On a brisk spring day last month in the Tunis, one could have been forgiven for thinking the revolution was still in full swing. Stepping out of a hotel onto Habib Bourguiba Avenue — normally a bustling artery through the Tunisian capital lined with cafes and restaurants — Executive was enveloped in teargas and forced to flee down side streets with other bewildered bystanders, lest be trampled by the waves of whistle-blowing, baton-waving police in riot gear.
There was a sense of déjà vu to witnessing interior ministry forces in full pursuit of perhaps the very same shabaab (or ‘youth’) whose sustained protests helped oust former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power in January 2011. Now, however, instead chanting against dictatorship, they were denouncing the party that had won the plurality of seats in the first post-Ben Ali elections last fall, Ennahdha — or in English, the “Renaissance” Party.
Several days later at this once-banned Islamic movement’s headquarters — an apartment building draped with blue banners in the Montplaisir neighborhood of Tunis — phones rang incessantly and were answered by a young, multi-lingual staff, who hurried between offices clutching folders and papers. Men wore business suits, minus the tie, with clean-shaven faces or closely cropped beards; women mostly, though not uniformly, wore a hijab to compliment their western fashion sensibilities. The atmosphere was all at once casual, stressed and excited. There was energy in the air.
As it turned out, the casual factor was purposeful and came straight from the top. The movement’s septuagenarian founder, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, is “easy-going” and not the stuffy kind of Islamic theologian one might expect, according to an elderly man named Ahmad who sat in the waiting room. He would know — the two men shared persecution for their activist pursuits under the Habib Bourguiba regime that preceded Ben Ali, spent some two decades in exile together in London and returned to Tunisia only after revolution.
Born in 1941, Ghannouchi, who studied philosophy in Damascus and at the Sorbonne in Paris, came back to Tunisia and joined the Quranic Preservation Society in 1970, helping to organize the Islamic Tendency Movement, Ennahdha’s predecessor, in 1981. As a political activist and Islamic philosopher, from early on his energies and publications had focused on real-life issues facing Tunisians — such as the economy, political reform and human rights — rather than doctrinal Islamic matters.
“What concerns the young people of today?” Ghannouchi was quoted as saying in the early 1970s. “The position of the Mu’tazilites on the attributes of God?… Whether the Quran is pre-existent or created? Was Islam revealed for this kind of useless, sterile argument? I wonder how our students feel studying ‘Islamic philosophy’ when it offers them only a bunch of dead issues having nothing to do with the problems today.” For an Islamic leader in the Middle East, such opinions are decidedly liberal.
To protect and clarify
Back in the waiting room, after a seemingly endless stream of well-wishers, friends, advisers, petitioners and politicians and had passed through, Ghannouchi’s secretary — a pleasant young woman with a degree in English literature — ushered Executive into a large conference room.
In attire, Ghannouchi was an older version of his staff — dressed in a gray suit, blue shirt with an open collar and close-cropped beard — but he seemed worn for this late afternoon interview. There was a definite, if subdued, gravitas around the man who had been imprisoned, tortured, and exiled from his home, and now led the political party with the most power and influence in Tunisia at this crux in history.
After handshakes, the interview moved to a corner crook of black couches. Throughout the conversation Ghannouchi’s right eyebrow was cocked upward and he spoke slowly and purposefully in a soft, brittle English that stressed the burden his words carried. Ahmad, who sat close to his side, leaned in and as the interview went on his eyes took on a concerned look. Ahmad’s affection for the older man was obvious, and he interjected on occasion when Ghannouchi’s statement tripped on broken English. There was a sense that Ahmad was present both to clarify for, and protect, Ghannouchi.
Perhaps there was good reason to feel defensive. Since Ennahdha electoral victory and subsequent formation of a governing coalition to write a constitution, intermittent strikes and protests have gripped the country. The party has come under significant criticism of late, mostly from the Tunisian left. Secular organizations, trade unions and young activists who took part in the revolution claim that Ennahdha is stealing the revolution away from those who carried it out in order to Islamize the country.
“They fear sharia [Islamic law] because they don’t know the sense of sharia,” said Ghannouchi, adding that this fear is isolated to the Tunisian elites. After a teargas bath courtesy of Tunisian police, Executive questioned whether the situation was so easily explained.
“It is normal for the Ministry of the Interior to forbid demonstrations in some streets, in some places in the capital,” said Ghannouchi. He explained that there had been a temporary ban enacted on Habib Bourguiba Avenue at the request of businesses on the street. Previous demonstrations had disrupted the flow of foot traffic, driving away customers and tourists from the cafes and the Old City at a time when the economy is already suffering. He pointed out that protests on major thoroughfares in European capitals were also not allowed. While critics had compared Ennahdha’s use of police suppression to that of former President Ben Ali’s, Ghannouchi dismissed this as exaggeration and propaganda designed to damage Ennahdha’s reputation.
