Dormant political force seeks recognition again in Tunisia

The Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi has returned from decades of exile, sparking fears that the country's secular system may soon be challenged, as support for his Al Nahda party grows.

Rachid Ghannouchi's entourage hand out memorial medallions featuring images of An Nahda supporters who died in prison. Silvia Razgova / The National
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Lunchtime on a weekend in Tunis and a crowd of young people have gathered to see the leader of a political party debate with a professor of Islamic civilisation in a theatre more used to hosting poetry recitals and arty French films.

But this is no ordinary political leader. The speaker everyone has come to see is Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the country's leading Islamist party An Nahda (Renaissance). Until a few weeks ago, Ghannouchi had spent two decades in exile in London and the party he leads had been outlawed by the Tunisian state. Its members were jailed, its activists hunted, its publications banned. An Nahda was the spook story of the regime, the stick President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali used to terrify a population: it's me or them, he warned both Tunisians and the outside world.

In person, there appears little terrifying about this 70-year-old man.

The theatre is full to bursting, with more crowds packing the foyer and the cobbled courtyard outside. For a figure of fear, Ghannouchi is a popular spectacle. His supporters are vocal but more than half the audience is defiantly silent. The professor, who speaks first, interrogates Ghannouchi, telling him people are afraid of his party. Neila Silini is not a well-known figure, but as a professor of Islam she is seen as someone who might be able to pin down the "Sheikh" (as Ghannouchi is known) on matters of theology.

"There has been a fear," admits Ghannouchi, speaking softly in Arabic, "inspired by the mafia that ran the country, that Islam is against women, against law. But after the revolution, this fear should go. The people who created the revolution should not be afraid of anything." Ostentatious cheers erupt from sections of the audience.

Outside, Amin Abdelkhalek, 30, admits he has come just to hear what Ghannouchi has to say, even though he has made up his mind.

"I believe he has a double discourse, as we say in French. It's a very dangerous situation if they win or get in power."

An entrepreneur, Abdelkhalek is part of the new Tunisia, the vanguard of the country that rose up and ousted Ben Ali. Defiantly secular, for him the idea of religion in politics is anathema. "I'm not especially against An Nahda, but all types of mixing of politics and religion." An Nadha, he says, is appealing to people's emotions rather than their reason.

Renaissance is being remade. After popular protests forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia in January, the party was legalised after more than two decades underground. Al-Fajr (Dawn), the party's newspaper, is publishing again, after being banned for years. The organisation's Tunis headquarters are a hive of activity.

An Nahda has re-emerged into a changed world. The Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the party of Ben Ali, the only major political force in the country, has been disbanded, its cavernous headquarters abandoned. In bookshops, newly published books depict Ben Ali as Hitler and outline the excesses of his family. Daily gatherings of people debate politics in a way unthinkable just weeks ago.

Speaking a few days after the event at the Al Hamra theatre, Ghannouchi says that the fear among those who dislike An Nahda is driven by political disagreement.

"They don't accept that our movement is the most popular," he says. "They don't accept this reality. Because they think that Ben Ali's regime has finished us. They have lived more than 20 years without us, so when we come back, with this popularity, they are afraid."

He compares the situation to apartheid-era South Africa, with, as he sees it, a secular minority ruling a religious majority.

"Some secularists are extreme secularists. They don't accept that Tunisia is for all Tunisians, without any exceptions, without any expulsions. They used to dominate this country and impose their model of life. We accept that there are secular people but they don't accept that there are Islamist people in the country."

Ghannouchi is still heavily guarded. His return from exile was not looked on favourably by Ben Ali loyalists and An Nahda are taking no chances. His entourage offer me one of the memorial medallions they distribute to supporters. These small trinkets feature images of party supporters who died in the prisons of Ben Ali. "Those who honour the martyrs follow in their footsteps," reads the Arabic inscription. Such images are a reminder that perhaps thousands were imprisoned and tortured only for their political beliefs.

