Ennahdha leader: we are committed to Tunisian democracy

Ennahdha leader: we are committed to Tunisian democracy
9 min read
Rachid Ghannouchi tells al-Araby al-Jadeed that his movement has a critical and evolving political role in Tunisia's democratic transition.
Ghannouchi says his movement has changed with the times [Al-Araby]

In an interview with al-Araby al-Jadeed, Rashid Ghannoushi, the leader of Ennahdha in Tunisia, stressed his country needs accord more than it needed a victor.

AAAJ: How do you assess the four years since the revolution?

RG: Politics can be evaluated through results, and the results of the last four years have been positive. Tunisia is a candle shining its light in the Arab Spring, a testament that Arabs are ready for democracy and that Islam is not incompatible with democracy. These years have been full of events and upheavals, yet an Arab people, in a turbulent environment, was able to overcome the obstacles in its way.

This is to the credit of Tunisians and the governments that led them throughout that period, and also to civil society, which sponsored the national dialogue that was in the end a lifeboat. We must appreciate that Ennahdha's role in this, without exaggeration, was crucial.

AAAJ: Many noticed that your attitude as leader of Ennahdha often changed. On what do you base your political positions?

Tunisia is a candle shining its light in the Arab Spring, a testament that Arabs are ready for democracy and that Islam is not incompatible with democracy.

RG: Many things. The first is Islam, as the frame of reference for our movement. But Islam gives us leeway to engage in jurisprudence and deal flexibly with a changing reality. Jurisprudence is crucial for Islam to remain valid. It is important to take reality into account while applying it.

The second is the fact it is necessary to deal with the balance of power, which by nature is changeable. This is what has been called political realism. The circumstances in which the revolution erupted and Ennahdha rose to power in 2011 are very different from the circumstances in which the movement signed the political roadmap in 2013.

Between these two milestones, many things happened. At the time, we won a relative majority in the Constituent Assembly, and political Islam was at the peak of its influence in the region. But the circumstances in which we signed the roadmap and gave up power came two months after the "Egyptian earthquake" were different, the movement for change in the region was in decline.

Essebsi and Tunisia: the support of Ben Ali's elites. Click to read more.

Egypt has great influence in the region. Failing to interact with the new balance of power would have led Tunisia to the brink of total collapse. It is sufficient in this context to consider other countries, such as Libya, which did not deal appropriately the balance of power in the region, and did not assimilate the implications of the Egyptian earthquake, despite being closest to it. Libya tried to press ahead with the same approach and as a result, it drowned in strife.

I believe the main problem in the experiences of other Arab countries is their failure to assimilate the implications of the changing balance of power in the region.

AAAJ: Does this mean that what happened in Egypt influenced you to change the movement's strategy?

RG: The situation in our country was already in crisis before the Egyptian revolts. The forces opposed to the Islamists in the Troika [a coalition government formed after the 2011 revolution] entered into an alliance with the remnants of the old regime, intent on overthrowing the Troika even if that meant undoing the entire democratic experience.

The Tunisian experience could have failed, and the house could have collapsed on all of us, if Ennahdha had not stepped down. We could have insisted on our electoral legitimacy, but we chose Tunisia's best interests and to safeguard the process that had started in Tunisia over that.

Ennahdha did not nominate a candidate in the
presidential election because it was the right
thing to do, Ghannouchi said[Al-Araby]

What happened in Egypt gave impetus to those wishing to undo what was happening in Tunisia. The Tunisian experience could have collapsed but Ennahdha prevented this, thanks to its move to relinquish power and the fact that it refrained from trying to "finish off" its historical opponents.

Ennahdha also refused to play the game of political exclusion, and did not set limits on the age of presidential candidates, which would have affected the candidacy of the current president, Beji Caid Essebsi, nor did it object to some of the sections of the electoral law.

AAAJ: All political entities in Tunisia faced many tests, but those Ennahdha faced were the toughest, given the repercussions within your ranks and your growing internal disputes.

RG: This was another challenge as well. Ennahdha is a movement governed by institutions. It is not a Sufi sect controlled by a sheikh. All our decisions are made through consultation. We believe Ennahdha is the Tunisian party that relies the most on consultation in the running of its affairs, which it does in the most open way possible. For this reason, our party's political machinery is constantly at work. Discussion takes time, our decisions are slow and are discussed thoroughly, even though the climate around us is not calm.

