Tunisia: Interview with Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi

Nov 02, 2012

            One year after the first democratic elections and almost two years since the uprising began, what are the Jasmine Revolution’s successes and failures?
            There are successes and there are failures. This is life.
            The fact that the revolution has survived for nearly two years is itself a success, as some revolutions have lasted only a few months or a few weeks. The other success is that the government is celebrating its first anniversary. Some people expected that October 23 would not be a day for celebration but rather a day when the government fell. But we insisted that this day would be a celebration, and indeed it was.
           The anti-revolutionary or counter-revolutionary forces are there, but they are weak. They are being led by the former prime minister and former head of the parliament from [President Zine El Abidine]Ben Ali’s time– [Beji Caid] Essebsi.
           October 23 was a normal and quiet day, not as the others claimed. The three political leaders [the president, prime minister and speaker of parliament] gave speeches at the assembly. That shows that the primary goal of the revolution--which is a democratic transition--has come true. Tunisia is now living the kind of freedom that it has never experienced before. There isn’t a newspaper that is banned and no journalists have been imprisoned for their views. There are no political parties that are banned. There are no political trials.
           That does not mean that our situation is perfect. But compared to other countries that have had revolutions, Tunisia’s situation can be considered kind of perfect.

            What about the economy, which has faced serious obstacles during the political transition?
            The second goal of the revolution was development. The accomplishments are less than in the field of freedoms. But we were still able to achieve major things on development. When this government came to power [in late 2011], the economic growth rate was negative 1.8 percent. The economy was contracting, while today’s growth rate is 3.5 percent.
           We still have high employment--more than 18 percent [when the government took over], but now it has decreased to 17 percent, which shows that things are not becoming worse and that things are being revived.
           We have also had 95,000 new job openings in 10 months. The government’s plan was to have 100,000 job openings. We’re almost there. And we expect to have more than 100,000.
           We have problems with unemployed university graduates. There are 650,000 unemployed [nationwide] and half of them have university degrees. The other problem we are facing is that we have 100,000 job vacancies – and no one to fill them. There is a mismatch between education skills and what the market needs. The vacancies are in construction and agriculture, but the young don’t want to do either. That’s why we have a lot of foreigners from Africa, Morocco and Egypt to do those kinds of jobs.

            Tunisia has witnessed a spate of cultural flashpoints in recent months. A playwright has been harassed. An art gallery came under attack. What is happening?
            We have a religious extremist trend. It is present in Tunisia and the same goes for everywhere in the world. But the major religious trend is moderate. The extremist religious trend was present during Ben Ali’s time. It was a reaction to the extreme secular views they had [in the ruling circle]. We’ve noticed that most of the extremists are in poor neighborhoods, which reflects the economic gap and the economic policy from the previous government.
            What helped the extremist religious trend thrive was the absence of a moderate Islamic school [of thought], as [former President Habib] Bourguiba banned the moderate Islamic school. And Ben Ali suppressed Ennahda, a moderate Islamic trend. That explains why most extremists follow views from the Gulf or foreign extremists due to the absence of a moderate school here.
            With all the new freedoms that people enjoy and with the peaceful space to negotiate things, we expect they will come back to a moderate trend, including the people who are violating the law. That’s why we want to talk to them.
            But of course the law will be applied to those who violate the law. That’s what happened with the U.S. Embassy incident. Four of them were killed, and about 70 were injured [when Tunisian security forces confronted attackers at the embassy]. There are now 122 individuals from that trend who are in prison.
            But not all Salafis are jihadists. Most of them are extremist in ideology, but they are peaceful.

            How are the Salafis affecting the political environment in Tunisia today?
            There is exaggeration about them. The Salafis are a minority in the country. The opposition wants to say that Ennahda is Salafi…to destroy the troika [of three parties in the coalition government]. They want to kill the coalition between moderate Islamists and moderate secularists. And they want to send a message to the west that you were wrong to support a democracy that is led by Islamists, because secularists feel really bad about the relationship between Islamists and the West. They want to ruin that relationship too. They want to isolate Islamists at home and abroad.

            What is Ennahda trying to do about the Salafis? How many are there? What percentage are peaceful, and what percentage use violence?
            Most of the Salafis are enrolled in non-government organizations (NGOS). Only two parties have registered– Islah (or Reform), and the other is new. Both are small. They are not like Egyptian Salafi parties. We want to draw them in to work in an organized and lawful way.
            Democracy is not only a ruling style. It is also a style of doing thing. It is also a tool for education. In the 1970s in Europe, there were a lot of extremists on both the left and the right who used weapons--and now they are members of European parliaments.  When I studied in France, there was a young guy who used to lead the revolution and now he has a seat in the European Union. His name is [Daniel] Cohn-Bendit.
            Germany had the Bader Meinhof Gang, and the Red Brigades were in Italy. This phenomenon can be transformed. In Egypt, in the 1970s and 1980s, tourists were killed. And now we see people [who once may have been empathetic or sympathetic to extremist dogma] participating in parliament. We don’t see a jihadist trend in Egypt anymore.
            Jihadi violence is not a normal phenomenon. It is more of a reaction to the absence of freedom and the lack of development.