Both Ben Ali and Habib Bourghiba, his predecessor as president, saw secularist policies as the best way to govern Tunisia, but Ben Ali was spooked by Islamist political movements, especially after a strong showing by An Nahda in the 1989 elections.

Ben Ali sought to remove any trace of the party. Even too much devotion to Islam was seen as suspicious. Men were jailed for years, had their youth and their families taken from them, merely for their perceived opinions. For Ben Ali loyalists, this was the price of secularism; it is more likely it was the price for his rule.

In a curious way, being hunted helped An Nahda. It forged the organisational discipline that has allowed it to rapidly dominate Tunisia's new political landscape. The party benefits from being seen as the victim of a despised regime, in contrast to other political parties that functioned alongside the RCD and are thus somewhat tainted by association.Moreover, Ben Ali sought to entrench his rule by removing disagreement from the arena of politics. This depoliticisation allowed An Nahda to create a rival intellectual framework in a way none of the legal parties could do. This is perhaps the most interesting part of An Nahda's rise, that they have placed their ideas within a separate intellectual tradition - that of Islamism - within which their policies seem reasonable.

Being outlawed freed An Nahda from the requirement to field solutions to political and economic problems. It could argue that Islam offered an answer to the corruption of the regime, without needing to explain what their political plans were for the bread and butter issues of government.

How much these advantages will aid the party at the ballot box remains to be seen. Tunisians will vote on July 24 for an assembly to rewrite the constitution and pave the way for presidential elections soon after. An Nahda have said they will not stand for the presidency, but there is no doubt they will be a force in parliament.

Maya Jribi, leader of the Progressive Democratic Party, the main opposition party during Ben Ali's reign, says there will be two political blocks, modernist republicans and the Islamists of An Nahda. Her party will be the likely heir to the extreme secular feeling among Tunisia's youth.

No one knows what the percentage of support will be. When I ask Rachid Ghannouchi, he simply says, "Only the elections can respond to your question." Most political watchers, however, assume the Islamists will win a significant share of the vote.

But not the formidable Jribi. When asked what changes might occur in Tunisian society if An Nahda were to win the elections, she refuses to contemplate the question. "Nahda will not win a big majority," she shrugs. Pushed, Jribi concedes that a rise in Islamism might threaten some essential rights: "Women's rights. The separation of government and religion. And the economic situation. So," she ends with a rhetorical flourish, "Tunisia."

What the secularists fear most is that the gains of the past few decades might be eroded with Islamists in power, or that, once installed in power, they will refuse to respect the constitution. In particular, those who enjoy the fruits of Tunisia's vibrant, secular society, the women who work freely and have legal guarantees on education and employment, or those who follow their faith in their own way, fear what changes Islamists might make.

When I meet Ghannouchi, I push him on this question, on the suggestion among secularists that if An Nahda wins power it will make laws that suit its movement. His answer is withering: "Do you think there is a parliament in the world that cannot change the law? Who can give you a guarantee that law will not be changed by the parliament?"

Ghannouchi's dismissal of the question speaks to the heart of the rather odd dialogue that has grown up since Ben Ali fled. The secularists, broadly speaking, feel themselves to be a minority and worry that democracy might undermine their position. They seek guarantees in advance from An Nahda that certain rights will not be changed by a new government, regardless of what the electorate want.

And An Nahda have said, publicly, that they will respect human rights, respect the constitution, respect personal status laws, protect the rights of minorities. Beyond that, there is little they can say to convince Tunisians who oppose them, who fear a Tunisia governed by An Nahda will look more like Iran than Turkey.

But the heart of the matter is that the Islamists of An Nahda have a different vision of what the good society is like, a vision that potentially millions of Tunisians might share but millions more oppose. As with the audience at the theatre, Tunisians are divided, with some resolutely against that vision, however expressed, whatever guarantees are offered.

In a matter of weeks, the Renaissance party has successfully remade itself. The concern of some now is that they may be about to remake Tunisia.

Faisal al Yafai is a columnist at The National.