TUNIS — Step by step, the once-shunned officials of Tunisia's old order have returned to the political scene and are turning up the pressure on the governing Islamist party Ennahda to make way for them.
So-called “remnants” from Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's rule were swept aside by the first of the “Arab Spring” revolts in January 2011 and trounced in voting for a constituent assembly later that year. The assembly has considered banning them from politics completely.
But two murders of leftist leaders this year by suspected radical Salafis and mounting dissatisfaction with Ennahda's Islamist agenda have plunged Tunisian politics into turmoil, prompting the assembly to suspend its work.
Since the second assassination in late July, ex-officials regrouped in new political parties have spoken out more openly and helped organize and fill the ranks of mass rallies to demand Ennahda step aside and allow new elections.
It now looks likely that the proposed ban, which would shut about 30,000 “remnants” out of politics, will get lost in the political tumult and the opposition parties will emerge as a potentially strong challenger to Ennahda in the next election.
“The ex-officials want to return under another flag,” said Tunis University professor Sami Brahmi, referring to about half a dozen parties where they are active. “They're the ones who are benefitting the most from what is happening.”
Ennahda used to dismiss the “remnant” parties as a copy-paste of the old system and not worth talking to, but agreed to meet them after Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood was toppled by the army last month following mounting popular protests.
One major beneficiary is Beji Caid Essebsi, who was briefly parliament speaker under Ben Ali and interim prime minister after he was ousted. Opinion polls give his party some 30 percent support, about equal with the Islamists.
His pivotal role in solving Tunisia's crisis was confirmed last week when Ennahda chairman Rached Ghannouchi made a secret trip to Paris, where Essebsi was on a visit, to hold his first talks with the man the Islamists had until then shunned.
Essebsi “has well and truly taken the role of master of ceremonies,” commented analyst Sofiane Ben Farhat.
Another beneficiary is Kamel Morjane, defense and then foreign minister from 2005 until 2011. His party, smaller than Essebsi's, is the most active in defending former officials of Ben Ali's now banned Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).
Pragmatic secular modernisers
The widely-used term “fuloul” (remnants in Arabic) is political shorthand for the pragmatic secular modernisers who worked as technocrats under Ben Ali and were not tainted by corruption or human rights violations during his rule.
About a dozen of Ben Ali's closest collaborators were jailed on charges of corruption and abuse of power soon after his ouster. He escaped to Saudi Arabia with his family.
Egyptians also speak of “fuloul” from the Mubarak years, but the army that deposed former President Mohamed Morsi is the main counterweight to the Islamists for power there.
With Tunisia's non-political military staying firmly in its barracks, the real challenge to Ennahda comes from the secular opposition parties and the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), another strong critic of Ennahda.
Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes, for example, includes former members of Ben Ali's RCD and leading businessmen from pre-revolution days, as well as progressive modernisers and trade unionists.
Its platform on its website stresses democracy, jobs, social welfare and economic progress, goals the Islamists' critics say Ennahda has failed to reach. It makes no mention of Islam.
Essebsi's new role was clear to see on Monday when Tunis newspapers ran a photograph showing him receiving a stiffly smiling Ghannouchi at his hotel in Paris.
The picture was published alongside articles reporting that Ennahda, which until then had refused to consider their demands, was now ready to meet its critics without preconditions.
Parties defending the former officials have also formed wider tactical anti-Islamist “fronts” with left-wingers who struggled against Ben Ali.
Jilani Hamammi of the Workers Party, the former underground communist party, saw no problem working with “remnants” in a broad anti-Ennahda “Salvation Front”.
“We are ready to work with anyone who can stop this religious dictatorship,” he said.
The RCD was dissolved after Ben Ali was ousted in 2011 and the leading parties of the ex-officials, such as Essebsi's Nida Tounes (Call of Tunisia) or Morjane's Initiative, sprang up. Ennahda was banned under Ben Ali and legalized after he fell.
Proud of his past
In another come-back twist, Hamed Karoui, Ben Ali's prime minister from 1989 to 1999, was recently called in by President Moncef Marzouki to hear his views on solving the crisis.
Karoui has been contacting fellow “Destourians”, followers of the secular moderniser Habib Bourguiba, who led Tunisia to independence from France in 1956 and ruled until 1987.
Mohamed Jegham, head of the Al Watan (The Nation) party and one of many “remnants” in it, made no apologies for his past.
“I worked with Ben Ali for 13 of the 23 years he was in power. I am proud of the contribution I made to the construction of this country,” said Jegham, who was defense and foreign minister in the 1990s and briefly commerce minister in 2011.
Noting the development of infrastructure, industry and education before 2011, he asked: “Who did all this? It was us.”
Jegham, whose party has linked up with others in the Destourian Front, said the anti-Islamists learned an important lesson in 2011. “There were about 125 parties running in that election and they split the vote. We cannot continue like that.”