Islamists Buck Regional Crackdown With Tunisia Presidential Bid

Jihen Laghmari and Tarek El-Tablawy

(Bloomberg) -- Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party Ennahda will field its first-ever candidate for presidential elections, at a time when some of the Middle East’s major powers are waging a far-reaching crackdown on broadly similar groups.

The party has chosen its 71-year-old deputy, Abdelfattah Mourou, as “an expression of the movement’s confidence in democracy, the republic and the Tunisian revolution,” Ennahda leader Rashid Ghannouchi was cited as saying late Tuesday by Mosaique FM, a local broadcaster.

The unanimous decision, subsequently announced by Ennahda’s Shura Council, will be closely watched in a region where Islamists have been overthrown and thousands of their supporters jailed in the past decade. The North African nation has moved up presidential elections to Sept. 15 following the recent death of head of state Beji Caid Essebsi, an orderly transition that analysts have hailed as proof of political maturity in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Ennahda’s plan “means they’ve assessed the democratic experiment is no longer so fragile that they can’t think about running,” said H.A. Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. It doesn’t “represent the idea that ‘we can take it all, or that we don’t need to be careful’.”

Ennahda, which adheres to what it calls “democratic Islam,” has played a key role in Tunisian politics since the 2011 revolution that overthrew long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It’s descended from the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate won the Egyptian presidency in 2012, only to be ousted by the army after mass protests a year later and the organization banned.

Islamist Woes

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates now back a strongman intent on crushing Islamists in neighboring Libya, while the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia quickly moved to support Sudan’s army after it ousted the country’s Islamist leader, Omar al-Bashir, in April. Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot that currently rules the Gaza Strip, has been struggling for years under the weight of an embargo by Israel and Egypt.

A bid for the top job carries risks for Ennahda in Tunisia, a country with a staunch secular tradition where there’s widespread suspicion over its motives. Fiery discontent over the drafting of a constitution prompted its members to step down as part of a coalition government in 2014 in a bid to head off a political crisis.

Ennahda is one of the dominant parties in Tunisia’s parliament, but gauging its recent support is difficult, with opinion polls barred in the country since the election season officially began in mid-July. Ghannouchi said last week the party has “exited the concept of political Islam” and isn’t striving “for a country that represents all Muslims, but one that represents Tunisians.”

Democratic Experiment

Ennahda has maintained that “the continuation of the democratic experiment takes precedence over everything else,” said Hellyer. Its reluctance until now to seek anything more than a share of the legislative vote showed they “didn’t want to jeopardize that.”

Mourou will join a packed race of at least 35 would-be challengers, who are set to include former President Moncef Marzouki and a populist media mogul, Nabil Karoui. Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi resigned Wednesday after announcing his candidacy, which will be backed by Nidaa Tounes, Tunisia’s main secular party.

The eventual winner will inherit a country whose economic gains haven’t matched it democratic ones. Tunisian authorities have struggled to win popular backing for cuts to public spending recommended by the International Monetary Fund, which agreed to provide a $2.9 billion lifeline in 2016. While annual economic growth has risen to 2.6%, it’s not enough to reduce joblessness, with youth unemployment hovering at about 30%.

Compromise With IMF

Ghannouchi has said Ennahda will campaign on a platform of encouraging foreign investment and overhauling a bloated bureaucracy, and that -- while economic reforms were necessary -- a compromise should be reached with the IMF.

A lawyer by training and the deputy speaker of Tunisia’s parliament, Mourou will probably benefit from a split in the anti-Ennahda vote, according to Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who researches Tunisia.

The party’s historic bid “shows that Ennahda feels confident that it has tremendous public support and that Tunisian democracy has evolved in a way that it would potentially accept an Ennahda-led parliament and presidency,” she said.

Tunisia’s election preparations also signal an embrace of constitutional principles that’s rare for the region, Hellyer said.

“Normal and regular in this region, when it comes to transitions, is extremely abnormal and irregular,” he said. “It’s revolutionary.”

(Updates with number of registered candidates in second paragraph after Democratic Experiment subheadline.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Jihen Laghmari in Tunis at jlaghmari@bloomberg.net;Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at teltablawy@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net, Michael Gunn, Amy Teibel

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