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Ghannouchi: Tunisia’s New Political Order

On February 24, Sheikh Rachid al Ghannouchi outlined how Tunisia avoided a political crisis and drafted a constitution despite tension between Islamists and secularists. “In Tunisia, we are learning how to live together and deal with conflicts between secularists and Islamists,” he said at meeting at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

            On February 24, Sheikh Rachid al Ghannouchi outlined how Tunisia avoided a political crisis and drafted a constitution despite tension between Islamists and secularists. Ghannouchi heads the Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, the first democratically elected Islamist party to hand over power since the Arab uprisings began in December 2010. “In Tunisia, we are learning how to live together and deal with conflicts between secularists and Islamists,” he said at meeting at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Ghannouchi argued that Tunisia’s experience proves that democracy can flourish in the Arab world.

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            But Ghannouchi also acknowledged serious challenges facing Tunisia’s democratic transition. The first post-revolution election went smoothly in 2011. “But one flower does not constitute a spring,” the sheikh warned. New elections are expected before the end of 2014.Ghannouchi emphasized the need to deal with Salafi extremists and serious economic problems to keep Tunisia on track. The following are excerpted remarks by the sheikh.

The Constitution and Building Consensus

            After Ennahda participated in the first elections of October 23, 2011, we had the opportunity to form a government made up of Islamists… but we chose to install a coalition government of moderate Islamists and moderate secularists to prove that coexistence between these two trends in our country is possible and that democracy can be implanted in the Arab world. Democracy can flourish in the Arab world, Tunisia is not an exception.

            We faced difficulties when some terrorist groups tried to disturb the country, and impede our progress toward democracy.  So Ennada participated in a national dialogue with all Tunisian parties, 22 parties from all sides of the political spectrum.

            Finally, we decided to step down from our governing position without losing an election, facing a counterrevolution or coup d’état. We realized that although we had the right to retain power because of our electoral victory, the Tunisian people would not get a constitution without our stepping down… The opposition had withdrawn from the constitutional assembly and refused to continue drafting the constitution. We could have continued without them. But we would have produced a constitution for the Ennahda party, not the Tunisian people as a whole.  So we took a difficult path towards general consensus.

            After five difficult months of dialog, we reached consensus with other parties and Ennahda relinquished power in favor in favor of a neutral government. We were not obliged to leave power. We had the full right to retain it. We are not angels. We would like to have power. But we fervently believe that a democratic constitution is more important for Tunisia than Ennahda retaining power.

            All Tunisians can see themselves in this constitution. It reflects the important marriage between Islam and democracy. Some 80 percent of Tunisians live along the coast, so our people are very open to Europe. But at the same time, our people are very keen to preserve its Muslim identity… If you read this constitution, you can see how it insists on human rights, freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion. At the same time, all these liberties are also protected by elected institutions.

            This experience is not only good for Tunisia but the Arab world as well. It proved that dictatorship is not the destiny of the Arab. Tunisia’s experience with democracy does not need to be the exception. It can be the main direction of the Arab world.

            The constitution reflects the main conflicts in politics and society. We prefer the parliamentary system. But the opposition does not, perhaps due to some influence by the French government’s model, where the president has the main role. So we tried to make a compromise. We divided executive power between the prime minister and the president…

            Tunisia is now on track to hold elections. It is true that we achieved a great goal by holding the first election in 2011. But one flower does not constitute a spring. We have to have the second, third, fourth and fifth elections to ensure democracy is not an accident— but Tunisia’s destiny. This democratic experience still faces many dangers, such as terrorism and economic problems. In Tunisia, we are learning how to live together and deal with conflicts between secularists and Islamists.

            We have to avoid a zero-sum game. In a democratic system, all sides can win. Even if someone loses an election, he will have another opportunity to try again… To avoid civil war, we have to look for consensus. We sacrificed our government to avoid civil war. We are convinced that if we deserve the confidence of the people, we will come to power again. We want to strengthen local government to avoid the return of dictatorship.


            I can’t minimize the Salafi threat in Tunisia. It is not a local trend. Salafism, as an ideology, is an international movement. This school of thought, which interprets Islam literally, has existed for a long time. The state has no problem with any school of thought. The state’s responsibility is to implement the law and deliver services to the people, not impose school of thought or a model of life. We have tried to convince some Salafis that their manner of understanding Islam is wrong. Islam is justice, mercy and peace. It is not hatred or vengeance or about killing innocent people. We try to convince them to work within the law, establish parties or work through non-governmental organizations. There are now three Salafi parties have given up using violence and have agreed to work within the system.

            Ansar al Sharia, one group that insists on using violence, began smuggling weapons from Libya and confronting the Tunisian police. The Ennahda government did not hesitate to consider them as a terrorist group. There is an open conflict with this group. But other Salafis are protected by the law because they respect it. Their manner of understanding Islam is the concern of scholars, not the state. In general, Tunisian people are moderate, so this phenomenon is strange. It is linked to the Zine al Abidine Ben Ali regime. At the time of the December 2010 revolution, some 3,000 jihadis were in prison. They, along with other prisoners, were freed. But not all of them put their freedom to good use. Some started smuggling arms from Libya. This violent Salafi trend has no future in Tunisia. If our neighbors, Algeria and Libya, succeed in containing security threats, this phenomenon can be controlled...

            Terrorism cannot be fought by security forces alone. It can be fought through the law, not outside it. We can prevent the spread of terrorism through expanding development and also reinterpreting Islam. These people interpret Islam incorrectly. Islam is freedom, justice, equality of humankind. So we have to reinterpret Islam and save it from these people.

            The United States has invested hundreds of billions of dollars fighting terrorism. But terrorism still exists. We cannot fight terrorism only with arms but also spreading justice, development and democracy. Democracy is worthy of investment for the fight against terrorism.


            We cannot implement democracy during an economic crisis. People still don’t find that anything has changed. Unemployment is still high at about 15 percent, though it is down from 19 percent. The economic growth rate when we took power was negative but now it is 3 percent. People still protest conditions in the poorer regions of Tunisia.

            Encouraging tourism is important for Tunisia. We received some 7 million tourists in 2013 but it is not enough. The United States still has a travel warning for Tunisia. But some 400,000 tourists from the United Kingdom visited last year.

            We also need to encourage investment is also important. Now that Tunisia has a constitution, the future is very clear. So there is no reason to hesitate to invest. Supporting the Tunisian example is an investment in Arab democracy.

Civil Society

            Civil society is still playing an important role in Tunisian politics. Four groups — the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), chamber of commerce, the human rights league and the bar association— played the role of mediator after the opposition and governing parties failed to reach consensus on their own. Those groups played a different role compared to the Egyptian army, which interfered in the political crisis but chose a side.  


            Egypt’s situation is much more complicated than Tunisia. The role of the army is different than in Tunisia. Our army is not ruling. It is apolitical... I don’t believe there is a future for the coup d’état in Egypt. General Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s regime will fail because the main achievement of the revolution was the collapse of people’s fear. No one can play the role of pharaoh. No dictator can control the media now. Thanks to International channels and the Internet, a pharaoh cannot survive for a long time. It is amazing that some states are still unwilling to call it a coup d’état.

Freedom of Expression

            The main result of Tunisia’s revolution is freedom of expression. It is not a gift from Ennahda. The time of censorship is over. The government is open to criticism.

Ennahda’s Principles

            I would like confirm that our movement has been focused on the same principles of compatibility of Islam and democracy, human rights, gender equality. We have had the opportunity to implement this conviction and we have done so. We would like people to judge us not through propaganda but by our deeds.


Photo credit: U.S. Institute of Peace

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