Tunisia: Islamists in fragile democracy - Interview with Rashid Ghannouchi
By Konrad Pedziwiatr
24 Mar 2015
After the terrorist attack on Bardo complex on 18th March 2015 and plans to introduce new anti-terrorist legislation, many questions are asked regarding threats to Tunisian democracy. In this context, the following interview with Rashid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahdha, conducted on 12th December 2014 by Konrad Pedziwiatr, is especially relevant.
“Tunisia is the only democratic country in the Arab world”, one may read sprayed in French and Arabic on the wall of the construction site by the majestic Municipal Theatre on the main street of Tunis, Bourguiba Avenue. The graffiti captures well the mood of the vast majority of Tunisians who four years after the start of the Arab Spring feel proud of this new political reality. After decades of authoritarian rule the transition to democracy was surely not an easy and straightforward process. Several attempts were made by various forces (inter alia by Salafists) to derail this process and stop the democratisation of the country.
The fact that Tunisia has managed to overcome these obstacles and today is a democratic country with a new constitution and fairly smoothly running democratic institutions is partially also a consequence of the decisions taken by the first post-revolutionary coalition government, with Islamist party Ennahdha at its head. It is due to these strategic decisions made by the Ennahdha leadership over the last four years that Tunisia has managed to preserve the achievements of the 2011 revolution and remain an island of democracy in a sea of autocratic regimes in the Arab world.
The following interview with the leader of Ennahdha, Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi, sheds light on several of these decisions. It took place in the crucial moment between the first and second round of the first free presidential elections. Lack of official support for any of the running candidates (Moncef Marzouki and Beji Caid Essebsi) during the elections allowed Ennahdha (the second-strongest party in the Tunisian Parliament) to enter a coalition and form a national unity government with Nidaa Tounes led by Habib Essid, after Essebsi became the first democratically elected president of Tunisia (at the end of December 2014).
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Ennahdha achieved a spectacular victory in the first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections. In the last elections, however, your party came second to Nidaa Tounes. Why?
Rashid Ghannouchi - It is the effect of governance. Some mistakes were made. People's expectations were also very high after the revolution and no government could fulfil these expectations. We couldn't deliver all we promised during the campaign, so we were partly punished for this.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Was Ennahdha punished partly or severely?
Rashid Ghannouchi - I think we were punished only partially. We lost about 20% of our seats, but our colleagues from the Troika lost everything. We lost one-third of our votes, but the Congress Party and Ettakatol lost almost everything, so they paid a very high price for being in the government during the transition period.
Tunisians judged us for our deeds, and many considered our output and achievements to be insufficient. We have already revised our strategy and we will continue to do so.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Why did you decide not to run for any office?
Rashid Ghannouchi - I did so to avoid any sort of polarisation between the Islamists and secularists. So if I present myself as a representative of so-called political Islam, some kind of polarisation may emerge in the country, which will not be conducive to a successful transitional period. So from the start I avoided the scenario of a confrontation between Islamism and secularity.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - But at the same time Ennahdha is surely a very important element of the political landscape?
Rashid Ghannouchi - For the same reason we also avoided openly supporting any candidate for the presidency to avoid the Egyptian scenario.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Is there anything that can change your decision?
Rashid Ghannouchi - No.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - What does it mean, then, to be the leader of one of the largest political parties in Tunisia and at the same time being somehow detached from day-to-day political life in Parliament?
Rashid Ghannouchi - I am not detached. I am a head of one of the largest political parties in Tunisia, but I do not campaign; other people can play these roles. I would also like to encourage young people to take power.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - What are the key elements of Ennahdha's social base?
Rashid Ghannouchi - Ennahdha does not represent any specific social class and our supporters come from all classes and regions. We have all types of members: both poor and rich people are members.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - What were the key factors that allowed Ennahdha to achieve such a spectacular victory in the first post-revolutionary elections?
Rashid Ghannouchi - Ennahdha was the main victim of the former regime, so it was only natural that people rewarded a movement that was tortured and repressed for 25 years.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - How did Ennahdha manage to build its structures so quickly and efficiently after the revolution?
Rashid Ghannouchi - It is to be expected that the Tunisian people recognised what Ennahdha has done for their liberation from dictatorship and supported us.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Is Ennahdha a movement or a political party?
