Protesters in two northern Tunisian cities, Kef and Beja, burned the local headquarters of the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, on Thursday. The acts come one day after the second anniversary of the elections that brought Ennahda to power, and coincide with anti-government protests in Tunis, and strikes in Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, and Sfax.
That tensions are nearing a boiling point is unsurprising. Tunisia’s political stalemate, pitting the Ennahda-led ruling coalition against a union-backed secular opposition, is preparing to enter its fourth month. Anti-government grievances have come from all quarters: Tunisia’s largest union, the UGTT, which has thrown its considerable weight behind the opposition’s Salvation Front; security forces resentful of Ennahda’s lack of support for anti-jihadist campaigns; southern businesses angry with disproportionate allocation of resources to the north; and student activists who have waged a hunger strike in protest of Ennahda’s leadership.
Much of this groundswell centers around Ennahda’s failure to quell extremist violence, despite two political assassinations this year and continued attacks on police and military troops. Kef protesters torched the Ennahda office in anger over Wednesday clashes with militants that killed six policemen, including one from the northwestern city. Families of the slain officers and security syndicates are refusing to allow government officials to attend the funeral services.
Yet Ennahda continues to outmaneuver the opposition. Since the July assassination of opposition figure Mohammed Brahmi, the Islamist party has forestalled its own dissolution — the opposition’s key demand — all while promising to step down. This time around, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh backtracked on an expected pledge to resign hours before the final stage of negotiations was set to begin, focusing instead on Wednesday’s attacks. (Ennahda leaders have agreed to hand over power to a technocratic government three weeks after the start of a “national dialogue,” scheduled for Wednesday morning). UGTT leaders criticized Larayedh for what they call an “ambiguous” speech, during which the prime minister emphasized his “engagement to the principle of stepping down.” (Ambiguous indeed.) Talks are now postponed until Friday.
But Ennahda’s political bullying notwithstanding, the tide of public opinion looks to have turned irrevocably against the Islamist leadership. An August poll shows that nearly 75% of voters distrust the Islamist-led government (versus 55% one year ago). Thousands turned out for an anti-government rally in Tunis Wednesday, but a planned pro-Ennahda demonstration never materialized. Even party leader Rashed Ghannouchi is reportedly thinking of jumping ship, and swapping Tunis for Doha.
All of which suggests that it’s not a question of if for Ennahda — but when?