebsi’s remarks exaggerate the influence of Ennahda in the Chahed government, which has only a limited number of ministers. Chahed benefited from Ennahda more than Ennahda benefited from him, and if Ennahda had not supported his government in parliament, it would have collapsed; Ennahda does not control the government. Essebsi’s statements are purely electoral, aiming to go back to the identities and alignments that existed before the 2014 elections, presenting himself and his manifesto as the sole answer to Ennahda. Although most leaks seem to exclude Chahed from the presidential race this year, his new party is counting on a result similar to that made by Nidaa Tounes in the 2014 parliamentary elections. This would qualify him to head a new cabinet, while some sources indicates that Ennahda has alternatives to Youssef Chahed in the presidential elections. Yet the 8 months until the elections are long enough to change the political status quo, just as previous stages have seen political equations upturned unexpectedly. Such moments include the collapse of the consensus between Essebsi and Ennahda and the arrival of Machrouu Tounes into Chahed’s government despite its previous outright rejection of any partnership or consensus with Ennahda.

In this context, talk about the emergence of Tahya Tounes onto the political scene in the early 2019 elections seems premature. The reproduction of the Nidaa Tounes experience, in many ways, may not necessarily be a factor of strength for the new party, and perhaps conveys the conflicts that exhausted Nidaa and drained into the new project. The first signs of this appeared even before the movement was legally authorized, forcing the leadership to issue a statement asserting that the actions of some party activists do not oblige the movement to do anything. It called on them to "remain vigilant and disciplined to protect the movement from any violation of democratic principles, and willing to continue their work in the same enthusiastic and constructive sprit they had set out with.”[5] The absence of a political project that is made up of the movement's members raises the question of its ability to contain a non-homogenous group. The "charisma" of Chahed alone is not sufficient to represent a sustainable common ground, proven by the experience of President Essebsi and the speed with which those gathered around him dispersed in 2014.

On the other hand, there are increasing indications that President Essebsi may decide to participate in the presidential race. Although on more than one occasion he has been keen to maintain some uncertainty about whether or not he will run, it is clear that he will not concede victory to his opponents by confirming that he is waiting for the next assembly to decide who will represent the party in the election. Some observers have not ruled out that the president and his staff are connected to the ongoing consultations between a number of politicians and former ministers who have found themselves outside the Chahed government. This aims to form a political initiative called the “National Rescue Meeting”, which would assume the task of amending the “the current political regime, which has failed to maintain the stability and unity of the executive authority”. This would mean a return to the presidential system, a desire repeated by Essebsi on more than one occasion.[6]

Ennahda continues to pursue a policy based on caution. Despite bitter criticism from President Essebsi since the consensus collapsed, and even before that, Ennahda has been keen to repeat that consensus, which according to its vision, is a strategic option and not a tactical one, that should continue after the next elections. Ennahda recognizes that, despite its internationally positive image as a stabilizing factor, regional reservations (from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt) about its share of power remain in the foreseeable future. In this context, the movement is also expected to support a candidate in the presidential election instead of nominating one of its leaders, without forgetting that President Essebsi is no longer an option as he was in the 2014 elections.

Conclusion

After winning the vote of confidence in parliament months ago, then deciding to break off from Nidaa Tounes and establish a new party, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed launched a new phase in his struggle with the president, who lost most of the cards that allowed him to win elections 2014. Chahed enters the stage before the elections with a comfortable parliamentary majority, thanks to Ennahds’s support for government stability, with a party whose founders seek to gain an advanced position in parliamentary elections. However, all these indicators depend entirely on the stability of the status quo, counting on the new party project not to falter, with the outcome at the mercy of current political agreements and any potential regional intervention.

[1] The press release is available in Arabic on the Tahya Tounes Facebook page: https://bit.ly/2GEY4dh

[2] Ibid

[3] See: “Essebsi for Arabs: Ennahda controls the government and Ghannouchi supports Chahed in the presidential elections”, Al-Arab, 29/1/2019, last accessed 9/2/2019 at: https://bit.ly/2RpEWld

[4] See: “The President of the Republic expresses his hope of avoiding a general strike on 17 January 'by all means necessary’”, Television Tunisienne, 14/1/2019, last accessed 9/2/2019 at: https://bit.ly/2Byr574

[5] Tahya Tounes Facebook Page: https://bit.ly/2GmES4P

[6] “Samira Mari for 'Sabah News': political figures and former ministers and statesmen joined the National Rescue Meeting initiative'”, Assabah News, 9/2/2019, last accessed 9/2/2019 at: https://bit.ly/2DC3LWp. See also the statements of former Minister Mabruk Kershid on Radio Mosaic FM, 1/2/2019