Rashid Ghannouchi - It is both. Earlier we were more a social movement, but now we are more a political party. Maybe we will divide social and political activities during the next Ennahdha general assembly, which will take place in summer 2015. This issue will actually be the main topic of our congress.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Why is this matter important and has to be dealt with?
Rashid Ghannouchi - Currently many members and leaders of Ennahdha consider that politics dominates our total project. This is the nature of politics, which could take complete control of the project. But our society needs social, religious and cultural activities too. If we mix both, politics will dominate the scene. Religion, social and cultural activities will be marginalised. We need to focus more on society than on the government.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Is there a plan to set up separate organisation that will deal with these issues?
Rashid Ghannouchi - Yes. If we decide to separate social, cultural and political activities, then I imagine we will establish a separate organisation to deal with these matters.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Will the name change from Harakat (movement) to Hizb (party)?
Rashid Ghannouchi - Yes, possibly the name could change.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - What is current and future role of dawah within Ennahdha? There is a separate Maktab ad-Dawah (Dawah Branch) in Ennahdha?
Rashid Ghannouchi - We have been currently discussing whether we will continue as a one institution where dawah and politics are mixed or separate them.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Is it necessary to separate these matters?
Rashid Ghannouchi - WThey can be separated. There are many possible scenarios and many links between dawah and politics in Islamic movements. Some movements keep them together while others separate them. For example, in Jordan and Morocco they have been separated.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - In your writings from the 1990s a key concept is that of an Islamic state. Is it still relevant for today's Tunisia?
Rashid Ghannouchi - I believe it is still relevant. I think our Tunisian state is not secular one, but an Islamic one. Our constitution is based on this combination between Islam and freedom, Islam and modernity, Islam and democracy. The main idea of our project is the compatibility between Islam and democracy and we reflect this in our constitution. Tunisia is an Islamic state and this is guaranteed in the first clause of the constitution, which says that Tunisia is a Muslim and Arab state.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - At the same time there is no mention of sharia in the constitution.
Rashid Ghannouchi - It does not matter; Islam contains sharia. Sharia is not a strange concept - it is part of Islam. As long as there is no church in Islam, it cannot be represented on Earth by any institution. No one in Islam can pretend that he is a spokesman of Islam - God cannot be embodied on Earth. So the Ummah or the people of Islam need a legislative system to elect a Parliament that can represent, translate and interpret Islam. If Parliament consists of Muslims, their decisions are Muslim by consensus. They will then translate their faith into law, politics, economic principles and an educational system.
I believe the essence of sharia is in our constitution - it is the way of thinking that underlines the constitution, embodying the values of freedom, justice and unity. It is there with all these representations. The word 'sharia' itself does not have to be there. The concept of sharia is completely wrongly understood today and as such it is divisive. It was a good idea not to use it in the constitution.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - What is Islamist about Ennahdha? Or what is Ennahdha's Islamic project?
Rashid Ghannouchi - To liberate people from the tyranny, poverty and ignorance; to spread justice, freedom and a good life to all the people and to base all of these values in the Islamic faith. The main goal of our project is to link faith and justice, science, freedom, democracy and the arts.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - There are fears that the Islamisation of Tunisian society will lead to some of its freedoms being curbed.
Rashid Ghannouchi - Society does not have to be Islamised, because it is already Muslim. We have freedom of conscience.
Every Muslim can establish a direct contact with God, so no one can claim control.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - And secularists shouldn't be afraid that an Ennahdha government will, for example, ban the drinking of alcohol?
Rashid Ghannouchi - It is pointless to impose this kind of law, because if people want to drink alcohol, they will find a way to do it [laughing]. The state has nothing to do with the way in which people decide to live their lives. People are free to choose their way of life; it is not the role of the state to impose a way of life on people. What people drink or wear has nothing to do with the state.
The role of the state is to provide services to the people, above all security and justice. The state should be the guardian of freedoms and provide infrastructure. Promoting a certain way of life is the role of civil society. This is why Ennahdha will most probably separate these activities from the party.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Do the younth and women have enough voice in Ennahdha?
Rashid Ghannouchi - In the previous assembly, out of 89 Ennahdha members of Parliament (MPs), 43 were women, i.e. almost a state of parity. We are the only party that respects this parity. Women are to be found at all levels of Ennahdha, as well as in the Shura.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - How many women are there in the Shura?
