London, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Tunisian Ennahda Movement leader Rachid Ghannouchi spoke about the situation in his country more than 18 months following the ouster of the Ben Ali regime. He spoke about the political reality on the ground in the country as well as his hopes for the future, particularly regarding Tunisia’s forthcoming constitution and future elections. Ghannouchi also spoke about the controversy surrounding a leaked video tape reportedly showing him attempting to reassure Tunisia’s hardline Salafist community.
Rachid Ghannouchi is a writer, politician, and one of Tunisia’s most prominent Islamists. He is known for being one of Tunisia’s most famous political dissidents, and he spent a number of years in prison, both under [Tunisian president] Habib Bourguiba, as well as ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after he founded the Islamist Movement of the Islamic Tendency party in 1981, a precursor to the Ennahda movement. Following his release from prison, he fled to Europe, returning to Tunisia on 30 January, 2011, after 22 years in exile. The Ennahda movement won 89 of 217 Constituent Assembly seats in the 2011 elections, with Ennahda movement Secretary-General Hamadi Jebali being appointed Prime Minister of Tunisia in December 2011.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Tunisian army was in the street on Tuesday, whilst the broadcast of 4 television channels were interrupted at the same time, creating a sense of panic and chaos throughout the country. This has raised questions regarding the state of affairs in Tunisia, with some people viewing these events as a form of escalation. What is your view?
[Ghannouchi] I view what happened as being ordinary issues, whilst the two cases you mentioned have nothing to do with each other. The interruption in the broadcast of television channels was the result of a weather phenomenon that struck the broadcast center in the region of Dakhila. There were heavy rains which resulted in this broadcast interruption. I believe that the country today needs rain more than it does television channels, and this is something that has nothing to do with the domestic situation in the country, but rather the owners of the Egyptian Nilesat satellite network…so this was a technical problem as a result of the storm.
As for the presence of the army in the street, the country is still in a state of emergency, and this is what prompts the military to strengthen its presence [in the street] at various times, whenever it believes that the Interior Ministry requires support or reinforcement. The army, since the revolution, has not left the public places, for it has always been present, whether in a strong or weak manner, particularly during times of need. Its presence in the street has always been a safeguard against the possibility of clashes.
What happened was due to the fact that it was 23 October, which was a critical day, namely the day that the legitimacy of power [of the Constituent Assembly] ends. Former President Fouad Mebazza gave the Constituent Assembly its legitimacy, and he limited this to one year.
Threats were issued raised on this flimsy pretext demanding the end of the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly, and the instigators were expecting great events in Tunis today [23 October], however the situation is calm and all administrations and universities are open as normal.
The Constituent Assembly was elected and began its operation with an internal mechanism which defined its missions regarding the Constitution, and the requisite time will be granted for it to draft the constitution, because this body was elected whereas former president Fouad Mebazza was not elected but rather appointed due to the circumstances at the time.
The Constituent Assembly was elected to carry out its task and it will continue until this is completed, whilst today we have come to an agreement regarding the timeframe of the forthcoming elections; the law is prepared for this and the timing of this is no longer open-ended.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the nature of the relationship between the Tunisian people and army?
[Ghannouchi] The Tunisian army is a professional one, and it is carrying out its profession and does not have a history of interfering in politics. The army is subject to political power in Tunisia; it is not the ruler. The Tunisian people are indebted to the army which refused former President Ben Ali’s orders to fire on the people, and if the army had any ambitions to reach power, it would have carried these out in the beginning, immediately after the revolution. This is what strengthened its position, namely that it is a power that supports and protects the revolution and the country’s borders. There are no problems with the army that is working within the framework of, and following the orders of, the government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your statements earlier this week, you rejected the solution put forward by the National Council for the Protection of the Revolution. Do you think Tunisia is in need of such non-governmental organizations to “protect the revolution”? Or do you believe this group’s activities detract from the work of the police, and the ability of the Interior Ministry, to protect the country?
[Ghannouchi] Tunisia is going through a transitional phase from an autocratic system to a democratic one, and this is something that makes us fear a slide towards chaos. The security apparatus today is in the process of a cultural and ideological restructuring. It is in the process of transitioning its ideas, namely that it is in the service of the law not the ruler and that its job is to protect the law and the state, not the ruler. We want the people to contribute to achieving security, and these organizations were formed in the first weeks of the revolution when the country was in the midst of a security vacuum and was in need of popular organizations, and it is still in need of such organizations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you consider these “revolution protection” committees to be armed groups? What exactly is their role in Tunisia?
[Ghannouchi] They are not armed, they are people working within the framework of the law, and they are part of civil society. Their role is to sponsor the protection of neighborhoods and work to confront crimes, as well as assist the police. They are not an alternative to the police; they are revolutionary youth who have volunteered to guard the revolution until it reaches safety.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Constituent Assembly’s delay in drafting a new constitution, not to mention the government’s delay in announcing an election date, are being viewed by the opposition as stall tactics and an attempt by the government to cling to power. What is your view?
[Ghannouchi] The government coalition [troika] in Tunisia has proven its desire to accelerate the implementation of the transitional phase, and it is not in its interests to extend this phase. This is something that was also announced by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali today. The troika has agreed on 23 June as the date of the forthcoming elections, and this date will be put to the Constituent Assembly for vote. However what is strange today is that it is the opposition that is objecting to this date, and has asked for a postponement until next autumn.
