Tunisia's Ghannouchi Condemns Salafists Only to Foreign Press

Article Summary
The leader of Tunisia's ruling party has denounced militant jihadists to the foreign press, while denying his opposition to them at home. Mounir Ben Mahmoud writes that some Salafists belong to Ghannouchi's Ennahda party and speculates on what it might mean for the future of the North African nation.

Ever since the attacks on the US Embassy on Sept. 14, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has been increasing his media appearances.

The Tunisian leader has slightly modified his statements on jihadists while addressing the public. Jihadists "pose a threat to Tunisia," he told Agence France Presse. However, in an interview with the Tunisian television channel Al Watania 1, Ghannouchi said: "My statements have been misrepresented — we have no intention of fighting a religious movement."

Ghannouchi made terse declarations to Al Watania 1, saying that his “statements have been misrepresented."

He did not even contact the AFP journalist who quoted him as stating that "jihadists pose a threat to Tunisia," in order to object to the publication of his statement. This indicates that Ghannouchi is playing the game.

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In fact, ever since the collapse of the former regime, and especially following the elections of Oct. 23, 2011, when Ennahda won a landslide majority, the party's Islamist leaders have been nothing but conspicuous in their double talk, and lack of self-criticism as they backtracked on previous statements.

In his statement for the AFP, which was quoted by several international media outlets, including Business News, the Ennahda leader said: "Salafist jihadists pose a threat to Tunisia. The Tunisian government ought to tighten the screws, following the attack on the American embassy. Every time that parties or groups flagrantly overstep our freedom, we have to be firm and insist on order.

"These people pose a threat not only to Ennahda but to the country's civil liberties and security. This is why we all must stand up to these groups, but according to law-abiding means," he added.

In addition, Ghannouchi has denied accusations of lax security made against the Tunisian government, which did not arrest jihadist Abu Iyad when it had the chance over the last week. Iyad is the leader of the jihadist group and is suspected of being behind the attack of Sept. 14 against the US embassy.

The Ennahda leader has even compared the head of the Salafist jihadist movement to Osama Bin Laden, former al-Qaeda leader.

"Bin Laden remained free for several years. The international secret services spent a long time chasing him before finally being able to stop him. Therefore, it is not surprising if someone disappears (referring to Abu Iyad). However, the police will continue to pursue him until he is arrested," Ghannouchi said.

Thus, his statements were very clear against the Salafist jihadist, reflecting a firm will to constantly confront him.

However, these statements served to reassure the outside world, which does not want jihadists to establish themselves in Tunisia.

Ghannouchi's statements were echoed by several international media outlets and dominated the headlines: "The Tunisian Government tightens screws on Salafists. Ghannouchi achieved his goal," said Naji Jalloul, an expert on Islamist movements.

Less than 24 hours after his statements to AFP, Rachid Ghannouchi wanted to "slightly modify" his accusations against Salafist jihadists, as he said "they pose a threat to Tunisia."

Instead of sending “clarifications” to AFP, he said on national television that “his statements were distorted and reported imprecisely,” stressing that “those who attacked the US Embassy in Tunis do not belong to the Salafist movement. They are criminals and terrorists.”

Contrary to the explanation he expressed before international media, Ghannouchi denied “any desire to fight a religious group,” before the national press, emphasizing that “Salafist jihadists constitute an integral part of Tunisian society.”

Moreover, in an interview with the French weekly newspaper, Courrier International, Ghannouchi stated that he “was against the constitutionalization of the Higher Islamic Council.”

Meanwhile, Ennahda members of the Higher Political Reform Commission of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) blocked progress unless “the Islamic Higher Council is constitutionalized.”

In another interview with Canal+, Ghannouchi has strongly condemned, in the name of Islam, the attacks against the US Embassy and the American School. He clearly stated that he would take the necessary actions against rioters.

“The double talk of Ghannouchi can be explained based on electioneering purposes. Ennahda includes a quasi-Salafist radical wing, which is part of the NCA and and party’s leadership, represented by Sadok Habib Ellouze and Sadok Chourou,” Jalloul said.

“Ghannouchi cannot ignore these two figures in his electoral strategy, especially given that the results of the Troika government are not terribly impressive on the socio-economic level. The leader of Ennahda is, therefore, caught between a desire to sell his moderate Islam to the West and the requirements of his radical group. This explains the double talk strategy.”

Moreover, according to Iyad Ben Achour, head of the Higher Political Reform Commission, the inconsistency in Ennahda positions is due to the fact that “the current majority party is inevitably heading towards a rift within its ranks, whether in the long or short run.

“There are certain members in the party that are very competent, modern and intelligent believers, whom we trust. Those have participated in the platform of Oct. 18, 2005. However, Ennahda also includes some members known as “Salafists,” who came out of the darkness of prehistoric policy; those members are unable to coexist with others in the long run. Ennahda will share the same fate as the [political Islamist] Turkish Welfare Party, which will be a great advantage for Tunisia.” Turkey's Constitutional Court banned the Turkish Welfare Party from Turkish politics for its avowed goal of replacing secular law with sharia law; the ban was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2003.

In the meantime, they are the ones leading the country.

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Found in: tunisian politics, salafist, jihadists, islamist, ennahda
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