Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement may have stepped down from government following months of political instability and a wide-ranging national dialogue, but that isn’t stopping leader Rachid Ghannouchi from preparing for upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections expected by the end of this year.
A leading politician in one of the success stories of the Arab Spring, Ghannouchi was unique in his decision not to run for either the presidency or a seat in parliament following his 2011 return to Tunisia after 22 years in exile in London. But with new elections set to be held by the end of this year, following the adoption of a needed electoral law at the beginning of May, there is growing speculation he will seek a political post in the polls.
Ghannouchi sat down with Asharq Al-Awsat in Tunis recently to talk about his own political future and his organization’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the issues facing Tunisia as its transition period comes to an end.
Q: What do you make of the current situation in Tunisia?
Rachid Ghannouchi: Tunisia is celebrating. It recently overcame the last hurdle of its transitional period with the adoption of the new electoral law. This was a massive accomplishment, paralleling the new constitution. The first success resulting from the national dialogue was the election of a neutral president, though there were several achievements [in the transitional period] that materialized before this: the launch of the national dialogue as well as the initiation of a roadmap on October 5 last year number among them. I believe that we are on the right track and that our goal has been clear—we must arrive at elections by means of proper electoral protocol, an independent electoral commission, an electoral law, and a neutral government. These were the conditions set forth by the roadmap, and we have already met them. We are steadily moving in the right direction, despite the terrorists and the radical enemies of democracy.
Q: How is Ennahda preparing to take part in the upcoming elections? Has your movement benefitted from the experience of the elections of October 2011?
We are still in the process of evaluating and judging the experience of the past years. But what we have achieved so far is establishing a ruling coalition that is currently guiding a successful transition to a democracy and that does not support open conflict. A stable democratic system absorbs conflicts and reduces them to a political fight between a ruling party and opposition parties.
Our experience in the last two years has revealed that our nation is still fragile and cannot tolerate open conflict between the [ruling] powers and the opposition. The Tunisian experience almost deteriorated completely last year, especially after what happened in Egypt and after terrorist crimes and political assassinations spread. The only way to stabilize the situation was for the Ennahda Movement to give up its place within the government and allow for a transition to a neutral government. We sacrificed our government positions for something more valuable—Tunisia, and in particular, the country’s stability and the continuation of a democratic transition.
Q: What do you make of the political exclusion clauses proposed for inclusion in the recently adopted electoral law? Why did you back down from including it within the new electoral law?
We do not think that this law [political exclusion] serves the public interest or the democratic transition. Instead, it would have led to the return of extreme tension and conflict, which in turn would affect the progress of the transition towards elections. As we have said before, Tunisia must consider all of its sons and not turn any of them away.
We are also not guardians of the people, and we believe that the people have their own consciousness and the ability to choose whatever is best for them. Therefore, we must let the people have freedom of choice without our interference. As for accounting for the injustices of the past, we do not believe that collective accountability is fair or even effective. We have seen what attempts at exclusion and collective accountability have led to in other countries: disaster. This does not mean that we are neglecting the issue, but we believe that transitional justice can be served with truth and dignity, which we have witnessed so far with the National Constituent Assembly. We believe the Constituent Assembly will investigate past crimes on an individual, rather than a collective, basis in order to uncover the truth. The Constituent Assembly also encourages victims to forgive, instead of taking revenge. We believe that this approach will enable our country to address the wounds of the past in a manner that allows us to move forward without planting seeds of animosity among our younger generations.
Q: You mentioned that Ennahda’s image has improved over the last year . . . So do you think you’ll do well in the upcoming elections?
Each party claims to be the most popular, and the election will reveal which one truly is. We say that we are most organized and cohesive party because we have been around for forty years, while many of the younger parties have only been around for a few years and are still searching for their identity. In any case and whatever the outcome, if we are given the opportunity to rule we will not do so without a broad coalition.
Q: In your assessment, will acting prime minister Mehdi Jomaa’s rule provide a safe route for Tunisia to reach the stage of elections?
This is what we’re counting on and expecting [from Jomaa’s rule]. This government is not being pulled in different directions like the last government, and there is very little opposition to it—and what opposition exists is not party-based. This is because the government is neutral and its essential goal is to lead the country to the elections. Thus, everyone must support this government so that it can take us to safety. It is fundamentally one of many [kinds of] governments borne out of the revolution.
