Supporters of Tunisia’s embattled moderate Islamist party have signed a new US lobbying contract to push back against President Kais Saied, sparking a media firestorm in Tunis and adamant denials by Ennahda that it has anything to do with it.
The London-based Ennahda Party Diaspora Group signed a two-month, $30,000 contract with BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe) on July 29, four days after Saied suspended parliament, according to a new lobbying filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The New York-based global communications firm is tasked with “outreach to key stakeholders in the US, media support, and strategic communications counsel.”
The contract was signed by Ifhat Smith, who is identified in the filing as the diaspora group’s director. BCW executive vice president William McQuillen and senior vice president Shaila Manyam, an 11-year veteran of the US State Department, are registered as foreign agents on the account.
Smith could not be reached for comment. BCW declined to comment beyond the content of the filing.
The Joe Biden administration has so far stopped short of calling the events in Tunisia a “coup”, which would trigger a freeze in US assistance. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he urged Saied to return to the “democratic path” in a call with the Tunisian leader the day after he suspended parliament.
Ennahda is the country’s biggest political party and its leader Rached Ghannouchi is the speaker of parliament. The party has repeatedly denounced Saied’s moves as a coup and called for the “return to a democratic system” in the only Arab Spring country to transition to democracy.
The party however denies hiring US lobbying help as it faces widespread public anger over its failure to improve the economy and a judicial probe into allegations of irregular election funding that touch on its alleged foreign lobbying.
As news of the contract began circulating on Tunisian social media on Friday, Ennahda’s Office of Information and Communications issued a statement asserting that the party “has not signed, neither through its legal representative, nor through any of its institutions or leaders, any contract with any institution abroad.”
“The party has not made any financial transfers abroad nor received any transfers or financial funds from abroad,” the statement continues. “The party only bears responsibility for the decisions and commitments of its leaders and institutions, and bears no responsibility beyond that.”
Part of the party’s legal troubles stem from past US lobbying conducted in its name, with new questions arising about whether it constitutes undue foreign influence in Tunisian politics.
BCW’s predecessor, Burson-Marsteller, began advocating in Washington on behalf of party ahead of elections in 2014. At the time the party sought to lobby US policymakers for support for Tunisia’s democratic transition and reassure them of its commitment to democracy despite its history as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Burson’s original filing named the Ennahda Party itself — not the diaspora group — as the beneficiary of the US influence campaign. As with the new contract, Ifhat Smith in London was identified as the point of contact.
The original engagement was formally terminated on Dec. 31, 2020. BCW however had reported no activity or payments related to the account since December 2019, before the Covid epidemic.
Interestingly, even as it remained registered to represent Ennahda BCW was paid $371,000 last year for three months of PR work promoting Neom, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman‘s $500 billion futuristic megacity project. An absolute monarchy opposed to the rise of political Islamist parties, Saudi Arabia has applauded Saied’s move against Ennahda.
Meet the lobby shop behind Washington’s newest Middle East think tank
With Ennahda now on the hot seat, the new contract has left allies of the party scratching their heads.
“Ennahda is already under fire and under investigation for the previous work of this group. And then this comes out?” one Tunisian activist tells Foreign Lobby Report.
“Do these people really know what’s going on in Tunis? If they are acting on behalf of the interests of Ennahda, do they really know what the interest of Ennahda is?” the source said. “The best advice for them is to disappear. Stay out of this.”
BCW isn’t the only organization defending the party’s point of view in Washington.
Tunisian-American activist Radwan Masmoudi, the founder of the nonprofit Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Washington, recently returned to the US from Tunisia after formally joining Ennahda’s political committee earlier this year. He told Foreign Lobby Report that after years building up a sister organization to solidify the democratic transition in Tunisia, he wants to re-energize the Washington center after four years of pared down activity under President Donald Trump.
“I believe Biden is serious [about democracy in the Middle East], I believe his administration is serious, I believe members of Congress are serious,” he said. “So I’m here to help them and engage with them.”