By Angus McDowall
TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi is coming full circle.
From political prisoner and exile before the 2011 revolution to kingmaker and parliament speaker after it, the Islamist leader is back under investigation by authorities while an adversary sits in the presidential palace.
After President Kais Saied last summer closed the elected parliament and started to rule by decree, Ghannouchi accused him of a coup and positioned his Ennahda party as one of Saied’s fiercest critics.
Now, with Saied having assumed extensive authority over the judiciary, a judge has put Ghannouchi under investigation over suspicions of money laundering, charges Ennahda have denied, calling them a political attack.
The investigation comes soon before a July 25 referendum on Saied’s new constitution, which Ghannouchi and his party have vowed to boycott, seeing it as a charade intended to enshrine the president’s march to one-man rule.
It means that Ennahda and its leader Ghannouchi, now old and frail, his hands often shaking, is once more centre stage in the tussle for Tunisia’s future.
To his admirers, Ghannouchi is a moderate whose penchant for compromise helped avert political violence after the revolution and brought Tunisia to adopt a democratic constitution.
However, critics say he is a polarising and largely unpopular figure, due to ideological divisions over Islamism and because of Ennahda’s central part in years of political paralysis and misgovernance that poisoned the well of democracy.
They see him as a Trojan horse for more radical Islamists who used his party’s predominant position after 2011 to infiltrate every level of the state, charges Ennahda denies.
Governing power was a far cry from Ghannouchi’s roots in a banned Islamist movement in the 1980s, 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 softened his ideology with democratic ideas and befriended 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 their support 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 odds.
Ghannouchi did not run for any public office until years later – an approach that set him apart from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood which won a presidential election within 16 months of the Arab Spring only to be forced from power by the army.
But he remained the key figure behind an increasingly influential Ennahda.
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 a secularist president worked to calm the street, the launchpad for a new constitution that was jubilantly ratified in parliament as rival politicians embraced, weeping.
“We succeeded in a peaceful revolution. We succeeded in avoiding civil war. We achieved consensus,” he said.
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.
But as Tunisia’s economy faltered and state services deteriorated, Ennahda was tied to unpopular policies.
Meanwhile, Ghannouchi sought to distance Ennahda 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 confection 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 squabbling, he was an old lion at bay.
Sitting at the red wooden dais to address parliament members on their green leather benches, his voice was often faint and his hands trembling as rivals stood to challenge or bait him.
A year after Saied ordered tanks to surround the parliament, closing the chamber’s doors, Ghannouchi’s own legacy also hangs in the balance.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean)