(Fixes story identifier)
By Angus McDowall and Tarek Amara
TUNIS -Tunisia’s Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi has quickly emerged as the main opponent of President Kais Saied’s efforts to reshape the country’s politics, branding his dismissal of the government a coup.
On Monday morning, hours after Saied — a political independent — shut down parliament and deployed soldiers around it Ghannouchi waited outside, demanding to be let in.
“I am 80 years old and throughout my life I have fought against volatility,” he said.
Ghannouchi, head of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party which has played a role in successive coalitions, has come to personify Tunisian politics since the 2011 revolution when he returned in triumph from exile to craft a decade of compromises that averted civil strife but frustrated many.
It was a consensual version of democracy that as the economy stagnated and its leaders endlessly bickered, soured many Tunisians on the revolution that had brought them new freedoms of speech, assembly and representation.
As protests erupted in January, the government and old parties of parliament like Ennahda bore the brunt of the public’s wrath. That wave of anger finally broke last week as COVID-19 cases spiked.
On Sunday, hours before Saied’s dramatic escalation of his long-running dispute with the political elite, protesters attacked Ennahda offices around the country.
Seen by secular critics as a Trojan horse for hardline Islamism, but by some conservatives as abandoning their cause, Ghannouchi pragmatically steered the party to ensure it stayed a key player, earning the reputation of an ideological chameleon.
“We succeeded in a peaceful revolution. We succeeded in avoiding civil war. We achieved consensus,” he said after parliament approved a democratic constitution in 2014.
It was a far cry from Ghannouchi’s roots in a banned Islamist movement when he was imprisoned twice and then driven into two decades of exile in the West London suburb of Ealing accused of attempting a coup.
While there he honed his ideology, softening its harder edges with democratic ideas and befriending fellow Islamist leader Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
When Tunisians rose up against president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Ghannouchi flew home. He landed a week after the autocrat had fled, and was met by an exultant crowd.
Thousands of his supporters filled the terminal, climbed roofs and perched on signposts for a better view, chanting slogans of support, punching the air and sobbing with joy.
As the small greying figure in a red scarf left the building with the throng pressing around him, he took a loudspeaker to exhort them: “Continue your revolution”.
Ennahda won the most seats in Tunisia’s first free election nine months later, the prelude to tense manoeuvring among rival factions with Islamists and secularists increasingly at loggerheads.
As divisions deepened in 2013 and spilled over into the streets, many Tunisians feared the violence that had followed the revolt in neighbouring Libya would break out at home too.
Ghannouchi and secularist president Beji Caid Essebsi agreed a deal to calm the street. It allowed agreement on a new constitution that was greeted upon ratification in parliament with jubilation as rival politicians embraced, weeping, on the floor of the chamber.
But, for some, the compromises rankled.
Opponents of political Islam accused Ghannouchi of turning a blind eye towards the Tunisian jihadists who flocked to join Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and carried out assassinations at home, something he denied.
Many of his supporters meanwhile attacked his decision to support a controversial law granting amnesty to officials accused of corruption under Ben Ali.
He said that as a former victim of political exclusion, he believed the new Tunisia must include even those connected to the old regime.
As Tunisia’s economy faltered and state services deteriorated, Ennahda was tied to unpopular policies.
Meanwhile, Ghannouchi was trying to distance the party from political Islam, rebranding it as a “Muslim democrat” party and splitting its political mission from its social and religious activities.
When he stood for public office for the first time, in the 2019 parliamentary election, Ennahda turned in its weakest performance for years but was still the largest party with about a quarter of the seats.
He won the speaker’s office, a splendid 19th century mix of rich stonework, carved plaster and gilt partitions, along a corridor from the main parliament chamber under its stuccoed dome and arcade of horseshoe arches.
But, with parliament fragmented, his own party restive and political leaders at each other’s throats, he was in his late 70s and growing increasingly frail.
Sitting at the red wooden dais to address parliament members on their green leather benches in the chamber, his voice was often faint and his hands trembling as rivals stood to challenge or bait him.
Saied’s sudden move on Sunday night may now decide whether he will be able to return to the chamber.