The revolution sought to accomplish two goals. The first goal was freedom, and this has been achieved through the adoption of the new constitution and electoral law. Freedom is no longer just a slogan, but has transformed into actual institutions. The second goal of the revolution was social and economic, and looked to provide employment for the jobless and to improve the current economic situation in Tunisia, which warrants a reassessment. The challenges are great in this area. Mr. Mehdi Jomaa chose an appropriate route to address the issue, by creating a national economic dialogue based on the national political dialogue that helped us create a new constitution. Mr. Jomaa established the national economic dialogue so that everyone could participate and address economic challenges, which no one government or party faces alone. Instead, the whole nation faces these challenges together and must choose how to overcome them. The choices may be painful, and everyone has a responsibility to accept them. Though Mr. Jomaa presents these choices, he is still linked to the National Pact.
Q: Many people describe the Ennahda Movement as the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Is this true? How would you characterize Ennahda?
Those people judge and explain history with an eye to conspiracy. They believe everything is a plot. Just as religion has a hidden meaning and explanation, according to them so too does politics: what is seen is untrue and what is unseen is true.
Everyone watched the national dialogue, which was attended by 22 parties. This dialogue took several months in order to reach an agreement on a neutral figure who was not accused of belonging to the Ennahda Movement. That neutral figure is Mehdi Jomaa [the acting prime minister]. The ministers who formed the Constituent Assembly came from a variety of backgrounds as well, and none were accused of belonging to the Ennahda Movement either. So where did the idea that this is a “marionette” government controlled by the Ennahda Movement come from? This government expelled dozens of people who had been appointed by the Ennahda Movement. We accepted this reluctantly, knowing that many who were expelled had skills and potential. The problem is that that they were all accused of belonging to Ennahda, although some of them did not, but just looked the part because of their religious beliefs. At any rate, we are looking at the big picture and and not at pieces of it. The big picture tells us that everyone participated in creating a neutral and independent government, and that there is no room to talk about conspiracies.
Q: Despite everything you have stated, there are still many who believe that the Ennahda Movement is running things in Tunisia, and that the current government is merely a front . . .
I stated that Ennahda left the government, but it did not leave its position of authority. By this, I am referring to the three branches of government: while Ennahda left the executive offices, it did not give up its legislative power. We are still the largest bloc within the government and in the Constituent Assembly, which is the true authority in the country. Because Ennahda is the largest bloc, nothing can happen without Ennahda agreeing to it.
Q: Do you think Ennahda’s time in government enhanced relations with the West? How did European and American powers respond to your Islamist government?
The West looks to the Ennahda Movement as a source of stability due to the fact that Ennahda has respected relations with Europe, as more than 85 percent of our [trade] exchanges are with the European Union (EU). The relationship between the ancient shores of the Mediterranean is historic, and so Ennahda decided that it should continue. Thus in the past two years our relationship with Europe did not sour, but instead evolved from the ordinary partnership it was during the era of Ben Ali advanced to a progressive partnership during the troika period of Ennahda’s reign. This relationship evolved because of Tunisia’s progress in the democratic transition, which represents a common interest between our European neighbors and Tunisia. The presidents and European officials who visited Tunisia provide the best testament to Europe’s support for Tunisia. Ennahda’s rule disproved the constant allegations that Islamic rule would be rigid, that it would undermine democracy, enforce a closed pattern of living, impose the veil, and deny the role of entertainment, singing, film and beaches.
What happened two years later [with the national dialogue that saw Ennahda step down from government] dispelled all of these fears, as the Islamists demonstrated that they are democratic, support fixed terms, and do not cling to power. This is also evidenced by the fact they are now out of power without a coup and even without elections, and have done so for the sake of the country.
Additionally, the Islamists ruled and allied themselves with secular parties, demonstrating that the Islamists and secularists can govern together without clashes and fighting. Tunisians did not feel that there was a particular way of life being imposed on them. Women choose their way of life, and the role of fun has not been sidelined forever. The only change was that Ennahda lifted the ban on wearing the headscarf that was imposed during the Ben Ali era, making it possible for women to dress as they wish. Beaches remained open, and Tunisia attracted 6 million tourists. Whoever wants to use an Islamic bank is free to do so, as is the person who chooses not to. What the Ennahda Movement has given is freedom. The Tunisian people choose their own way of life, and whoever wants to leave has the freedom to do so.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.