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On 27 August, 1987, the National Security Court in Tunisia began the trial of 90 defendants – affiliated to Islamist movements – on charges of attempting to overthrow the ruling regime and cooperating with a foreign state (Iran). 35 people received sentences ranging from capital punishment to life imprisonment; Rashid Ghannouchi was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labour. These sentences failed to satisfy Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, who in a conversation with the then Tunisian Interior Minister described them as “lenient.” Andrew Borowiec recounted this incident as follows “Ben Ali as well as Justice Minister Mohammed Salah Ayari pleaded with Bourguiba that there were no legal grounds for such action [re-trial] as the case was already closed. Bourguiba left the room but, prompted by his intimate advisers, asked again for Ghannouchi’s head” (Modern Tunisia: A Democratic Apprenticeship, 1998). It perhaps failed to cross Bourguiba’s mind that the then young Sheikh [Ghannouchi] would live in exile for 25 years, only to return to Tunisia victoriously as his – banned – Islamist party finished in first place in the first free elections following the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Islamists participated in the 1989 Tunisian parliamentary elections, and claimed to have won around 40 percent of the vote before the regime overturned the election results. Today, the Al-Nahda party has regained its electoral rights. What is interesting is that this party achieved the same percentage of the vote that it claimed to have won over 25 years ago. So what has changed between 1989 and 2011?

Proponents of the “Arab Spring” argue that we are facing non-ideological popular uprisings, and that the majority of the populations in these countries have simply gotten sick and tired of the threats made by these oppressive regimes to the effect that without them the Islamists would come to power or the country would be destabilized. Therefore, we are now being promised a new era where the spirit of citizenship and political participation will prevail amongst all political and ideological currents, including the Islamists. Some have even gone so far as to predict that this year’s events will result in the Islamist organizations, in particular, undergoing ideological and organizational changes in line with the new political era. However have the Islamists truly changed over the past decades or are we just witnessing a change in their political tactics and method, rather than true ideological changes?

It is interesting that Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have resorted to issuing the same reassurances and pledges about preserving and maintaining foreign investment contracts and international agreements, in an attempt to send a message of composure and confidence to western governments to the effect that they will not repeal international treaties and contracts signed between their countries and the western world. At the time that Libya was witnessing Gaddafi’s inhumane death, National Transitional Council [NTC] Chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil underlined his intention to (personally) review and amend Libya’s laws to ensure that these conform with Islamic Sharia law. Abdul-Jalil also stressed that Libya would continue to honour its commitments and contracts with the outside world. As he pledged to repeal the polygamy prohibition law, NTC Deputy Chairman – Libyan Human Rights lawyer Abdul Hafiz Ghoga – reaffirmed the NTC’s commitment to respecting Libya’s contracts with foreign countries.

In Tunisia, as soon as the al-Nahda party’s victory in the parliamentary elections was announced, Abdul Hamid Jalasi – a member of the al-Nahda party’s Executive Bureau – came out to tell foreign journalists that his party will guarantee Tunisia’s “commercial and economic” partners that their contracts are safe, and that his party pledges to provide every guarantee for foreign investment. Meanwhile, his colleague Noureddine El Bhiri – also a member of the al-Nahda party’s Executive Bureau – told Agence France-Presse [AFP] that al-Nahda is committed to “rebuilding constitutional institutions based on the respect of the law, the independency of the judiciary, respecting the rights of women…and equality between Tunisians whatever their religion, their sex, or their social status.”

If the Islamists have truly changed, then why are they so keen to confirm their good intentions? One might say that this is natural after decades of defamation and malicious reports that were put forward by security apparatus in some Arab countries. But what about the long history of violence, use of arms, takfirism, and justification of extremism practiced by a large number of Islamists across the Arab world? Some might answer by saying – and they are right – that the Islamists are not one single current and that they are separated by wide differences and minute details. But doesn’t this also apply to the Arab regimes that these radical parties and groups are confronting? Is it logical that we allow these religious groups and parties to defend themselves, their history, and their right to participate in politics, and then accept their accounts of the collapsed regimes? The truth is that the Islamists, at one point in time or another, were partners of the regimes that they are now accusing of corruption and tyranny!

Didn’t the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt describe the 1952 coup [overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy] as a “blessed movement” and were partners in justifying this revolution? Didn’t the Shiite mullahs and their Islamist followers hijack the 1979 revolution in Iran? Didn’t Rashid Ghannouchi – as he himself recounted – agree with Ben Ali on starting a new era and participating in the elections after Ben Ali released thousands of Islamist prisoners in 1988? Didn’t the Islamists bring President Omar al-Bashir and the “Salvation” government to power in Sudan in 1989? Didn’t al-Zindani and his party [Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood] support President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the mid-nineties? Didn’t the Islamists reconcile with President Bouteflika in Algeria? Weren’t members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group set free following talks between the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation [GICDF] and symbols of the Islamist movement like Abdulhakim Belhadj and Ali al-Salabi? How could Rashid Ghannouchi say that his party would never ban the “bikini” or alcohol? How could he pledge not to interfere in personal liberties and even praise the “Code of Personal Status” laws issued by Bourguiba in 1956 as being a juristic achievement? Who is the true secularist in this case, the person who uses religion as a vehicle to come to power or the benevolent autocrat who wants to modernize religion?

The problem of some Islamist party members is that their discourse is based on illusions, and they portray their political dispute with current and former regimes as part of a religious conflict whereas in reality it is a worldly conflict over positions and spoils. If some Islamists are willing to make all those religious and political concessions, and even pledge to maintain all the commercial and political contracts and agreements signed by the state, then why portray the era under Bourguiba or Ben Ali as being evil and oppressive, especially if they are willing to preserve their legal heritage, economic policies and foreign relations?

The truth is that tyranny, secular or Islamist, is a problem in itself. The attempts by some Islamists to portray themselves as victims of the previous era without admitting any responsibility is a form of self-exoneration and a dishonest account of decades of participation and conflict over power. Some Islamists engaged in violence while others reconciled with dictators like Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad and became regular guests at their tables. The Islamists were offenders as much as they were victims. They came to power several times and met with failure.

In his book entitled “Bourguiba: A Leader’s Biography” (1999), former Tunisian Minister al-Taher Belkhouja reveals that former Tunisian President Bourguiba “feared religious fanaticism, and sought to spread the spirit of tolerance and consistency with the requirements of the era. We, as cabinet members and senior officials, used to gather around him every year on the occasion of the Prophet’s (pbuh) birthday at the Mosque of Companion [of the Prophet] Abu Zama el-Balaui (also known as Sidi Sahbi mosque) in Kairouan to listen to the sermon and interpretative judgments he would give where he would underline the necessity of promoting religious practices to become more tolerant.”

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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