            There is a major controversy in Tunisia about a video of your speech to a group of Salafis, with allegations that you were urging them to be patient because Tunisia would eventually become an Islamic state. Some people aid the video confirmed their suspicions about Ennahda’s long-term intentions.
            It’s part of our job to reeducate the Salafis. There were a lot of Salafis on the street right after the revolution. Now it is like they were swallowed. It is a result of the discussions we had with their leaders and their youngsters.
            This video was not new. It is from March. It was published on Youtube. Our opponents deleted that video from Youtube. It was a 112-minute video. They kept eight minutes and edited it out of context. They tried to make it seem to like a scandal and a discovery. They wanted it to appear as if Ghannouchi uses double talk and as if this tape was shot with a hidden camera. The goal was to make the political climate more tense for the October 23 anniversary. That was the date for toppling the regime’s legitimacy.
            There is no tape that contradicts our values—about the complementary nature of democracy and Islam, or Islam and modernity, and the need for discussions between civilizations, or equality between the genders, and the alternation of power through elections.
            This issue came up because we talked about Sharia in parliament last March. The Salafists protested loudly then to pressure Ennahda and parliament to accept Islamic law. And at that time, we met with them and their leaders to convince them that we don’t need to mention Sharia law [in the new constitution].
            I managed with the help of my brothers to convince people both inside and outside Ennahda that Sharia is not needed because we believe that the constitution should be built on what all people believe, not just what people in Ennahda believe. We also didn’t want to divide Tunisians. The Salafists wanted a referendum on Sharia and we didn’t want to divide the population on Sharia. And we managed to have cohesion among Tunisians [on this issue].

            The legal status of women is one of the most controversial issues in discussions about the new constitution. Some Islamists proposed describing women as “complements” to men rather than as equals.
            Equality between the genders is now enshrined in more than one article of the [draft] constitution. And it is the consensus among all parties. Tunisian women have a number of freedoms that all the parties agree upon, especially on their personal status. They have full equality without any restriction.
            Out of the 270 seats in parliament, we have 52 female members--out of which 42 are from Ennahda – 42 out of 52. Some of them wear the veil and some of them do not. And this is the fruit of our support for parity between the genders on the election list. We intend to keep 50 percent men and 50 percent women [on our ticket] for the next election. We might have higher percentage than in your Congress.

            Blasphemy is another controversial issue in debate about the new constitution. What does Ennahda favor?
            There’s a draft of the constitution that stipulates freedom of faith and freedom to practice faith. There is no law on blasphemy.
            It’s an international problem because the world has become one small village. A movie [offensive to Muslims] produced in the United States resulted in the killing of five young Tunisian men. To coexist peacefully, we need to respect the dignity and face of one another. It would not work if there was a law in Tunisia or Egypt only. We would rather present the issue to the United Nations. We need an international treaty coming from the United Nations, like other treaties that organize humanity. That requires deep discussion at the United Nations.

            What are your main goals over the next year?
            Our primary goals are defending the revolution, finishing the democratic transition and making large strides on development.
            We will finish the constitution in February or so, and then we will hold elections in June. Transparent elections will lead us to a more stable period. 

            How do you think Ennahda will do the second time around?
            A lot of parties are competing. With God’s will, we will have the majority. But even if we have a majority, we want a coalition government with secular parties--most likely the same parties.
            A coalition government in a democracy is a form of Islamic rule. A democratic state is an Islamic state.

            What do you see happening in the rest of the Middle East?
            The whole world is heading to democracy at different speeds, and the Arab world is part of the world. Democracy was delayed in this region for many reasons. One of them was Western support for despotic dictatorships.  Now the Western position has changed. It’s now supportive of democracy. That’s a good thing.  They have found out that dictatorships do not work in the interests of the United States. Dictatorships instead produce extremism and terrorism.
            We think the democratic transition in Tunisia could go at an even faster speed because our society has a very high level of cohesion.  There’s no internal conflict and no religious or ethnic differences, plus we have a high level of education and a good middle class.
            The other Arab countries are also headed toward democracy but at a different pace.

            What do you think the West, particularly the United States, should do about the Syrian crisis?
            I want the West and the United States to support democracy and freedom. I’m not for foreign military intervention. It leads to reactions, and it complicates the relationship between civilizations and religions.
            The Arab League might lead a military intervention in Syria. I am open to this idea of an Arab intervention to put an end to the bloodshed in Syria.
            We are against any support for the current dictatorship in Syria.

            What do you think the West and the United States should do about Iran’s controversial nuclear program?
            We think that the whole Middle East should be deprived of nuclear projects. We want to see a world free of nuclear projects. They are a danger to the whole world. Even peaceful energy can be dangerous.          

            How do you assess the U.S. role in the Middle East since the uprisings began?
            We highly appreciate U.S. support of the democratic transition in the Arab world. When I visited the United States and met with a lot of officials, I found them very excited about the Tunisian revolution. We felt encouraged by that. They said their economic situation was difficult, and we understand their situation. They asked what we wanted, and we asked them to encourage tourism and investment. We also want them to encourage the training of young Tunisians in American universities. And they have promised to do that. And they have done that.
            The United States also guarantees loans, which helps us get loans at cheaper rates. We are thankful for that.    

            How do you explain what happened on September 14, when the U.S. Embassy in Tunis came under violent attack?
            It should be considered an incident and not a state of things. There was a security malfunction that day. And this has led to changing one of our highest officials.


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