By Amberin Zaman
January 28, 2019
On a chilly January morning at his modest
villa outside Tunis, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's pro-Islamic
Ennhada party, opened the conversation with an ode to women.
“I bet on women," he said in an
exclusive interview with Al-Monitor. "I am surrounded by women. My wife
decides everything.” Ghannouchi's wife is an English literature graduate, and
the couple's four daughters were trained in turn as a lawyer, an
astrophysicist, a sociologist and a journalist. Three of them hold doctoral
degrees, and all were educated in the West. Flanked by pair multilingual female
associates, the 77-year-old Muslim intellectual shared a couch with this female
reporter after firmly shaking her hand.
Secular critics would likely dismiss the
scene as more “Taqiya,” or dissimulation aimed at disarming a Western
audience. Militants among Ghannouchi’s pious base would argue the opposite,
that eight years into Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, he has betrayed many of
Either way, Ennhada remains Tunisia’s best
organized and most popular force, and Ghannouchi is its uncontested leader. The
question of how he chooses to deploy his power remains critical to the future
of Tunisia’s wobbly democracy, the only one to have survived the Arab Spring.
Parliamentary and presidential elections that are due to be held by the end of
the year will be a major test.
Ghannouchi’s delicate balancing act —
cutting deals with his secular opponents while protecting his Islamist
credentials — is being watched closely by Muslims around the world. He nodded
wearily when asked whether he feels the burden of proving that Ennahda can
succeed, unlike fellow Muslim Brotherhood-linked political parties elsewhere in
But he declined to talk about his close
ally Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s descent into authoritarianism or
about Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, whom
Ghannouchi famously beseeched to tone down his Islamist rhetoric before his
ouster. Though Ghannouchi has hailed Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party as
his model, Ennahda’s trajectory has been rather different.
His allies call it pragmatism, and it was
on full display when Ennahda voluntarily relinquished power in January 2014,
two years after becoming the country’s first democratically elected government.
The move was spurred by mass protests against the Islamists, which were triggered
by the assassination of prominent leftist politician, Chokri Belaid, in
February 2013. Some 40,000 Tunisians massed in front of the Interior Ministry,
chanting “assassin Ghannouchi.” Another oppositionist, Mohamed Brahmi, was
murdered in broad daylight the following July. Secularists again blamed Ennahda
for the killings, even though the government identified the culprit as Ansar
al-Sharia, an extremist Islamic cell linked to al-Qaeda.
As Tunisia's latest elections approach, the
accusations are beginning to resurface. And it hasn’t helped that Ennahda
rejected a bill introduced by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in August to
establish full equality between men and women in matters of inheritance. Adding
fuel to the fire, the chairman of Ennahda’s Shura Council, the party’s main
governing body, said his party would “oppose any law that goes against the
Quran and the constitution.” The bill was approved by the cabinet in November
but has yet to be approved by parliament.
Ghannouchi argued that it was not for the
state to decide, though women’s rights activists would vehemently disagree.
“Everyone should have the freedom to
choose," he said. "The state should not interfere or impose anything
on that matter. Everyone should be free to decide who should inherit [from] him
As proof that he is sincere about
empowering women, Ghannouchi pointed to the high number of Tunisia's female
mayors — 42 out of a total 68, including Tunis’ first female mayor — who were
elected on Ennahda’s ticket.
“We are in an electoral year and there many
accusations against Ennahda," he said. "But these are part of a media
war that is designed to influence public opinion. It was the Ennahda government
which declared Ansar al-Sharia to be a terrorist group and took action against
Nevertheless, the backlash against rising
Islamic extremism coupled with continued corruption and economic stagnation
took its toll. Ennahda pulled in second behind the pro-secular Nidaa Tounes in
the October 2014 parliamentary elections. It then became a decidedly docile
partner in a coalition that has ruled since. “Ennahda saw the limits of
Tunisia’s religiosity,” said Lamine Benghazi, who helps run Al Bawsala, a
leading Tunisian civil society organization. “The greater geopolitical trend is
demonizing political Islam, and Ennahda sees Nidaa Tounes as something of a
In 2016, Ghannouchi compromised further,
declaring, “There is no longer any justification for political Islam in
Tunisia.” He said Ennahda was a party of “Muslim democrats,” distinctly
Tunisian in character.
