Tunisian PM Ghannouchi: "Syrian People Will Soon Achieve Victory"

Article Summary
Tunisia’s Rached al-Ghannouchi has quickly become one of the most visible and intriguing figures of the new Islamist current which has swept the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring. In this interview, he voices his support for the Syrian opposition and his faith in their ability to defeat the Assad regime in the near future. He also discusses his vision of Tunisian-Libyan unity, part of a larger policy of openness and closer relations with the whole of North Africa and the Arab World.

“Tragic” was the word used by Sheikh Rached al-Ghannouchi, leader of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia, to describe the situation in Syria. “Courageous Syrian citizens are being brutally oppressed by a gang rebelling against the will of the people. This gang is now serving a regime of authoritarianism, plunder, sectarianism and power monopoly, capable of all sorts of barbarism, including governing Syria without the Syrian people.”

In an interview with Al-Hayat in Doha, Ghannouchi declared his support for Tunisian President Moncef al-Marzouki in his call for integration between Tunisia and Libya and the unity of the Arab Maghreb. He added that “openness” to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and other countries is guaranteed and underlined the efforts of the Tunisian government to facilitate granting Tunisian visas to other Arab citizens “to encourage tourism and investment.”

When asked about the current role of the Arab League in the Syrian crisis, he indicated that “[the Arab League] is apparently playing a role of public relations, another smokescreen. It wants to give the impression that it is actually making an effort. Instead of these maneuvers, it should have called for the boycott and isolation of these gangs, and should have handed [Syrian] embassies in member countries over to the Syrian National Council, as the [official] representative of the Syrian people.”

Does he expect the Arab observers mission in Syria to be successful? “Do illusions ever yield anything?”, he replied. He explained: “We are not facing a regime but rather a brutal gang on a spree of oppression and plundering. Those observers have no tools to stop the brutal killings or stand in the way of their blatant crimes.” What about the controversy surrounding the Arab initiative and foreign interference? He stated clearly: “We do not support any foreign interference, which would grant the ruling gang the image of national legitimacy it lacks, and which it is now in desperate need of.”

“After almost a year of heroic struggle, thousands of martyrs, wounded and detained, I believe the Syrian people are victorious. Their sole focus is to topple the regime; [they are] not distracted by the increasing sacrifices and are displaying greater heroism and victory day in and day out. This victorious revolution needs no foreign interference. The regime should be boycotted, isolated and exposed regionally and internationally, this heroic people should be supported.”

Does he expect international efforts to solve the Syrian crisis? “I believe any international interference is useless. The evil gang will inevitably fall. The scene of the rebellious, flowing stream of demonstrators is a scene of inevitable victory. Supporters of [the regime], still positioned in the trenches of crime, should be aware of this fact, and save themselves from a battle [they have already] lost.”

Who does he invite to set themselves apart from the Syrian regime? “All the groups and countries [currently] supporting it.”

On his assessment of the situation in the countries of the Arab Spring, especially Tunisia and Egypt, he declared that “[Arab countries] are now overcoming obstacles from the remains of perishing regimes, to realize the objectives of the revolution by establishing just, Islamic democracies, inspired by the values and aims of Islam, including all religious and political groups as citizens, away from oppression, exclusion or [one group’s] monopoly of the revolution.”

Tunisian Dream Now a Reality


As the new Ennahda-led Tunisian government is now formed, Ghannouchi said that “Tunisia has completed the first step of its victorious revolution as the Regime of the ‘November Mafia’ [i.e. the Ben Ali regime] was toppled. The first goal of the revolution was reached, i.e. the establishment of a democratic regime built on the ruins of the mafia. For the first time, Tunisia has elected its president, parliament and government, realizing the dreams and [honoring] the sacrifices of generations. That was in the first year. The upcoming year is a year for development and construction.”

Asked about the most important development challenges in Tunisia and any specific insights on how to solve economic issues, he insisted that “the state is determined to uproot financial, judicial, journalistic and administrative corruption. This corruption was draining half of the Tunisian resources. The state seeks to promote [pro-growth] environments to encourage local investors and attract foreign investors and tourists, especially from neighboring countries and the Gulf.” He added that “this will contribute to energizing the crippled economic cycle, and encouraging Tunisian creativity to offer rewarding jobs for the unemployed and essentials for the less fortunate.”

Are there any specific plans? He replied: “The government is examining the cases of families of those martyred or wounded [during the revolution] for compensation. Major factories [which had stopped running], their owners preferring to cease any activities (under former President Ben Ali) are now going back to work. One project also aims at providing for the basic needs of thousands of families, through employment opportunities and social economics, by granting direct government aid via civil society.”

Is there any specific vision for the employment project? “Our priority is to encourage local and foreign investment, promote economic activity and encourage Islamic banks to enter the Tunisian market for the first time - and they are already expressing their willingness.”

Are there any hurdles? “Many, including legal hurdles to be tackled by the Constitutive Council. Many of the unemployed lack proper professional training, which requires vocational training institutes. The government needs to play a major role in this regard, especially to counter the fear among Tunisian businessmen [who were]  involved with the toppled cabal.” He added: "That would only include a few of them, some of whom were bound to collaborate with the gang to protect themselves and their properties. Many of the honest were mixed up with the list of the corrupt, which led to the paralysis of hundreds of companies, placed under the authority of the judiciary. They were victims of plundering, draining control of large fortunes, and monopolization.” “The government ought to tackle this major and serious (corruption) issue, by promoting efficient, just and fast judiciary rulings to defend the rights of the people and Tunisia’s wealth.”

