Youssef Cherif is an observer and analyst of Tunisian affairs.
Since its return to Tunisia in 2011, Ennahda has tried to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The trend increased since 2013 as the influence of the Islamist network dwindled, when the MB-backed groups fighting in Syria and Libya mutated into violent extremist movements, and after the military toppled the MB-led government in Egypt.
Ennahda’s PR strategy of purposeful distance reached its climax in 2016 when Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi announced that his party was no longer an Islamist party, but rather a Muslim Democrat party. Yet, the rebranding campaign has faced occasional setbacks. The first was during the Gulf crisis of 2017, when many Ennahda leaders expressed their support for Qatar, the besieged peninsula. Moreover, Ghannouchi and other senior members of his party continued their regular pilgrimages to Doha and Istanbul, the MB regional strongholds.
Morsi's death was another one of these challenges. The supporters of nonintervention in international politics (and of the “Muslim Democrat” rebranding in general) inside the party were temporarily sidelined. Ghannouchi called Morsi a “martyr” on Al-Jazeera during the live coverage of the aftermath of Morsi’s death. Ennahda’s bloc conducted a prayer (Fatiha) for the Egyptian president during a parliamentary session, provoking the anger of some secular anti-Ennahda groups. Ennahda’s social media exploded with eulogies of Morsi and condemnations of his foe Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Electoral politics and regional alliances help explain Ennahda’s position. Faced with decreasing popularity, and in preparation for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in fall 2019, the party is trying to please its largely pro-Morsi constituency. Also looking to secure its external support (from Qatar and Turkey) as the elections get closer, and fearing the ongoing hostility of the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi-Cairo nexus, Ennahda embraced Morsi’s case.
However, a series of recent crises—President Beji Caid Essebsi’s illness, and two suicide attacks—have complicated Tunisia’s political scene. Ennahda’s position, in this regard, was diluted and quickly forgotten.