“We are Tunisian Muslims who are determined
to live in our age as believing Muslims," he told Al-Monitor. "There
is only one Islam, but we believe it is a flexible religion that interacts with
each environment with each age.” The rebranding has seen Ennahda embrace modern
Tunisia's founder Habib Bourguiba as a national hero, whitewashing his abuses
and blaming all the horrors endured under six decades of dictatorship solely on
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The shift is an acknowledgement that
political Islam has become radioactive. Just as critically, it speaks to the
continued resilience of a coalition of politicians and officials left over from
the Ben Ali regime, including the notorious national guard, which is attached to
the Ministry of Interior. In tandem with a deeply entrenched oligarchy, the
holdouts of the Ben Ali regime are determined to prevent the Islamists from
establishing their own patronage networks within the bureaucracy and the
business world, and they will wield and inflate the threat of Islamic extremism
to that end if need be.
Analysts warn, however, that Ghannouchi may
be carrying compromise too far.
“To this day, Ennahda lives and acts with a
mind to what happened in 2013," said Shadi Hamid, co-editor of
"Rethinking Political Islam" and a senior fellow at the Brookings
Institution. "The fear of repression, of returning to the days of
dictatorship, is a major factor in understanding Ghannouchi's sometimes
single-minded focus on consensus, caution and reconciliation with members of
the old regime.”
“Looked at this way, survival is success
and it takes precedence over all else," Hamid said. "But this
strategy has come at a cost, not necessarily for Ennahda but for the country.
By prioritizing a narrow consensus, Ennahda has dampened political
participation and competition, with politics becoming a kind of elite dance
between Ghannouchi and President Essebsi."
Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program, pointed to a further
risk. “There is a danger that as Ennahda moves away from its original Islamist
ideals, a more militant or extremist Islamist party could spring up and reach
out to the former Ennahda voters," she said.
As in Turkey, one of the dangers facing
Tunisia is a smugness born from decades of repressed religiosity that continues
to be mistaken for a lack of it. Outside the capital, in impoverished areas
like Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, where the protests that led to Ben Ali’s
downfall first erupted, Islamic conservatism runs deep. Yerkes observed, “Some
portion of the population would like to see a stronger role of religion within
the government and public life, and Ennahda used to be the clear political
party to help achieve that goal.”
Ennahda lawmakers who back Ghannouchi’s
moderate stance insist that such a stance is necessary if Tunisia’s democracy
is to survive. “Cohabitation makes us more pragmatic, and pragmatism is not a
dirty word,” parliamentarian Naoufel Jammali told Al-Monitor. “On the contrary
it is what permitted us to become the sole democracy of all the Arab Spring
countries. Cohabitation pushes us to be comfortable with the idea that we are
not the sole political party in the country and that we need to work together
with other parties in order to remain part of the political landscape.”
Islamists, leftists and secularists all have deep roots in Tunisia. “We are
condemned to live together."
But just how long will Ennahda be willing
to take the back seat? The party has regained a plurality in the parliament
following a steady defection of lawmakers from Nidaa Tounes, and it beat the
secularists in the country’s first free municipal polls that were held in May,
though both were overtaken by independents, a sign of voter disaffection across
With Prime Minister Youssef Chahed forming
a new secularist bloc after his fallout with Essebsi and his son Hafedh, who
engineered Chahed’s ouster from Nidaa Tounes in June, Ennahda is poised to be
kingmaker. It helped Chahed survive a vote of no confidence in November. Will
it continue to throw its weight behind Chahed and International Monetary
Fund-inspired reforms? And will Ghannouchi throw his hat in the ring for the
presidency? The Ennahda leader is holding his cards close to his chest, saying
he has no such ambitions but then leaving the door open by saying it's up to
For all Ghannouchi's talk of easing
Tunisia’s transition to democracy, there are few signs that he is doing the
same within his own party. What happens after Ghannouchi is an unspoken but
pressing question, and not just for Tunisians. “It's fine to have a leader who
appears genuinely committed to democracy, but what happens if he is succeeded
by one who is not?” asked Levent Gultekin, a prominent Turkish commentator and
former adherent of political Islam. “The trouble of mixing Islam and politics
is that at some point, sooner for some, later for others, one is stuck between
rigid interpretations of the Quran and the dictates of a changing world.”