Sheikh Ghannouchi confirmed that “the Tunisian revolution has not yet turned into a source of wealth, as it faces many obstacles. In factories, railways, roads, seaports, airports, tourist sites, mines and administrative offices, strikes and demonstrations are organized by individuals calling for employment opportunities, while these institutions are unable to handle them all.”

He added: “Even if [these institutions] are able [to provide employment], this approach would not succeed. Neither will the strikes by some workers asking for an increase to their wages - which, in effect, are low.” He confirmed that “previous governments have left the treasury empty, the result of excessive spending. These institutions are vulnerable to a halt in activity and bankruptcy, or the departure of their foreign owners. A Japanese company employed 2,500 workers and was crippled by a months-long demonstration. Factory owners planned to close its doors and relocate, leaving behind more than 10,000 locals [i.e. those reliant directly or indirectly on the factory for their livelihood], but the new government successfully convinced the owners to stay.”

Ghannouchi wondered: “Is there any greater absurdity than to bite the hand that feeds you? The wise among those workers should have protected their source of livelihood and prevented these fools from tampering with it. Where were the civil society organizations, unions, political parties, associations, imams, and revolution protection committees? Why were they silent? Shouldn’t they have interfered to defend the interests of the workers, the region and the nation by convincing demonstrators that their actions in such a post-revolutionary context were contrary to our interests, religion and nation? Where were the police and the army, as the first line of defense of our national interests?”

Openness to Gulf Countries


What is the Tunisian policy towards Gulf countries? [Ghannouchi] replied: “Openness is part of the government's development policy and is not only restricted to Europe. It will be a policy of openness towards the Arab Maghreb starting with neighboring Algeria and Libya, then extending to the Gulf countries. In our program, we have called for the exemption of our Arab friends from visas at least, similar to our treatment of Europeans, to facilitate communication and integration with our closest Arab surroundings.”

Asked about his privileged relationship with Qatar and any signs of cooperation between Tunisia on one hand and Qatar and the Gulf countries on the other, during his visit to Doha, he said: “We have constantly affirmed the importance of the Tunisian-Gulf relationships, starting with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and the rest of Gulf countries. The government is striving to facilitate the granting of visas to Arab citizens, to facilitate tourism and investment, and promote communication in the Arab region.”

Is it true that Tunisia will receive Qatari investments amounting to around US $10 billion? He answered: “We expect only good things from Qatar. It is a true partner in the Arab Spring, through the pioneering role of Al-Jazeera in supporting these revolutions, since their early preparatory stages. Al-Jazeera has covered the beginning of the revolution and introduced once-unknown opposition figures. Only the ungrateful would deny the role of Qatar in the Arab Spring.” He added: “We expect good from all Arab countries, in the Gulf and in the Maghreb. This is our natural environment and our Arab nation, the heart of the Islamic nation. We welcome all cooperation based on respect and independence.”

Al-Hayat asked Ghannouchi about the significance of President Moncef al-Marzouki's first official visit being to Libya, and whether it was motivated by any security or economic reasons. Ghannouchi replied: “[Such a visit] is only normal, to strengthen ties with the closest country [to Tunisia]. President Mohammad al-Moncef al-Marzouki has called for the unity of the Arab Maghreb and  integration between Tunisia and Libya.”

Unity with Libya


Is he in favor of Libyan-Tunisian integration? He answered: “I am a strong proponent [of integration]. We already supported the first unity project forty years ago, aborted by the toppled President Habib Bourguiba. We have reiterated this call in 2010 on the occasion of the rebellion of the Ben Gardane border village, when the borders with Libya were closed. The situation today presents a good opportunity.”


Is Libyan-Tunisian integration possible? He answered: “Now more than ever.” Asked about the specificities of such integration, he replied: “Is there any impediment in the first place? These two countries are integrated politically, socially and culturally. These are the closest countries, in matters of population, beliefs, religion, history, civilization and interests.”

What would be the Libyan reaction to Marzouki’s call for integration? He added: “It can only be a positive reaction. Libyan rulers are modest, wise men, who have always expressed their gratitude for the warm welcome [they have received] from the Tunisian people and government. More than one and a half million Libyans were hosted during the Libyan revolution, not in camps but rather in Tunisian homes. This has strengthened the feelings of unity and promoted the need for cooperation. Tunisia is viewed as the first partner in development, construction and [shared] destiny.”

Al-Hayat asked: "You call for the promotion of Arab Maghreb unity. Many see this as a dream that has faded." He answered: “What happened was bound to happen. Dictatorships in the region, ruling for more than half a century, have aborted the dream of Maghreb unity, of development and good governance. After these revolutions and changes, these dreams are now within reach. Our peoples in this region are the most unified, if it were not for dictatorships. These democratic revolutions have ushered in the beginning of our journey to realize our intertwined dreams of unity, development and democracy.”

Will Tunisia hand over Qaddafi's former Prime Minister, Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoodi, to the new Libyan government? He said: “This decision rests with the (Tunisian) government. Their decision should be in line with judiciary rulings and bilateral treaties.”

After his recent visit to Algeria, Ghannouchi described the relationship between Tunisia and Algeria as “good.” He added: “I received a warm welcome by officials, namely President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika. I expect Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi al-Jabali to visit Algeria soon. I also expect him to visit the capital of the European Union, in addition to the capitals of the Gulf, Turkey and many other [countries].”

What message does he send to Arab regimes?  “Arab regimes should realize that the time for change has come. The past can no longer be preserved. Wise rulers should only adopt bold reform policies, by freeing political prisoners, restoring rights and power to the people. The actions of Moroccan King Mohammad VI, for example, are a good start.”

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