The number of members in our Shura Council is 150. They are most important authority in the party. Legally speaking, the council should convene every three months. However, recently it has meet much more often, convening 30 times, which is the equivalent of eight years of normal activity.

The same goes for the executive and political bureaus. This is an exhausting process, but it is why it is not possible for a split to take place in the movement: No one can leave Ennahdha and claim their opinion has not been heard. The movement could lose people, but there would be no split and it would not be divided.

As an example of this I could mention approving the dialogue with Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia, the largest party in parliament). In the beginning it was not easy to accept a dialogue with them, not to mention sharing power, the fact that Ennahdha did not nominate a candidate in the presidential election and its neutrality in the election.

All this was not easy, but because that approach was the right thing to do, it did not lead to an impasse. The last session of the Shura Council saw a majority of 62 voting in favour of a rapprochement with Nidaa Tounes, against 12 who voted against, as it was clear that was the right decision.

Essebsi and Tunisia: The nostalgia for past glories. Click to read more

AAAJ: How did you convince yourself to change your position from initially considering Nidaa Tounes to be more dangerous for the country than the Salafis, to entering an alliance to run politics with them?

RG: Religion does not prohibit an alliance with this or that party. The balance of power in the country changed. We previously had alliances with secular parties. Our interests determine political relations. Let us also not forget the balance of power had changed. At the beginning of 2013, we refused to sit with Nidaa Tounes in the first session of the national dialogue. But by the end of that year, we accepted the process, because the calculus had changed.

AAAJ: Are you concerned Nidaa Tounes could turn against you? Do you trust the party that much?

RG: I have no confidence in that party, but I am confident in the Tunisian people who staged the revolution. There was a new collective mindset that liberated people from fear, made them confident in themselves and their abilities, and made them feel they could make their own decisions. They saw powerful presidents flee or be imprisoned. Those who think the old regime has returned are wrong. The regime is not a certain group of people, it is the idea of the one party with an the undisputed leader, and its propagandist media. It is the elections where the president gets 99 percent of the vote, it is the money monopolised by the ruling dynasty. The sun of the revolution has set on all of this.

Those who think the old regime has returned are wrong. The regime is not a group of people, it is the idea of the one party with an the undisputed leader.

Yes, I addressed claims about the return of the old regime and rebutted them. I objected to conflating the old regime's Constitutional Democratic Rally with Nidaa Tounes because it is wrong. Those who used the slogan "Raise your head, you are a Rallyist" were ignored and rejected by the people, who refuse to return to the days of the old regime. The people also rejected those who raised radical revolutionary slogans, called for the overthrow of all elements of the former regime, rejected national dialogue and accord and conflated the deposed former regime with some of its elements, which might become part of the new regime.

This happens in all revolutions, because the people are keen on their unity and are afraid to head toward civil war. The national dialogue reassured people, who saw their neighbours fighting because of their divisions. I believe that all those who accepted the new constitution and placed themselves below the umbrella of the revolution are safe, and as citizens enjoy their full rights. Indeed, the governments produced by the revolution licensed these parties, so how can we reject dialogue with them? This is illogical, because otherwise the question would be, who would we have dialogue with instead?

AAAJ: Dialogue is one thing and an alliance is another. Would being in the opposition not be more convenient for you?

RG: The left suggested we remain in the opposition. This would be convenient, a comfortable position. And it is also true that a democratic system requires an authority and an opposition without which democracy would be unbalanced. However, we are in an emerging democracy.

What we need the most is accord, not for one party to prevail over the other. This is the major breakthrough produced by the national dialogue, while other Arab countries have not seen such a breakthrough.

AAAJ: Who do you trust more, Nidaa as a party or Essebsi?

RG: My confidence is in the people who will not accept a return to tyranny. Essebsi understood this message because he is a seasoned, experienced politician.

AAAJ: Will Ennahdha be in the new government?

RG: We are in negotiations. We believe it would be in the country's interest for us to be in the next government, as much as the presence of other factions in the government would be.

AAAJ: What is behind your great confidence in Habid Essid as prime minister?

RG: Essid served in the Troika government. Everyone attests to his competence and honesty.

AAAJ: Do you have conditions regarding the ministries you would like to control?

RG: No, we do not have any conditions for participating in the government.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.