Ghannouchi has successfully navigated such
contradictions, and, according to Brookings’ Hamid, has become “more
comfortable with the idea that Ennahda was its own self-contained experiment —
the one that was, now, the most promising in the region.”
Below is a transcript of the full
interview, edited for clarity.
Al-Monitor: The prevailing economic crisis seems to be
one of the biggest challenges faced by your government. Will Ennahda continue
to support the belt tightening measures being imposed by the IMF even though it
makes it unpopular?
Ghannouchi: We are in an electoral year, which we have to
take into consideration. So it's not the most appropriate year for public
sector reforms. Even the state budget took this into consideration in 2019 [and
didn’t impose too much of a burden] on workers or employers. We are placing
pressure on the government to engage in dialogue, to negotiate and to discuss
with the unions in order to avoid a general strike. If it does go ahead, this
would not be a calamity because we are in a democracy, where freedom of
assembly and protest are guaranteed and the UGTT is a national organization.
[The interview was conducted before the UGTT, or the Tunisian General Labor
Union, carried out a nationwide strike Jan. 17.]
Protest is a normal and accepted thing
within democracy, unlike the general strike in 1978, which Tunisians still
remember with great pain and in which hundreds of Tunisians died. Simply having
a protest was seen as a threat of having a revolution. We know that the UGTT is
a national organization that always put national interest above that of its
Al-Monitor: One of the continued critiques being levelled
at you by the secularists is that you are seeking to introduce Islamic rule by
stealth. Are you?
Ghannouchi: We are Tunisian Muslims who are determined to
live in our age as believing Muslims. There is only one Islam, but we believe
it is a flexible religion that interacts with each environment, with each age,
provided that we understand Islam properly and exercise the laws of Ijtihad
[independent reasoning as opposed to Taqlid, or imitation, in Islamic
jurisprudence] in terms of free interpretation and free understanding. There is
radicalism in Tunisia and there are radical groups, but these are not result of
the revolution but heritage of dictatorship. These groups are now on the
decline because they could not appropriate or hijack Islam to their ends.
Ennahda is seen as representing the mainstream of the Islamic movement and it
is closer to the people because the Tunisian people are in essence moderate
Muslims who seem themselves reflected in Ennahda, much more so than in these
Al-Monitor: So why have so many Tunisian youths joined
militant jihadi groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State?
Ghannouchi: This radicalization is a reaction to the
political extremism before the revolution of the dictatorship.
The Islamic militants [al-Qaeda and Islamic
State] failed to take any piece of Tunisian territory to make it theirs. They
managed to carry out some attacks here and there, but they immediately
withdraw. The notion of state is very deep in Tunisian society and the
government is making a huge effort to combat terrorism. We do not have any
historical experience of combating terrorism, yet the security and armed forces
are making real progress in beating back and defeating these groups, and these
groups are now in a defensive posture. We benefited from external support from
the European Union, the United States and Algeria, among others.
Al-Monitor: But I have heard various sources charge that
you encouraged, or at the very least turned a blind eye, to young Tunisians
heading to Syria to wage jihad against Bashar al-Assad.
Ghannouchi: We are in an electoral year. There are many
accusations against Ennahda. But these are part of a media war that is designed
to influence public opinion. These accusations have been examined by courts and
found to be wrong. When the judiciary doesn’t rule in these groups' favor, they
attack the courts and they claim that Ennahda dominates the courts and the
police forces, but they deny the fact that we live in a democracy where these
institutions are independent. We will continue to go through these cycles of
accusations if they do not accept the verdict.
