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Ennahda and Haniyeh: A Model of Cooperation to Come?

Jeremy Farrell January 30, 2012
At the beginning of this January 2012 the newly elected Ennahda – the Islamist party

which was saw widespread support for its platform in the October 23rd elections – invited the Palestinian leader Ismail Haniyeh to Tunis for an official governmental visit. While the most outwardly significant development of this trip was the welcome that Hinnayah received at the Carthage International Airport, a greeting marred by chants of “Killing Jews is an obligation” from some present, to the dismay of the wider Tunisian public, the visit caused a rift between Ennahda and other members of the temporary ruling coalition. There are further policy implications for such a visit which will prove integral to understanding Ennahda’s policy of governance in the still active transitional period.
Tunis as a state actor has for more than 50 years been a staunch ally of the Palestinian cause. Former president Habib Bourguiba was among the first Arab leaders to call (PDF) for the declaration of an independent Palestinian state in 1965. The PLO and Yasser Arafat made the country's capital their headquarters beginning in 1982 and remained for 10 years, despite an attempt on Arafat's life as a part of Operation Wooden Leg in 1985. The country also sheltered Khalil al-Wazir (better known by his patronymic Abu Jihad) who was a main architect of the First Intifada before his assasination in 1988. The Ben Ali regime's support, though tepid 1 compared to other Arab states, was ongoing throughout that period. His successor President Moncef al-Markzouki has taken a stronger stand and publicly offered his support to Palestinian human rights causes; likewise, acting Speaker of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly Mustafa Ben Jafar’s comments during the visit of Riyadh Melki, the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who was invited by liberal elements of the Tunisian government in response to Ennahda’s hosting Haniyeh, shed light on a turn in these relations:
“ Ben Jaafer noted that achieving Palestinian unity – referring to the rift between Palestinian political representation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – is essential before progress can be made in resolving the plight the Palestinian people face.”
It is exactly this type of split that informs a reading of Ennahda’s policy going forward. Haniyeh, the Prime Minister chosen by Hamas after the 2006 elections in the Gaza Strip, has been a divisive political figure in Palestinian politics, though also a religious symbol to rally around thanks to his connections to Hamas’ spiritual authority, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Following a three-year prison term in Israel, he was exiled to Lebanon. After ascending to the role of Prime Minister a falling-out with Abbas cost him legitimacy but not his position, from where he continues to cast a long shadow over Hamas policy. The rift that developed between him and Abbas has resisted all attempts at reconciliation, despite especially vociferous protestations from Haniyeh’s side that he is open to talks and Fatah’s equally stringent condemnations of Haniyeh’s Middle East tour.

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Such a position seems completely bizarre read when viewed through the context of the Arab Spring, which should serve as a warning against the merits of policy based on models of “stability”-based dictatorship in the future.

While such a rift has not yet developed in Tunisian political circles, there is widespread fear that Ennahda, which is held to have fairly won the elections with 41% of the total vote, will aim to strike out on its own in terms of policy and potentially undermine the unity that some Tunisians feel necessary to complete the goals of their revolution. Ennahda leadership - among them Hamadi Jebali (PM) and Rached Ghanouchi (party founder), who like many party members have spent time in prison and, in Ghannouchi’s case, exile - have realized the import of such a “national reconciliation,” though only after various hardline party talking points failed spectacularly: spokeswoman Souad Ibrahim’s contention that single mothers are a “disgrace” to the country; a failed attempt to establish a Saudi-style Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice; a failed attempt to reform national university policy regarding wearing the niqab on campuses and gain other religious concessions; and the infamous “Sixth Caliphate” line delivered by Jebali himself all have threatened a post-election unity that was predicated on the assumption that all parties would work together for the good of Tunisia. Such stances have not sat well with the country’s elite nor liberals of any stripe.
This breakdown of intra-state structures of cooperation, whether real in the case of Palestine or threatened in the case of Tunis, returns to a distinctly religious view of the democratic process as cultivated by Hamas’ Haniyeh and Ennahda’s Jebali and Ghannouchi. Hamas’ religious policy, conditioned primarily by an intransigent stance on cooperation with Israel, has precipitated the break with partnering Fatah2; Ennahda’s propagation of religious policy, conditioned by opposition to Ben Ali’s aggressive anti-Islamist policies, is on the verge of dividing public opinion along religious lines in the face of pressing economic and constitutional concerns. While the physical barriers that contribute to the break between Fatah and Hamas are not present in the Tunisian context, Ennahda’s contributions in the policy field (all followed by clumsy retractions) beg the question as to whether or not their internal policy divisions in Tunisia will manifest themselves along lines of deep-seated mistrust and disobliging public statements made between the Palestinian factions. Ennahda appears firm in its commitment to supporting the Palestinian cause, a cause that fits in historically with Tunisian foreign policy, but their more aggressive stance might be a sign of its attitude toward cooperation and forging unity on the national level.

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This break has been tacitly repaired in the name of unity before the Palestinian petition to the UN for statehood, but Heniyah’s recent comments reflect the continuing reality of the rift.