Islamists will not pose a threat to a possible democratic transformation in Tunisia following the toppling of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, said experts on Islamic opposition movements.
“This is a popular uprising. We do not claim to be its architects nor do not we want to hijack the uprising by any means,” Hamadi Jebali, spokesperson of the Nahda movement, which had previously established itself as the secular ruling regime’s strongest contender in Tunisia, told Al-Masry Al-Youm in a phone interview from Tunisia.
As soon as Rachid Ghannouchi, the self-exiled leader of Tunisia’s main Islamist opposition group, heard wind of the collapse of Ben Ali’s 23-year-old dictatorship in Tunisia last week, he announced that he would return home.
For over 20 years, the 70-year-old leader of the Nahda movement has lived in self-exile in Britain. During that period, his group was systematically harassed with tens of thousands of members jailed, persecuted or forced out of Tunisia.
Ghannouchi’s return and the possible establishment of a new democratic order are expected to reinvigorate the group and allow Islamists to once more rise to the fore as crucial political players. While such a scenario might arouse fear of western secularists that Islamists might hijack the uprising–as did Islamists in Iran following the Iranian Revolution in 1979–and pose a threat to genuine democratic rule, the group attempts to preempt such fears by reaffirming its full commitment to pluralism and democracy. The same assurances are voiced by experts on Tunisian Islamists who hold that the Nahda offers an exceptionally promising Islamist case.
“The Islamic movement has made its principles clear,” added Jebali, who had spent 16 years in Ben Ali’s prisons. “We are for a civil, free society where liberties are guaranteed for all. We are for pluralism, the respect of human rights and the respect of the people’s will.”
So far, no party inside or outside Tunisia–except Israel– has voiced apprehension over the potential rise of Islamists. Israeli Minister of Regional Development Silvan Shalom was quoted in the Israeli press as saying: "The international community had chosen to ignore the violations of human rights (perpetrated by Ben Ali's regime) but there is great fear that the Islamist movements that were far outside the law are now returning in force.”
In 1981, Ghannouchi announced the formation of the Islamic Tendency Movement in Tunisia, the precursor of the Nahda movement. The group started to attract thousands of Tunisians in a country that began undergoing radical secularization upon gaining independence in 1957. The nation’s first president Habib Bourguiba steadfastly worked to marginalize Islam and disseminate western values. He encouraged Tunisians to refrain from fasting, banned women from wearing the hijab, abolished Shari'ah courts and closed down the famous Islamic University of al-Zaytouna. In the meantime, he persecuted Islamists and jailed scores of them including Ghannouchi himself.
"In Tunisia, religion was excluded from people’s lives. Its presence diminished in people’s houses and dress. This was very dangerous,” said Jebali. Still, the Nahda is not opposed to secularism per se, he added.
“Secularism is a broad concept. There is the extremist model of French Laicism and the more open Anglo-Saxon model. If secularism means respecting liberties and human rights and people’s will, then secularism is fine."
“But if secularism is based on oppression and despotism and excluding religion from all aspects of life including social and family life, this is not acceptable. This is a form of dictatorship,” he explained.
While the group dismissed Bourguiba’s westernization policies as a threat to Muslim identity, they had endorsed western modes of governance.
Unlike Islamist leaders in other parts of the Muslim world, Ghannouchi demonstrates a solid understanding of a genuinely inclusive democracy that does not discriminate against any political force, including secular parties. He maintains that political legitimacy should be derived only from the ballot box. He also calls for a genuine multi-party system and the peaceful transition of power.
“Ghannouchi was the first [Islamist] to talk about liberties,” said Azzam Tamimi, the author of Ghannouchi’s biography and an expert on his group. “He compared the concept of freedom in western thought and Islamic thought and managed to reach a common ground.”
“He does not talk about an Islamic state versus a non-Islamic state but he talks about a state for the people. To him, an Islamic state is a state that respects people’s ambitions,” added the London-based expert.
