The leading opinion poll company in Tunisia has surprised everyone by ranking, for the first time, a prominent leader of Ennahda movement as the most popular political official who was nominated to head the government by many last year.
The Sigma Conseil Company is headed by a businessman from a leftist/communist family, Hassan Zargouni. Its latest poll gave the former student and union leader and ex-minister of health Abdellatif Mekki the number one spot on its list of political figures. The latter included President Kais Saied, who was placed by the same institution in the top ranks among the hypothetical candidates before the 2019 election.
Can this new ranking be trusted, or should it be questioned? Most of the political and Islamist leaders in Tunisia questioned previous opinion polls and accused Sigma Conseil of manipulating the opinions of respondents.
Nevertheless, if we accept the accuracy of this ranking, then what are its cultural and political implications? It comes at a time when this and other polls confirm the declining popularity of most of the political and Islamist leaders in the country, including those in Ennahda, as well as heads of the republic, government and parliament.
When Abdellatif Mekki was appointed minister of health in the government of Elias Fakhfakh in early 2020, his popularity was weak nationally as well as within his party due to his involvement in open conflicts with a number of senior Ennahda officials. This included its historical leader Rached Ghannouchi, the Speaker of Parliament since the 2019 election.
Although Mekki was assigned the health portfolio in the 2012 and 2013 governments headed by Hamadi Jebali and Ali Laarayedh respectively, many within Ennahda opposed his appointment in the Fakhfakh government because of his "sharp and fierce" criticism of Ghannouchi and those close to him ever since the movement's tenth conference in 2016. This resulted in major conflicts between two groups, one led by Mekki and former minister Samir Dilou, and the other by the former deputy head of the movement, Abdelhamid Jelassi.
However, opinion polls suggested at the time a "rapid rise" in Mekki's popularity. At the same time, he was accused by some of his opponents of extremism, narcissism and airing the movement's dirty laundry in the media. However, his supporters praise his integrity as a clean pair of hands, as well as his leadership qualities, including his openness to the youth and the media. Ghannouchi understood this and chose him from among the six ministers he nominated for membership of the Fakhfakh government.
Mekki's popularity has grown rapidly since his reappointment as health minister. Fate had it that the coronavirus pandemic began a few weeks after he took office. Working to contain it with former ministers and health professionals, his strategy was successful in terms of prevention, treatment and state intervention. The general public and his opponents forgot about his Islamic cultural background and his past as head of the General Union of Tunisian Students, as well as his time in prison under the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime.
His popularity created issues for him with Fakhfakh and some of his colleagues in government, the opposition, and within Ennahda. Several parties launched campaigns to demonise him and demand his removal.
When a major crisis erupted between the Fakhfakh government and its parliamentary and political support, Mekki sided with those who refused to overthrow the government. It had, after all, succeeded in containing the number of people infected with coronavirus and reduced the figures to zero in a number of states.
However, that success was a double-edged sword and caused the overthrow of the government and the "general of the white coat army", Abdellatif Mekki. This was followed by the appointment of Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi at the head of the new technocratic government.
Differences in evaluating the performance of the President of the Republic, Kais Saied, and the Fakhfakh government, as well as the composition of the government of his successor, Mechichi, sparked a new crisis within Ennahda. This developed into a petition that criticised the path of the movement's leadership. Mekki and Dilou led the opposition and they were, in turn, criticised harshly.
Once again, Ghannouchi succeeded in containing his opponents and most of the signatories to the petition. He formed a new central leadership office to which a number of them were appointed. Mekki himself was named as one of the deputies of the movement's president along with others like him from the movement's second generation of officials. They included former Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, former Minister of Justice Noureddine Al-Buhairi, and academic and thinker Ajmi Lourimi.
The result was that Mekki benefited from his reconciliation with Ghannouchi and those close to him, and he moved again within the party and nationally, as one of the senior officials in the "top tier". He also developed his critical discourse to lead the movement in terms of form and content, and eased the attack on its symbols, especially on its leader, and played an opposition role from within.
Mekki adopted a new communication strategy that increased his popularity within and beyond his party. The strategy has also criticised other politicians and defended Ghannouchi in his battle with the "extremists of the former regime and the far left", such as Abir Moussi.
He has also gained popularity by making very public efforts to build bridges with some of Ennahda's opponents, including President Kais Saied, leftists, moderate modernists and the leadership of the opposition Democratic Current Party led by Ghazi Chaouachi.
Now questions are being asked behind the scenes after Mekki was ranked as the most popular political figure. Is this a genuine reflection of a senior official and statesman who had some success in the early days of the pandemic, but failed to take responsibility later on, not least when variants of Covid-19 reached Tunisia?
Does the rise in Mekki's popularity explain a greater national political role that can be played by a "moderate" Islamic intellectual of the second generation of the Ennahda movement, or do some circles that have not yet reconciled with the cultural, intellectual and political aspects of the "Islamic trend" simply want to re-employ him as minister of health in the ongoing pandemic? Will such an appointment ensure Mekki's political future, or is it an ambush, with him in line to be blamed for 17,000 Covid-19 deaths and half-a-million infections? The answers may be forthcoming in the weeks ahead.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 6 July 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.