Tunisia's Islamist chief makes 'revolutionary' pivot with eye on vote

Ghannouchi is seen as racing to shift the tide of anger and mistrust of voters away from Ennahda.

Ennahda Movement President Rached Ghannouchi, who once bragged of his party's hold in power in Tunisia was unshakeable "for up to 50 years," has been frantically calling for the backing of "revolutionaries."

Ghannouchi's plea for support from advocates of "revolutionary" change within populist formations and Ennahda came on eve of parliamentary elections in which a new party, Qalb Tounes, led by a jailed businessman-turned-politician Nabil Karoui, was predicted to finish first.

Ghannouchi is angling for the support of the supporters of Kais Saied, who advocated for a "new revolutionary transition" without a clear programme except for a focus on local government and social welfare.

Saied is to go against Karoui in the presidential election runoff October 13.

"We are not ahead in the race for now. As a leader, I have to tell you the truth," Ghannouchi declared at a campaign rally September 29 in the southern town of Medenine, an Islamist stronghold where Ennahda won all ten seats in the municipal vote last year.

"We are neck and neck with Qalb Tounes with the outcome being uncertain," he said.

Ghannouchi is being challenged with dissent inside his own party over claims that he filled the party’s parliamentary candidacy lists with close allies and excluded critics of his policies.

Qalb Tounes was formed about three months before the October 6 parliamentary elections by Karoui, 56, who banked on his charity campaign of three years in remote villages and neglected poor urban districts. Karoui canvassed areas where unprecedented social and economic crisis hit most.

Karoui owns stakes in the popular television channel Nessma, which highlighted his drive to reach out to the poor by handing out food, medicine and other aid. He advanced to the second round of the presidential elections despite his detention since August 23 on accusations of money laundering and tax evasion.

A Tunisian court turned down October 1 an appeal by Karoui to be released from jail. It is not clear how the continued detention of the media magnate would affect the remainder of the race.

Saied, a 61-year-old university lecturer, is backed by disgruntled Ennahda sympathisers and an array of protest voters spearhead by radical Islamists and communists united by their goal to take on the political and business establishment.

Saied called his winning the top slot in the first round of the presidential vote a "revolutionary explosion." Ghannouchi and his aides have since embraced a "pro-revolutionary" rhetoric. He has tried to justify his previous alliance with secularists and former members of the Ben Ali regime as a pragmatic move aimed at "saving democracy."

"It is time for the sons and daughters of Ennahda who abandoned it out of anger to us to return to the fold. We are very close to reaping the fruits and every vote counts," Ghannouchi said.

Ghannouchi, who is seeking for the first time a parliament seat for himself as a candidate in Tunis, has been racing to shift the tide of anger and mistrust of voters away from Ennahda.

"Our base is revolutionary," said Ghannouchi, who uttered "revolutionary" or "revolution" at least 14 times in a 40 minute-long-speech.

"Revolutionary" is a buzzword aimed at attracting Islamists, radical fringes and ultraconservatives.

Ghannouchi and other Islamist leaders had suspended the use of “revolutionary” for most of the past five years as part of their entente with secularists. They say their posture was intended to "tie the hands "of anti-Islamists and "prevent them from delivering blows to the revolution."

"If we succeed in these parliamentary elections with the emergence of a revolutionary force as the winner, we can breathe a sigh of relief that the revolution had crossed the river, crossed the desert," said Ghannouchi.

The Islamist leader who has long nurtured an image of an accommodating moderate does not hesitate now to take highly polarising stands.

"The only revolutionary force now is Ennahda, which faces off with a counter-revolutionary rival Qalb Tounes, which represents the old regime. Both forces are on the lead and with no one else in between," he said.

"Unfortunately, we have yet to overcome this rival because we do not have pasta to hand out," he said.

Qalb Tounes was dubbed the "macaroni party" by Islamists and secularists who criticised its distribution of free food as "exploitative" of the poor.

Turning to "all revolutionary forces," Ghannouchi said: "Every vote cast outside the ballot box of Ennahda is lost. Ennahda has the possibility to win as the standard bearer of the revolution while other revolutionaries have no chance as they are lagging very far behind.

"Do not vote for your parties or independent candidates. They will not make any difference. Ennahda can do as it is very close to the threshold of a win."

Ghannouchi, who ruled out a coalition with Qalb Tounes, warned "revolutionaries" that a victory by Qalb Tounes would turn Saied into a "hostage in Carthage," if he were to win in the runoff.

The Tunisian Presidential Palace is in Carthage.

“We need a majority in the parliament and the government to fit into the win of Saied and advance the aims of the revolution,” he said.

Ghannouchi defended his previous alliance with secularists in the government, saying "Ennahda saved Tunisia from a bloodbath" suggesting that secularists left alone in government would have pushed Tunisia into civil war.

"A single minister from Ennahda changes the ambiance in the cabinet," he argued. "We interlaced them very closely like in a boxing match. We held tight on the adversary to block him from hitting us. Tunisia was hence spared their blows."

Ghannouchi said Ennahda could not be held accountable for the government's poor performance, which drove Tunisians to vote en masse against the establishment in the first round of the presidential race.

"Do not ask us the question: ‘What did you achieve during the last years by your presence in the government.’ This question must be directed to Nidaa Tounes, not us. Nidaa has the control of the three presidencies of the parliament, the cabinet and the head of state," he said.

Nidaa Tounes, founded by late President Beji Caid Essebsi in 2012 as counterweight to Ennahda, won the most votes in parliament elections and the presidency in 2014 before splitting into factions — and political irrelevance.

Ennahda senior official Rafik Abdessalem, a son-in-law of Ghannouchi, claimed that Ennahda's alliance with Nidaa Tounes caused the secularist party to "disperse and scatter."

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

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