The ninth conference of the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia represented a historic moment for a party that, since its inception, had only ever been able to conduct its affairs in secret. Held in the vast exhibition centre in Kram, the conference provided the first opportunity for the movement’s membership, which numbers some 60,000, to debate and exchange ideas on Tunisia’s future.
That said, for the journalists in attendance, it remained difficult to garner any information on the activities and decisions of the 1,103 representatives in congress whose negotiations were conducted solely behind closed doors. These debates and negotiations, the results of which will be published this week, centred upon the financial, political, social and economic proposals of the party. The results of these reports should shed some light on the new strategic direction of the movement.
At the press conference late in the afternoon of the fourth day of conference, Najm ad-Din Hamrouni was keen to convey that the settling of the issues surrounding the strategic direction of the movement was linked to the realisation of the aims of the revolution. In other words, the internal stability and coherence of the movement remains vital if Ennahda wishes successfully to advance the demands of the revolution.
As is well known, much of the speculation prior to conference concerned the future leadership of a movement whose diversity and internal divisions have been well documented. The invitation of figures such as Abdel Fattah Mourou, one of the founding members of Ennahda who later distanced himself from the movement, was clearly aimed at presenting a united and inclusive front to the outside world.
Nevertheless, many commentators have spoken of a broad generational divide which exists between the more moderate, founding members of the movement and a radical base who see the Ennahda movement as a platform upon which to build a properly Islamist ruling party.
Representatives of the movement, for their part, do not deny the existence of divisions within Ennahda. Indeed, commanding, as they do, such a large support base, divergent strands of thought are to be expected. However, many were keen to reject the idea that these divisions or conflicts are in any way generational.
Speaking to Soumeya and Yusra Ghannouchi outside conference floor, both insisted that one couldn’t “divide the political aspirations of [Ennahda representatives] in a generational sense”. Yusra accepted that “there was a large youth bloc wishing to have greater involvement in the party” but did not see this as a source of future division, commenting rather that it was “refreshing to see” a large younger presence many of whose interventions within the conference hall “had to do with the necessity to embody the demands of the revolutions, to combat corruption and to embody the demands and aspirations of the revolution”.
Many, however, continue to speculate upon the impact of a growing radical youth presence within the movement post-revolution. The more cynical of mind might suggest that the movement’s spokesperson Najm ad-Din Hamrouni, speaking late on in the fourth day of the conference, did protest too much when he insisted that “even those older members of the party are young of mind” meaning that there was “no real problem between older and younger generations”. As a corollary to this, Hamrouni reiterated the movement’s opposition to extremist elements within Tunisia. The younger members will also, we were told, be given functional roles within the movement, meaning that they are not there just “to learn” but will also take up positions of influence alongside the more established figures of Ennahda. Questioned on the importance of Rashid Ghannouchi remaining at the head of the party, he claimed that the main issue is not Ghannouchi but the transformation of Tunisia and the democratic transition”.
However, it is clear that Ghannouchi remains a vital figure for the maintenance of internal party stability. The leadership elections took place on Monday after a long delay after a long delay. Seemingly, the vote was stalled by disagreement on whether the elections to president would be voted upon by the entire body of Ennahda representatives or by the executive and an elected Shura Council. Ultimately, an overwhelming majority opted for the former. Fourteen candidates originally posted their candidacy with Hamadi Jebali and later Salah Karkar later removing their names from the list. Despite public pronouncements that he did not feel welcome among some members of the movement, Abdel Fattah Mourou will also ran for the leadership. As expected it was Ghannouchi who came out the victor, with 73% of the vote.
In a conversation with Abdel Hamid Jilassi, national coordinator of the movement, I asked whether the continuation of Ghannouchi’s presidency was the only way to guarantee the internal stability of the movement. Jilassi agreed that Ghannouchi represented “a guarantor of stability within the movement and within the country too” but, at the same time, recommended that matters “be allowed to run their course” and that “without Ghannouchi’s presidency, the movement will be able to strike a new balance”. Despite such reassurance, Ghannouchi’s importance for the overall stability of Ennahda is obvious and the evidence for this is clear; despite his well-known desire to resign his post and concentrate on writing, the pressure on him to stay remains strong. The 73% of the vote won by Ghannouchi is further evidence that his continued presence in the party as founder, president and spiritual leader, is perceived to be important in bridging divides within the movement at this time.
With the publication later this week of the social and economic proposals agreed upon at conference we will have a better idea of the “new vision for Tunisia” that Riadh Chaibi promised would come out of this four day event. However, the fact that any discussion of Ennahda’s social and economic vision was closed off to the press does not help the cause of a movement that wishes to reduce the speculation surrounding the potential for internecine conflict within its ranks.
Nor does it help to quell the growing disillusionment of Tunisian people with the activities of the Troika. For his part, Nur ad-Din al-Arbawi, member of the executive bureau, insisted that the focus on maintaining internal and external stability was a “popular choice among Tunisians” and he did not accept that this had hindered the process towards elaborating an alternative social and economic vision. Yusra Ghannouchi similarly rejected the idea that the need to maintain stability had got in the way of real alternatives being put forward. “It’s not that the government aren’t looking at this” she argued “but that the media chooses to concentrate on internal politics”, going on to say that, in fact, real improvements have been seen with “tourism back to 2010 levels and levels of foreign investment higher than those of 2010”.
We will have to wait for the publication of Ennahda’s renewed economic and social proposals before making a final judgment. It is, however, difficult to envisage this report as being anything other than the continuation of a liberal economic vision alongside a moderate campaign of social reform.
The divisions within the movement were never going to be solved by this conference. Instead, as was expected, the ninth conference of the Ennahda movement provided the first opportunity to present an impression of unity and maintain the emphasis on the importance of a stable management of the transition.
In truth, the principal importance of this conference, the final decisions of which we still do not know, surely concerns the evolution of Ennahda from a Dawa movement to a civic political party. After all, this is a a movement which over the last year and a half has moved from being a secretive political movement to an established political party. Indeed, this was the main emphasis of Abdel Latif al-Makki’s address at a press conference this morning. The divisions and disagreements within the movement will remain a source of speculation. However, Makki was keen to stress that during this time of transition, now is the time to consolidate a coherent and united movement. The formation of a coherent leadership, Makki commented, “has been constrained by arrest and exile” over the years and so “four days is not enough” for its representatives to discuss and evaluate “the progression of the party since 1981 in order that we learn from our mistakes”. For now it remains to be seen how the vision and methods of the Ennahda movement will evolve within the transformed political and social context of its existence.