Al-Monitor: But your secular opponents insist that
Ennahda encouraged young Tunisians to join jihadist groups in Syria to
overthrow Bashar al-Assad and allowed Salafist preachers to take over the
Ghannouchi: The reality is that when we entered
government we had no experience of governance. But when the revolution happened
there was a general amnesty in March 2011, long before Ennahda was elected to
power [in October 2011], which released political prisoners. Some were those
who had been accused of terrorism, and there was no opposition to this move
because people did not have faith that these people had been fairly convicted.
When the revolution happened we put all of
our energy into politics, and many of these young people who were released went
toward mosques, went toward preaching and had their own activities in mosques
and dominated hundreds of mosques. Because they were not violent they were left
alone and given relative freedom to do their activities. But when Ennahda took
power and these groups displayed acts of violence, it was the Ennahda
government which declared them to be a terrorist group and took action against
them. The interior minister formally declared them [al-Qaeda-linked Ansar
al-Sharia] to be a terrorist group.
The minister of religious affairs under
Ennahda also had a religious plan, a program to reassert state control over
mosques, because, in the period between the revolution and the election of a
government, there was none. They have made significant progress. The imams are
direct employees of the state, exactly like in Turkey. Their sermons are
vetted. Also those who were invited to give lectures from abroad had nothing to
do with the government — they were invited by nongovernmental religious
associations. All sorts of people benefited from the freedom from that
environment in the aftermath of the revolution, in good and bad ways. There
were Salafists who benefited, there were smugglers who benefited, but also
members of the media and others.
Al-Monitor: It's often stated that one of the biggest
threats to Tunisia’s democracy is the failure to establish democratic
oversight, including the government’s failure to appoint members of a
Ghannouchi: We are committed to completing the
establishment of all these democratic institutions. So the parliament has
already elected the independent audio visual committee [in line with
broadcasting regulatory reform]. It has also elected the members of the
anti-corruption committee and members of the ISIE [the Independent Hight
Authority for Elections] and also the Council for Human Rights. There are a
number of key constitutional institutions that have been established through
laws, so the parliament has selected necessary members, but some institutions
do remain incomplete, like the constitutional court, and we are committed to
establishing it before the coming election.
Al-Monitor: What message does Ennahda’s decision to
support a parliamentary bill giving amnesty to officials accused of corruption
investigated by Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission send about your
commitment to accountability? Does it not send a message of impunity?
Ghannouchi: When the Ennahda government came to power in
October 2011, it decided to establish a separate Ministry of Transitional
Justice, which worked over two years with civil society and looked at other
countries with similar experiences, such as South Africa, Morocco, Chile and
Spain, [for] how to deal with the past and 50 years of violations and
dictatorship. We rejected specifically the idea of street justice, of having
courts in the street in an unfair way, or collective punishment of these
people, as happened in Iran and other countries. We decided on a transitional
justice law, which established an independent commission that received over 60,000
files. Fifty thousand of those were Ennahda supporters or people associated
with Ennahda alone, and the process began with going through these files.
What transitional justice seeks to achieve
is a comprehensive reconciliation of the Tunisian people and not punishment or
retribution. Transitional justice, in this vision, is not about revenge but
about revealing the truth, about encouraging and forcing perpetrators to
acknowledge their crimes and to apologize for them. It's about encouraging the
victims to have their moment, to have that acknowledgment and to forgive. They
must be compensated. This should be moral compensation, material compensation
by the state. The goal should be to restore their value [standing] in society
and [formally recognizing victims [as such]. Compensation does not have to be
financial. It could be renaming a school or a street after the victim by way of
symbolic recognition [of their suffering]. There is still a lot of effort that
needs to be made, and this is still an ongoing process to which Ennahda is
Al-Monitor: Are you planning to run for president?
Ghannouchi: This question hasn’t been determined yet and
this has to be determined by our party and relevant institutions. We still have
time to think. I think it depends on the national interest and on the party’s
decision, but I have no decision as yet as whether to enter this competition.
The country needs more youthfulness and
more women in politics.