Rached Ghannouchi—co-founder and longtime president of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party and, since 2019, speaker of parliament—has attained a degree of fame and influence outstripping that of any other Tunisian politician. As Ennahda’s key figure, he has received the most credit for the party’s success since the 2011 revolution and for its contributions to Tunisia’s democratic transformation. Recently, however, Ghannouchi’s image as a democratic pioneer has come under threat from within Ennahda’s own ranks, an unprecedented development in a party long known for cohesion and discipline.
A growing number of Ennahda followers now accuse Ghannouchi of patriarchal if not outright authoritarian handling of party affairs, claiming that he is seeking to change Ennahda’s internal rules to extend his tenure as president and tighten his control. Recent years have been marked by members’ open criticism of the party’s policies and by high-level resignations as well as by falling electoral support. Some supporters charge that Ennahda has become a personal project for Ghannouchi, who succeeded in placing it at the heart of Tunisian politics but increasingly lacks ideological vision and even popular appeal. Internal frictions are mounting to such an extent that they risk tearing Ennahda apart, and no solution to the quandary is in sight.
So far, Ghannouchi—who has led Ennahda through many challenges over the past decades—seems oblivious to the fact that his own actions are behind the crisis. The long-hailed “democrat within Islamism” has become the true test of Ennahda’s commitment to internal party democracy. If the party survives, it will only be because its own institutional foundations prevail over Ghannouchi’s personal ambitions.
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Anne Wolf, a POMED Nonresident Senior Fellow, is a fellow at All Souls College, University of Oxford, and an associate editor at the Journal of North African Studies. Her previous publication for POMED was “The Counterrevolution Gains Momentum in Tunisia: The Rise of Abir Moussi” (November 2020).