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Ennahda movement and Washington: A lot of water under the bridge

Ahmed Nadhif

Published: Updated:

In the fall of 1991, Rached Ghannouchi, founder and leader of Tunisia's Ennahda Movement, stood as an angry orator in one of the movement's camps in the Sudanese city of Omdurman, threatening the US of woe and ruin and hinting at attacks on its troops in the Arabian Peninsula in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. At the time, the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood was heavy on slogans of “confronting global arrogance” and impressed with the policies of Imam Khomeini in Iran.

Throughout 30 years of transformation and change, Ghannouchi is now standing in the opposite camp. He is no longer interested in waging jihad against the US arrogance. Instead, he begs this “arrogant” power to save him from his many predicaments. Between that stormy speech in Omdurman and the present, a lot of water has run under the bridge in the region and within the Tunisian Islamic movement. This symbolic water sums up Ghannouchi's journey and remarkable transformation.

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The reason this is relevant today is that the US Department of Justice revealed that Ennahda Movement signed a new contract with a lobbying and PR company in Washington following the measures taken by President Kais Saied on 25 July. Per the contract, the firm would conduct a PR campaign to advocate for Ghannouchi and his movement in their battle against President Saied. A few days after the suspension of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and the dismissal of the government, Rached Ghannouchi published articles in some US papers addressing the US administration and public opinion, as though he cares less about the dwindling support for him at home and more about the US role in recalibrating the balance of power for his benefit and restoring the status quo to its pre-25 July state.

Ennahda was quick to deny that it had signed any contracts or transferred funds to the US, as if the experts on the history and activities of Islamist groups are unaware of the external networks supporting the movement. Much to its dismay, it is no secret that Ennahda was active abroad for nearly two decades and has an enormous logistical and organizational infrastructure in Europe and North America that allows it to communicate with such companies and transfer funds beneath the radar of Tunisian local oversight bodies.

However, it seems that seeking Washington's help to save what can be saved will exacerbate the problems of the Tunisian Islamist movement. The Tunisian judiciary began investigating the validity of the contract, which could be used as further evidence in the charges of lobbying contracts leveled against Ennahda since the 2019 elections. Earlier, the Tunisian judiciary had announced the opening of an investigation into Ennahda’s alleged obtention of foreign funding following the issuance of a report by the Court of Auditors, the highest regulatory body, that accuses Ennahda of receiving foreign funding through contracts with lobbying and PR companies in Washington.

If the judiciary proves these charges, Ennahda faces unprecedented existential risks, not least of which is a final exit from the political scene for years. Article 163 of Tunisia's Constitution states that: "If the Court of Auditors proves that the candidate or list has obtained foreign funding for its election campaign, the latter shall pay a financial penalty of tenfold to fiftyfold the amount of foreign funding received. Members of electoral lists that received foreign funding shall lose their membership in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, and presidential candidates who received foreign funding shall be sentenced to five years in prison. All presidential or parliamentary candidates convicted of obtaining foreign funding for their election campaigns shall be prohibited from running in future parliamentary and presidential elections."

As for Ennahda-US relations, it is safe to say that Islamists in Tunisia have been somewhat disappointed by the US administration's semi-neutral position regarding the actions of President Kais Saied, for the movement expected a firmer US position in its favor, which did not happen. In the meantime, the US Embassy was continuing and even increasing its efforts to provide vaccine shots to Tunisia, despite the unabashed friendliness between US Democrats and Islamists, especially in Tunisia. In fact, Islamists had opened channels of communication with the Embassy several years ago, even before returning to political activity in 2011. That same year, WikiLeaks revealed details of a meeting between Ennahda leaders and US diplomats.

At the time, the Obama administration, particularly then-State Secretary Hillary Clinton, spared no effort in supporting Ennahda during its rise to power and its subsequent short-termed rule of the country. Driven by the briefs of Washington-based think-tanks, the US wagered that the arrival of “moderate” Islamist movements to power would permanently wipe out Islamist jihadist movements, so long as these moderate movements do not adopt radical policies against US positions and policies in the region or against capitalism.

Overwhelmed by security fears and hopes to tame the Salafist jihadist monster, the US believed that with Islamist groups coming to power, it would be easy to reintegrate jihadists and Salafists into politics and policing. However, reality was quick to challenge these beliefs. On 14 September 2012, a few hundred young Salafist jihadists -- some on foot, others in the backs of trucks -- attacked the US Embassy and the American School in the capital, Tunis, as the ruling Ennahda movement watched from its spectator seat.

This article was originally published and translated from Lebanese daily Al-Nahar al-Arabi.

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