I believe that the path has opened, and the divisive issues have begun to be revealed after the government called for the elections to be held sooner, as well as decided upon the system of government that Tunisia will follow, which will combine the presidential and parliamentary systems. So the major problems regarding the elections and the system of government have been identified.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are strikes, protests and unrest taking place in numerous regions of Tunisia, particularly the interior. Is Tunisia truly returning to a state of chaos and social deterioration or is this unrest being provoked by internal or external figures who want to abort the revolution and disrupt the work of the government?
[Ghannouchi] There are a limited number of strikes and rallies, including by some unions, taking place here and there. Ben Ali created widespread desolation and destruction…he left entire areas in states of extreme poverty, and the revolution was launched from the poorest areas, however this poverty cannot be eliminated in just one or two years, this will require at least 6 years or more.
People have very high demands, which prompted a number of political parties to exploit the situation and urge the masses to strike and rally to disrupt factories and roads. Let me give you a specific example, two weeks ago a bus driver crashed into a woman driver, he then swore at and insulted the female driver, which resulted in the police intervening and arresting him. However the bus driver union is now calling for a general strike as a result of this. So there are some parties that are utilizing and politicizing social issues for their own ends.
This is understood, for we are an emerging democracy and we need time to achieve harmony and law and order.
If we compare Tunisia to similar revolutionary states, we can see that the situation in Tunisia is much better, and the country is witnessing economic recovery whilst unemployment is decreasing. Since the government took office, 95,000 citizens have found jobs, whilst when it took office development was at minus 2 percent, whereas today it is at 3.5 percent. However some events or incidents are being exaggerated and depicted as evidence of a general state of extreme disruption, particularly in foreign media by Ben Ali regime loyalists. Indeed Ben Ali himself is trying to take revenge against the Tunisian revolution by putting forward the idea that we are destroying the country’s interests, economy and tourism.
The opposition in Tunisia is playing a dirty game; they have every right to oppose, but they do not have the right to incite violence.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that third parties want to ensure the failure of the Tunisian revolution? Do you believe these parties are responsible for the unrest and strikes?
[Ghannouchi] We have not proof, but we believe that the Zionist media is contributing to discrediting the reputation of the country, particularly after we hosted Khalid Mishal and Ismail Haniyeh. The Zionist lobby is broad-based and can do this. As for our international relations, we have no enmity towards any other country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have raised questions about the recent leaked video tape in which you feature, and in which you “reassure” Tunisia’s Salafists, saying quotes have been taken out of context. What is the reality behind this case? How was this tape leaked?
[Ghannouchi] This video was recorded in March, and was present on YouTube. It is 112 minutes long, but only 10 or 12 edited minutes of this has been used to discredit Ennahda movement rhetoric and attempt to spoil our relations with the political system, army and police. We view this as slander because our rhetoric is clear and unchanging and based on moderate Islam and the relationship between Islam and modernity, democracy and gender equality. These are the principles that our Islamist movement is based on.
What is happening now is an attempt to confuse our relationship with our allies, particularly the troika and the west, attempting to portray us as being similar to and allying with the Salafists; however we have a moderate record, as can be seen in terms of our views on the constitution. This can be seen in the issue of whether to include Islamic Sharia law or not, whilst Salafist parties have conducted several rallies to exert pressure on this issue, to the point that the country has almost been divided into two halves.
We saw the benefits of democratic transition, not to mention that the first draft of the constitution is sufficient, culturally and legislatively. Therefore what is important is not the text [of the constitution], but the soul and culture of the country. I lived in Britain for more than 20 years, which has no constitution, however the culture and awareness and law governed the people.
I have seen that we are in a battle over text that benefits nobody, and so I had no choice but to conduct dialogue with the Salafist groups to convince them to take part – within the framework of Islamic Sharia law – on the basis that they are political groups or involved in political operations or working in mosques…so why are they asking for more than this when they have obtained their freedoms and what is required now is to protect this and work within this framework?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A hardline Salafist figure, who took part in the attack on the US embassy and who remains at large, has threatened to establish a group to “protect the people in the event of unrest”, whilst the Tunisian Interior Ministry has been unable to arrest this figure despite the fact that he appeared in public on two separate occasions last month. Is this an example of the security weakness of the Tunisian state?
[Ghannouchi] I have no information about this figure breaking the law; however the law must be applied in the same manner that it is applied to the driver who runs a red light and is therefore stopped and questioned.
The question that must be asked here is: [Tunisian Interior Minister] Ali al-Areed was in hiding during the reign of the Ben Ali regime for six years and was not arrested. [Tunisian Communist leader] Hamma Hammami was able to remain at large for 3 years, despite the fact that security during the Ben Ali era considered itself to be strong and able to surmount any obstacles, whilst Bin Laden remained at large for around 15 or 20 years from the entire world, so why would you describe Tunisian security today in this manner?
As for his claims regarding the formation of committees, I do not know of any party in Tunisia that is armed, with the exception of the official parties.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Amnesty international issued a report this week describing Human Rights in Tunisia as “one step forwards, two steps backwards.” What is your view?
[Ghannouchi] Paradise is not on earth, but in the sky, and it is eminently possible and understandable for legal breaches or transgressions to take place, however we must distinguish whether the issue is fixed policy or isolated incidents. We do not deny that some cases of torture have been recorded, but these have been investigated, such as the case of the two police officers who assaulted a girl and who have now been imprisoned. So what more is wanted from the state?
We are an emerging democracy and are training in democracy and do not claim to own this or achieve this in the first year. We are learning and are not saying that our situation is perfect, however we confirm that there is nobody in Tunisia who is being suppressed, and there is no political party that is being marginalized; there are no political trials or outlawed or oppressed newspapers. These are the achievements of the revolution. The Tunisian situation is ideal and a model for the Arab world, and nobody should obscure these facts.