Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat- Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi is the leader of the Islamic Ennahda Movement in Tunisia. During the era of former President Habib Bourguiba, he spent five years in prison, and was also sentenced to life imprisonment on one occasion in 1981, whereby Ghannouchi escaped death by a miracle. He was also sentenced to life imprisonment twice by the regime of [ousted] President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and was forced to leave Tunisia in 1989. Whereas Bourguiba allowed Ghannouchi some room to maneuver, but later curtailed his activities and those of his movement, when he felt that it was developing and getting closer to the Tunisian street, Ben Ali crushed the movement and imprisoned its leaders for more than two decades. Ghannouchi spent more than 22 years in exile, during which he never visited Tunisia.
He returned to Tunisia only this year, on the 29th January after Ben Ali’s regime was overthrown. His house, located in one of the suburbs of the Tunisian capital, was transformed somewhat into a shrine, with entire families coming to greet Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi and wish him well. Various international media outlets have been camped nearby with their cameras, as they wait for him to make a statement. The courtyard of his house, where a huge tent has been erected for his guests, looks like the venue for a wedding reception. Food is being offered to visitors, children are playing in the yard, and women carrying cooking pots hurry back and forth. Amidst this festive atmosphere, Asharq al-Awsat managed to meet with Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, after waiting several hours. The following interview was conducted:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you expect Ben Ali’s regime to fall so quickly?
[Ghannouchi] Actually, I never doubted the fall of a regime that relied on the political police, and which muzzled the mouths of the people as it crushed every initiative of the Tunisians. I had a strong feeling that regime change in Tunisia would only be accomplished via an uprising in the form of an explosion against the dictator and dictatorship. I have often written about the political situation in Tunisia, and said that the incidents which took place in the [Gafsa] mining basin, and later in the Ben Kardan region close to Libya, were a strong indication that the life of Ben Ali’s regime was shrinking.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the regime was still ‘alive’ after these events?
[Ghannouchi] It was obvious that the regime was weakening, and that these social eruptions in one region after another would crush it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was there no hope for reform, rather than a popular revolution?
[Ghannouchi] Unfortunately, I personally did not see any way to change this regime using ordinary means.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Now that your movement has resumed its activities, some elements in the Tunisian street – like the leftist and secular currents – are expressing concerns. How do you explain this apprehension?
[Ghannouchi] It is a mixture of political fear and electoral fear. All these forces know the extent of the Islamic presence in the Tunisian street but they are also afraid of engaging in a political discussion. Moreover, they do not express fear openly and frankly. We should not forget that attempts are being made to make the people afraid of the Ennahda Movement, in order to win more electoral votes. There is a group of Tunisians that has been misled for many years; it has fallen under the pressure of Ben Ali’s information machine that has criminalized the Ennahda Movement, linking it the terrorism. It frightened the women against Islam and the movement became an element of confusion for a number of political currents. The fact is that we have repeatedly called for political participation and peaceful political co-existence amongst all. Tunisia can accommodate everyone.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you intend to run in the next presidential elections? Is the Ennahda movement prepared to accept the outcome of these elections?
[Ghannouchi] I will not run in the next presidential elections. I made this decision before returning to Tunisia. We are ready to accept the outcome of the elections in a fair democratic regime. This is beyond question even if the adversaries of the Ennahda Movement took power as a result of the elections. However, we ask the elements of the civic society to recognize the outcome just as we will.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many times did you meet with the deposed president? What impressions did you form about him?
[Ghannouchi] I met him only twice in my life. He was a man that listened but does not speak.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have co-existed with both President Bourguiba, and President Ben Ali. What was the difference between them?
