Ghannouchi: Islamists now taking on Islamists

May 30, 2013

      Sheikh Rachid al Ghannouchi spoke candidly about the new crackdown on Salafi extremists and other challenges Tunisia faces two years after the Jasmine Revolution. The following remarks are from two appearances in Washington in late May 2013, including a meeting at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

      Question: Tunisia led the way on the political transition. But Tunisia is again striking now because you made a decision to take on the other Islamists. Yesterday, 20 Tunisians were convicted for the attack on the U.S. Embassy. Last year, you talked about trying dialogue with the Islamists. But in mid-May, thousands of troops were dispatched to Kairouan to stop the annual meeting of Ansar al Sharia. Tell us what went into that decision. What does it mean? Is this a turning point―Islamists taking on other Islamists― in the name of honoring man’s law over God’s law?

            Ghannouchi: We are not very happy to fight other Islamists ― or non-Islamists also. All of them are citizens. And we have many regrets. During the last two years, about 15 young Salafis have been killed by the police and the army. The rule of law has to be imposed and implemented for all, regardless of their beliefs. So when some of them try to smuggle weapons from Libya, they have been confronted by the government. Hundreds of them have been arrested. Some of them tried to attack the U.S. embassy in Tunisia. The police fought against them and killed four of them and arrested many of them.

            Some people say that the Ennahda government or Tunisia’s government is not tough enough against Salafis. We are not fighting against all Salafis. We fight only against who use violence, who use weapons. This phenomenon is inherited from the Ben Ali regime. All Islamists have been arrested, so a sort of vacuum was left in Tunisia. Some religious channels broadcast from outside Tunisia. They affected some Tunisian young people. We believe that Tunisian people are peaceful, very peaceful people, and this phenomenon cannot attract the majority. This phenomenon is very limited. This problem has to be resolved not only by the police. We have to fight against this phenomenon through economic development, through the media. Whoever takes weapons has to be fought, and the law has to be implemented for all.

            Some of our brothers now criticize the leaders of the movement, among them myself, as the party of concession. Some Islamists and Salafis, even among our party, try to include the Sharia within the constitution, and others had threatened about this because there isn’t clear [one] meaning of Sharia. Everyone has [his or her] own meaning, interpretation of the Sharia, so I said we have to avoid [mentioning Sharia] because the constitution is not the constitution of Ennahda. It is a constitution of the people. So everyone has to see himself in this constitution.

Prepared Remarks

            The success of the democratic transition in Tunisia is not just important for Tunisia, but for the whole region because it will set up the first country in the region that is both democratic and Muslim. That is why in Tunisia we feel the burden of this responsibility and try our best to make it succeed. Our revolution is not for export, but we hope that a successful model can influence the rest of the region. 

            Since before the elections, we announced that we will choose to govern through a coalition with other secular parties. We could have formed our government by getting the support of independents, but we chose to form a coalition that had the widest degree of support across the political spectrum. We believe that in transitional periods simple majority government isn't enough, but we need a wide coalition to send a message that the country is for all and not just the majority. We believe that moderate Islamists and moderate secularists can and should work together, and that they both should find compromises to build consensus across the spectrum.  

            We have tried hard to avoid ideological polarization because this is a recipe for chaos and failure. That is why we have made many concessions, whether in government or in the constitution, so as to avoid this danger. 

            We believe in the need for coexistence between secularists and Islamists, in the framework of the troika with the Congress for the Republic Party and the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties (Ettakatol), on the basis of a number of convictions including:

            First: There is no contradiction between democracy and Islam. Democracy does not mean that governance should be particularly granted to secularists while considering the Islamists as enemies of the state who should be either imprisoned or exiled. It also does not mean excluding secularists from power and marginalizing their role in authority and in drafting the Constitution simply because they did not get a majority in the elections.

            Second: Islamists’ arrival to power does not mean that they will dominate the state, the society, and the revolution because they are the most popular party, as practiced by tyrannical systems. The state's role is not to impose a certain way of life on the people.

            Third: The conflict between secularists and Islamists, which has continued for decades, wasted enormous energies and helped dictatorships extend their dominance.  As a matter of fact, the alliance between Islamists and secularists is a prerequisite for the establishment of a democratic and free society able to handle its differences through dialogue, compatibility, and the resort to the will of the voters, away from the logic of dictation and exclusion.