At a press conference following the protests, Ghannouchi had appealed to Tunisians to be patient. But how patient are Tunisians at this point? Are they not fed up with waiting for positive change?
“People now are fed up with demonstrations, with [streets being cut off], and strikes,” said Ghannouchi. “People would like to work. They are fed up with the freezing of the economy.”
The demonstrators, claimed Ghannouchi, want to stop Tunisia’s economic progress — they want Tunisia to fail because that would mean Ennahdha would fail too. It was those elites, not the main body of the Tunisian people, who were afraid, and were acting in this way.
“We respect this fear,” he said. “And we would like to build our constitution on common ground… Fifty-one percent is not enough to build a constitution.”
To its credit, Ennahdha has gone allayed many secular fears. Its officials have stated that it will not try to ban alcohol or force the hijab on women, and Ghannouchi recently announced that it will not include sharia law in the constitution. And yet the fear persists, amongst both Tunisians and outside observers, that Ennahdha will eventually go too far.
Ennahda’s fellow Islamists, the Salafists, compound that fear among the more secular segments of Tunisian society. When a Salafist Skeikh called for Jews to be murdered, there was a popular outrage in Tunis and Ennahda was critizied for not condemning the statement quick enough. “We oppose what some Salafists have done,” Ghannouchi countered when asked about this an other incidents such as attacks on media by Salafists. “When they made some slogans against the [Jewish minority] in the country, I phoned the Chief Rabbi and I [expressed my support]. The Chief Rabbi, after we won the elections, he visited me to congratulate our movement and explained that he had no fear from Ennahdha, that it was moderate, but he said he feared the Salafists..”And while he may not approve of media outlets publishing caricatures of God or the Prophet Muhammad, Ghannouchi said that he disavows the use of any violence to oppose it.
Same but different?
For many Tunisians, the ills of Ben Ali’s rule have not faded, not least the economic ones like the 18 percent offical unemployment rate. Ennahdha’s platform would initially seem to differ little from that of former President Ben Ali, in its support of free market mechanisms and privatization buffered by a social welfare net, and its emphasis on tourism. Acknowledging this, Ghannouchi underlined two main differences: “Ben Ali [was] corrupt,” he said plainly, eliciting frank nods and laughter from others in the room. “We want to have a sacred war against corruption.” Secondly, Ghannouchi stressed that the focus of public spending would switch from the more developed coastal regions to developing the neglected interior. The government is planning to pour public resources and infrastructure programs in cities such as Kasserine, Gafsa, and Sidi Bouzid — hometown of Mohammad Bouazizi, whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution, and indeed the entire so called Arab Spring.
Ghannouchi admitted this increase in public spending would strain government coffers, but said it was necessary in the short-term to spur the private sector recovery, growth and employment in the long term, while also creating an environment attractive to foreign investment. “The real enemy of Tunisia now is unemployment,” he noted. Pointing to the positives, Ghannouchi said the investment, tourism and exports had all seen recent increases.
A ‘rational’ West
When it came to foreign relations, one could imagine an American official at State Department listening in to Ghannouchi while going down a checklist of things that they want to hear an Islamist leader in the Middle East say. While the United States supported the previous regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, Ghannouchi pointed out that the US did not intervene to try to save them when the revolutions erupted.
“The US behaved, vis-à-vis the ‘Arab Spring’, rationally, supporting democratic change, supporting its development,” said Ghannouchi. “What we want is for the US to not give any priority to any side because of ideology, to treat all parties the same, equally, regardless of religious background.”
There will be changes in foreign policy, however: “Ben Ali and Bourguiba opened only one door. This door is towards Europe and the West. We will preserve this door, and we will widen this door,” he said, “but we will open other doors, to the [Arab Maghreb], the Middle East, the [Persian] Gulf, Africa, Asia, [Latin America]… We keep this door to the west open, but we will open other doors.”
Throughout the interview it was clear that Ghannouchi wanted to impress upon people that Ennahdha was different — different than Ben Ali and different than other Islamist movements. And yet the paranoia persists that Ennahdha has a secret agenda to impose strict Islamic adherence upon the country.
One must concede that in such an environment it is entirely possible that Ennahdha’s opponents are demonizing it in order to weaken it, that Ghannouchi may have a case in claiming that the demonstrators would rather see Ennahdha fail then see Tunisia succeed. However, the youth on the streets of Tunis today would surely beg to differ.
“Freedom and justice is the main sense of Islam,” he said at one point in the discussion. If it really is just about freedom and justice, than it remains to be seen what makes Ennahdha different from secular Tunisian political parties that emphasize the same things. And perhaps it may be Rachid Ghannouchi himself, with his story of struggle, persecution and return from exile to a homeland that becomes Tunisia’s Nelson Mandela, or just another Islamist.