Rashid Ghannouchi - Up to 20%. They are four in the executive committee. We encourage them to participate and be present at all levels. Women's representation in our party is much bigger than in many secular parties. Even in the trade unions there are hardly any women in key positions. I have no objections to a woman becoming president of the country.
Young people are also to be found at all levels of Ennahdha. Some of them, like Sayida Ounissi (one of the youngest MPs in the current Tunisian Parliament and number one on Ennahdha's electoral list in France during the last elections - KP), with whom you spoke, even have ambitions to become party leaders. When she was still very young she used to say that she would like to replace me [laughing].
Konrad Pedziwiatr - In June 2012 you went to Cairo to persuade the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to be more inclusionary in its political approach. Why did they not listen?
Rashid Ghannouchi - I think the Egyptian situation is much more complicated than the Tunisian one. You can't measure it with the same criteria as in Tunisia. The situation there is more complicated, with the important role of the army and the Coptic church. Also, the geopolitical nature of Egypt is different. I think the collapse of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is not a fault of the Brotherhood, but primarily of many other factors.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - How has the situation in Egypt affected Tunisia?
Rashid Ghannouchi - Our opposition tried to copy the Egyptian coup d'état, but luckily, thanks to national dialogue, we managed to contain it and avoid the collapse of the Tunisian democratic transition.
We agreed to withdraw and replace the elected government with a technocrat government. In this way we avoided the Egyptian scenario.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Can Egypt return to the path of democratic transition?
Rashid Ghannouchi - I think the Tunisian revolution has taken the Arab world into a new era. It is only a matter of time before this world will continue its march towards democracy. The speed of this process depends on the extent of complications in each country. The situation in Egypt, Iraq and Syria is more complicated than in Tunisia, which is why the establishment of democracy is taking more time there and demanding more sacrifices. This process, however, cannot be stopped, because people have discovered their own capacities and realised that despots are not strong enough.
The same happened with the French and American revolutions. They also took the world into a new era. But in France it took more than 100 years to build a stable democracy.
Now what happened in the Arab world means a search is under way for a new model of governance. The old model has been shaken, but the new model has not yet been firmly established. The Arab world is searching for a new democratic model. In Tunisia it took five years; in another it may take ten or more years. But there is no way back. Often the move from tyranny to democracy goes through a period of chaos.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Here in Tunisia it seems that the potential for chaos is quite well managed.
Rashid Ghannouchi - We try to avoid chaotic scenarios, but we are also under threat that we might enter a chaotic period and imitate what has happened in Egypt and Libya. The Libyan situation is a particularly difficult one. So the Tunisian model is very threatened by what has been happening in the Arab world and the domino effect.
The situation in Libya has a major influence on Tunisia. Some young people receive training there and try to smuggle weapons into Tunisia. We cannot isolate ourselves from what is happening there. The same applies to Algeria.
We believe that Tunisians are very peaceful and that there is a heritage of state governance. The notion of the state is very deeply held. Apart from that, we have the same religion and language. The Tunisian people are the most unified people in the Arab world and one of the best educated. This has played an important part in our successful transformation.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - How do you explain a significant number of Tunisians fighting for Daesh (Islamic State)?
Rashid Ghannouchi - This is a heritage of the Ben Ali regime. The lack of proper channels for religious education pushed many people to search for it in the wrong places.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Is there any room for peaceful Salafists in Parliament?
Rashid Ghannouchi - They participated in the elections, but didn't win any seats. So the Tunisian people are very moderate and do not accept the Salafist interpretation of Islam. They do not go to extremes.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - Is Turkey still a model to follow?
Rashid Ghannouchi - We benefit from all models, but we prefer to establish our own.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - What are the key challenges facing Tunisia?
Rashid Ghannouchi - Poverty and terrorism, which feed each other.
Konrad Pedziwiatr - How do you see Tunisia in 10-20 years' time?
Rashid Ghannouchi - Like Malaysia, Singapore or Turkey - as a developed Muslim country. I believe it is possible to achieve this.
Konrad Pedziwiatr holds a PhD from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium). He is currently an assistant professor at the Cracow University of Economics and coordinator of the project "Islamism and Pluralism: The Islamist Movements in Egypt and Tunisia after the Arab Spring", which is financed by the National Science Centre. His research interests include Islam and Muslims in Europe, religions, and migrations and social movements in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.