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Democrat or Islamist firebrand — who is Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi?

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Ennahda party, discusses the forthcoming elections and how Ennahda has shaped post-revolution politics in Tunisia.
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement, speaks during the movement's  congress in Tunis, Tunisia May 20, 2016. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi - S1BETFETVCAA

TUNIS, Tunisia — On a chilly January morning at his modest villa outside Tunis, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's pro-Islamic Ennahda 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 a 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 “taqqiya,” 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 their ideals.

Either way, Ennahda 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 the region.

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 or her."

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 them.”

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 shield.”

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, are 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 the board.

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 his party.

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 members.

Al-Monitor:  One of the continued critiques being leveled 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 radical groups.

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 mosques.

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 constitutional court.

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 committed.

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.