Ghannouchi’s group made it clear that Islamists should recognize the legitimacy of a secular or a communist government as long as the people elect it. Such a sophisticated outlook makes the group distinguishable from their Egyptian fellow Islamists, according to Hossam Tamam, an Egyptian political expert on Islamism.
“The Nahda ideas make it more of a true political movement that can sense and react to surrounding realities rather than a dogmatic ideological organization,” said Tamam.
After releasing their political program in 2007, it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood still endorses a dogmatic model of an Islamic state where Shari’ah is enforced by clerics, where religious minorities are not guaranteed the same rights as Muslims, and where women are held as inferior citizens.
In contrast, the Nahda has expressed “its full endorsement” of citizenship rights, modernity and has recognized the different other, according to Tamam.
“If you compare Ghannouchi with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, you would find that he is a true thinker of a high intellectual value. Yet, Muslim Brotherhood leaders only write books that have a missionary and instructional tone,” said Tamam.
Tamami seconds his fellow analyst in Cairo on the significance of Ghannouchi’s intellectual contributions.
“Rachid Ghannouchi is a political thinker and leader in one breath,” said Tamimi. “It is rare to find someone like him among the Muslim Brotherhood…
“This duality makes Ghannouchi more open to different ideas. He himself admits that he learned from communism, secularism and even the Iranian revolution,” explained Tamami.
After Ben Ali toppled Bourguiba in 1987, Islamists had a short honeymoon with the ruling regime. In an attempt to establish himself as liberal ruler, Ben Ali promised to embark on genuine political openness. In 1988, Ghannouchi and most of his colleagues were freed and encouraged to turn their movement into a political party. Eventually, the group changed its name to the Nahda movement dropping the word "Islamic" as laws stipulated that no party could be founded on religious grounds. But their strong showing in the 1989 legislative elections was quite alarming to Ben Ali. Nahda candidates succeeded to establish themselves as the largest opposition bloc in parliament as they garnered 14.6 percent of the vote nationwide and 30 percent in Tunis while other opposition political parties garnered less than 5 percent combined of the total votes. The results embarrassed the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally who longed for every seat. Eventually, Ben Ali decided to imprison tens of thousands of Islamists.
Disenchanted by the harassment of his group, Ghannouchi decided in the same year to enter self-exile in Britain where he could openly criticize Tunisian autocratic rule.
According to Tamam, the Muslim Brotherhood faced a similar persecution in the 1950s and 1960s. While harassment made Egyptian Islamists less prone to revise their conservative ideology and more averse to pluralism, imprisonment and displacement pushed Nahda Islamists to embrace more liberal views, according to Tamam.
The key factor explaining this divergence is the level of openness to the west, said Tamam. “The self-exile of Muslim Brotherhood leaders was in the Gulf countries, so they came back to Egypt with Salafi thinking. Yet, Nahda leaders were exiled in Europe where they engaged with [western] ideas.”
Yet, whether the ideas developed in western exile still have a wide appeal at home is a crucial question, according to Ashraf al-Sherif, a political scientist with the American University in Cairo.
“The million dollar question now is whether young Nahda cadres based in Tunisia still believe in democracy and have not become more conservative, and whether Ghannouchi and the historical leaders of the group who lived in exile are still influential,” said al-Sherif.
Now that Ghannouchi intends to head back to Tunisia, Tunisian non-Islamist civil society activists do not seem threatened by the potential rise of Islamists.
“The Tunisian society is Muslim but it also has secularists. In the same Tunisian family, you can find an Islamist and a secularist,” Jelloul Azounna, the head of the Tunisian Free Writers’ Association told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “There is no way one political faction could dominate others.”
Such a balance does not exist in Egypt, holds Tamam. “In Tunisia, there are strong secular and leftist movements unlike the case in Egypt where the left is reduced to five people in a kiosk called the Tagammu’ party and the liberal wing is only present in coffee shops,” contended Tamam.
Yet, the situation remains unstable in Tunisia. Thousands of Tunisians took to the streets today objecting to including members of Ben Ali’s party in the new national unity government. It still remains to be seen how event will play out in the near future.