Tunisian former PM launches secular party to challenge Islamists


Former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi on Saturday launched a new secularist political party aimed at counterbalancing Ennahda, the moderate Islamist group that swept to power in the first free elections last year.

Ennahda, which was banned under ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, won more than 40 percent of seats in a new constituent assembly in October and has gone on to form a government in coalition with two non-religious parties.

While a large number of small secular parties split the liberal and leftist vote, Ennahda, as the only major religious party standing, scooped much of the conservative vote and emerged as the single most powerful group in Tunisian politics.

Fearing a repeat of their disappointing performance when Tunisians go to the polls to vote for a full-term parliament in the first half of next year, secular groups and figures and members of Ben Ali’s disbanded RCD have scrambled to merge or form new and more powerful alliances, with limited success.

At a meeting that attracted some 2,000 followers in Tunis on Saturday, Essebsi said it was time for secular parties to retake the initiative from Ennahda.

“The political scene is unbalanced and the parties, unfortunately, have been unable to come together. Therefore, we announce the establishment of the Nida Tunisia (Tunisia’s Call) movement,” Essebsi said.


Several Tunisian parties have merged in recent months. The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), Afek Tunis and the Republican Party merged earlier this year to form a secular centrist group. The secular left Ettajdid and Labor Party also merged earlier this year.

Several politicians have also broken away from Ettakatol and the Conference for a Republic, Ennahda’s two secular coalition partners, to form new splinter groups.

None have so far been able to build a strong platform on which to begin campaigning or offer an alternative to Ennahda, which remains the largest and best organized party in Tunisia.

A well-known politician with large numbers of supporters, Essebsi has sought to build support by appealing to members of the former regime who were sidelined in the last elections.

His rivals complain that this approach will allow former regime members to return to the upper echelons of political life by the back door despite broad calls for them to be purged.

Outside the conference centre where the meeting was held, dozens of Islamist protesters denounced Essebsi, who became interim prime minister after the revolution and led Tunisia to elections, as one of the “feloul” or remnants of the old regime.

“No return, no return,” the protesters chanted before they were dispersed by security forces.

Essebsi’s decision to form the new party comes as Ennahda faces strong criticism from secularists who say it is too tolerant of religious zealots who have become more assertive since the revolution and were at the forefront of riots that shook the country earlier this week.

Essebsi, whose party is so far composed of former members of his interim government and independent politicians, said that economic conditions had deteriorated since Ennahda came to power in October and that there had been a setback in freedoms.

“This movement is based on a programme that seeks to launch the Tunisian dream anew,” Essebsi said.