[Ghannouchi] There is a big difference between the two former Tunisian presidents. Habib Bourguiba was an educated dictator. He allowed the emergence of a strong labor movement. The Islamic movement was established during his era when its political presence, and activities in the field, reached their peak. Bourguiba allowed the emergence of a model student movement, gave the green light to the creation of the Tunisian Human Rights League, and several parties and opposition voices. He allowed the independent newspapers to express their opinions freely. After him, no newspaper was able to express its opinion about what was happening in Tunisia, except for the miserable attempts of the opposition press. Bourguiba was an enlightened dictator who had read the works, memoirs, and books of the prominent writers of the French Revolution, and other prominent politicians. He knew about the political and social events that took place in Tunisia and he was a true statesman and an eloquent politician. All the gains evaporated one after the other under Ben Ali, leaving nothing but the mafia and the police. As for the deposed President Zayn-al-Abidin Ben Ali, he was a dictator carrying a thick stick that did not allow anyone to speak. This thick stick waited for anyone that dared speak. You can imagine how many would dare to speak knowing that this stick was hanging over their heads. Ben Ali had no other experience or knowledge except his police experience, which is not enough to manage educated elites in Tunisia, and groups aware of what was happening in the world, who had high demands that no police regime would allow to materialize.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have indirectly praised Bourguiba, although you called him a dictator. However, Bourguiba also was angry when the State Security Court sentenced you to life imprisonment, rather than execution.
[Ghannouchi] This is true; Bourguiba was very angry at the State Security Court. It is said that he ordered the court to try me again. At that time, Bourguiba also changed the law so that the death penalty would be carried out against a person if three out of five judges that form the court panel vote for it. In the past, it was necessary for four judges to vote for the implementation of the death penalty. In my case, three judges voted for the death penalty and I was saved by a miracle. Bourguiba sentenced me to five years in prison, then later sentenced me to life and approved the death penalty against me. But all this does not undermine Bourguiba’s contributions in the development of Tunisia life in general.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where were you on the night of the 6th November 1987, when the coup was staged against Bourguiba?
[Ghannouchi] I was in prison and they wanted my head. The Tunisian authorities accused the Ennahda Movement of trying to seize power and almost all its leaders were imprisoned. Ben Ali, however, released these leaders in order to gain control over the street. With his police instincts, he knew that the Ennahda Movement could pull the rug from under his feet. You know that after that, he began his attempts to uproot the movement in the early 1990s.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you hold any member of Ben Ali’s regime in high regard?
[Ghannouchi] I remember El-Hadi al-Bakkoush, who was the prime minister between 7 November 1987 and 27 September 1989. Several sources have told me that Al-Bakkoush supported recognition of the Ennahda Movement, both in Bourguiba’s era and Ben Ali’s era. I can confirm the veracity of this report. Al-Bakkoush was present when I met with the deposed president on 6 November 1988, when Ben Ali promised me that recognition of the Ennahda Movement was a done deal, and that all that the members of the movement had to do was to be patient. This was my last meeting with the deposed dictator.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about Mohamed Mzali, the Prime Minister under Bourguiba, did he not offer you any assistance?
[Ghannouchi] In 1981, I was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was released only in August 1984 following the intercession of Prime Minister Mohamed Mzali, who was close to the movement. However, Mzali was using this to strike at the leftist currents. I do not think he supported the idea of legally licensing the movement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The current provisional government has ratified a proposed general amnesty law. It is known that the members of the Ennahda Movement were among the most affected during the era of the deposed president. The Ben Ali regime killed entire families, and sentenced many to 20 years in jail. What compensation would be satisfactory to those that spent such long periods in prison, or those that were adversely affected and harassed for more than two decades?
[Ghannouchi] First of all, the movement is asking that the amnesty will not exclude any prisoners of opinion and political prisoners, who were tried in courts under other non-political charges. The Ennahda Movement knows that more than 3,000 young Tunisians were sentenced, based on the unconstitutional anti-terrorism law. Some of these read a book, or accessed an Internet site, or woke up early to perform the morning prayers in a mosque, and found themselves accused of terrorism. The Ennahda Movement is demanding as of now that all the political prisoners must be reinstated in their jobs, and the period that they spent in the Tunisian jails or in forced exile to be calculated as part of their service. The movement believes that these victims were among the primary precursors that paved the way for the revolution in Tunisia. The revolution should compensate them for all these years of hardship. This matter does not concern only the Islamists but also everyone that was harmed in the past era.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, what would be a reasonable compensation?
[Ghannouchi] The movement understands that it is extremely hard to restore the past. Some leaders and members were not given the opportunity to procreate and some sisters have missed the chance to give birth and enjoy the pleasures of having children. We do not know how these will be compensated. The movement demands apologies to all the victims and to closing the page and restoring normal life to the Tunisians.