            On the question of the constitution: The constitution is an important document as it limits the government’s and the rulers’ authorities and forces them to abide by the law. We have a precedent in Islamic history in the form of what is known as al sahifa, which came at the time of the establishment of the first Islamic state by the Prophet, peace be upon him. This constitution established a pluralistic state that brought together different ethnicities and religions, and established citizenship as the basis of rights and responsibilities.

            The guiding principle for us in this constitution is that it should not just be the constitution of the simple majority, but that it should be the constitution of all Tunisians, so that all Tunisian can see themselves in this constitution and that they feel that it represents them all ― whether in the majority or the minority. In order to achieve this, we have organized wide consultations with the different political players and with civil society organizations. In this process we have tried to develop a wide consensus around the constitution.

            However, when we faced serious differences around issues like Sharia, choosing a presidential or parliamentary political system, freedom of conscience, the universality of human rights, we had to organize a national dialogue between the main parties to reach consensus. This lasted for nearly five weeks and we ended up reaching compromises around these different issues, hence we accepted to leave out any mention of Shariah in the constitution because this notion wasn't clear to the Tunisian people. With regards to the political system, although we chose the parliamentary system, we ended up in a compromise where we have a mixed system in which the executive power is divided between the president and the government. We also made compromises by accepting the universality of human rights and the freedom of conscience. Some people within our party accuse us in the leadership of becoming the party of compromise, but we say that as the majority party we have a greater responsibility to make the necessary compromises to help our country move forward. 

            We believe that we now have a draft constitution that brings together the values of Islam and combines them with the values of modernity and democracy. This had been the dream of the great reformers since the 19th century, and we hope that through ratifying the constitution that we would have realized this dream. The new constitution incorporates all the values of equality, different freedoms and rights, and the separation of powers. 

            We hope that once the constitution is approved then the whole country will start preparing for its second election, which we hope will be free and fair. And we hope that many of our friends across the world will come to observe and monitor the elections to vouch for its veracity. We hope that all the different parties will be participating. One flower does not make a spring, that is why this election is very important to prove that the democratic process cannot be reversed. 

            Now I would like to speak quickly about the challenges that we face. The first challenge is the economic and social one. We all know that this factor was one of the main elements behind the revolution. We are faced with many problems. The first is that people's expectations are very high and they have very little patience. Also, the economic situation in our main trading partners in Europe is affecting our exports and tourism. Despite these problems the government has managed to reduce unemployment by two percent, from 18 to 16. Also, growth went up from negative two percent to 3.5 percent when we took over in 2012. The number of tourists had also gone up and we received 6 million tourists last year. However, the young people who made the revolution in Sidi Bouzid and Gasserine have not seen any improvement in their lives, and this is a challenge that will take many years to tackle. 

The second challenge is the security challenge. The revolution has weakened the state and its authority. This has given an opportunity to different groups to try to push the boundaries and cross the law. Extremists on both sides, whether on the religious right or on the extreme left, have tried to impose their views with no respect for the law. We tell these groups not to think for one moment that democracies are weak. 

            Slowly, we are rebuilding the state's authority― but not based on fear as it was used under the dictatorship. It's based on the rule of law. 

            With regards to the Salafi issue, I would like to stress that this phenomena is first the fruit of the Ben Ali regime and not the fruit of democracy. 

            Secondly, the phenomenon is a complex one. Therefore it needs a complex solution. We see for example that this phenomenon exists in the poor areas; therefore development needs to be part of the solution. Also, we need to know that this phenomenon is diverse and that it's not all violent. Therefore we need to push as many of the Salafis away from violence in order to isolate the violent ones and make them a minority. This can be achieved through dialogue and through convincing them that their understanding of Islam is wrong, and that they need to work within the law if they want their full rights as citizens. 

            The third element in the solution is the security one. Those who want or try to break the law or to impose their views on others with violence have to be dealt with severely. This is what the government has done over the last year by imprisoning hundreds of those who tried to break the law, and in some instances also killing about 14 of them in violent confrontations with the security forces. This security solution however, needs to be governed by respect for human rights and the law, and not as in the times of the dictatorship.   

            The fall of the dictatorial regime in Tunisia was the spark that launched the Arab Spring. There is no doubt that the success of the Tunisian experience will lead to the promotion of this peaceful and democratic path. Tunisia has shown that the Arab Spring is not turning into a fundamentalist winter. Today, we can assure you that it will not turn into a fundamentalist “religious” or “secular” winter, but into a democratic spring where all have a place. 

*Photo of Ghannouchi courtesy of the U.S. Institute of Peace

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