Rachid Ghannouchi's entourage hand out memorial medallions featuring images of An Nahda supporters who died in prison. Silvia Razgova / The National
Rachid Ghannouchi's entourage hand out memorial medallions featuring images of An Nahda supporters who died in prison. Silvia Razgova / The National

Dormant political force seeks recognition again in Tunisia

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.


Company name: Almouneer
Started: 2017
Founders: Dr Noha Khater and Rania Kadry
Based: Egypt
Number of staff: 120
Investment: Bootstrapped, with support from Insead and Egyptian government, seed round of
$3.6 million led by Global Ventures


Round 1: Beat Leolia Jeanjean 6-1, 6-2
Round 2: Beat Naomi Osaka 7-6, 1-6, 7-5
Round 3: Beat Marie Bouzkova 6-4, 6-2
Round 4: Beat Anastasia Potapova 6-0, 6-0
Quarter-final: Beat Marketa Vondrousova 6-0, 6-2
Semi-final: Beat Coco Gauff 6-2, 6-4
Final: Beat Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 6-2

Confirmed bouts (more to be added)

Cory Sandhagen v Umar Nurmagomedov
Nick Diaz v Vicente Luque
Michael Chiesa v Tony Ferguson
Deiveson Figueiredo v Marlon Vera
Mackenzie Dern v Loopy Godinez

Tickets for the August 3 Fight Night, held in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, went on sale earlier this month, through www.etihadarena.ae and www.ticketmaster.ae.


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July 16, 1995: Amazon formally opens as an online bookseller. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought becomes the first item sold on Amazon

1997: Amazon goes public at $18 a share, which has grown about 1,000 per cent at present. Its highest closing price was $197.85 on June 27, 2024

1998: Amazon acquires IMDb, its first major acquisition. It also starts selling CDs and DVDs

2000: Amazon Marketplace opens, allowing people to sell items on the website

2002: Amazon forms what would become Amazon Web Services, opening the Amazon.com platform to all developers. The cloud unit would follow in 2006

2003: Amazon turns in an annual profit of $75 million, the first time it ended a year in the black

2005: Amazon Prime is introduced, its first-ever subscription service that offered US customers free two-day shipping for $79 a year

2006: Amazon Unbox is unveiled, the company's video service that would later morph into Amazon Instant Video and, ultimately, Amazon Video

2007: Amazon's first hardware product, the Kindle e-reader, is introduced; the Fire TV and Fire Phone would come in 2014. Grocery service Amazon Fresh is also started

2009: Amazon introduces Amazon Basics, its in-house label for a variety of products

2010: The foundations for Amazon Studios were laid. Its first original streaming content debuted in 2013

2011: The Amazon Appstore for Google's Android is launched. It is still unavailable on Apple's iOS

2014: The Amazon Echo is launched, a speaker that acts as a personal digital assistant powered by Alexa

2017: Amazon acquires Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, its biggest acquisition

2018: Amazon's market cap briefly crosses the $1 trillion mark, making it, at the time, only the third company to achieve that milestone

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Stars: Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte

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When: July 1
Where: Gelsenkirchen Stadium, Gelsenkirchen, Germany

England 0 Portugal 0
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T20 Cricketer of the Year+– Tammy Beaumont+(England)


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8.15pm Singspiel Stakes Group Two (TB) $250,000 (T) 1,800m

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Isaac Sackler and Sophie Greenberg were Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York before the First World War. They had three sons. The first, Arthur, died before OxyContin was invented. The second, Mortimer, who died aged 93 in 2010, was a former chief executive of Purdue Pharma. The third, Raymond, died aged 97 in 2017 and was also a former chief executive of Purdue Pharma. 

It was Arthur, a psychiatrist and pharmaceutical marketeer, who started the family business dynasty. He and his brothers bought a small company called Purdue Frederick; among their first products were laxatives and prescription earwax remover.

Arthur's branch of the family has not been involved in Purdue for many years and his daughter, Elizabeth, has spoken out against it, saying the company's role in America's drugs crisis is "morally abhorrent".

The lawsuits that were brought by the attorneys general of New York and Massachussetts named eight Sacklers. This includes Kathe, Mortimer, Richard, Jonathan and Ilene Sackler Lefcourt, who are all the children of either Mortimer or Raymond. Then there's Theresa Sackler, who is Mortimer senior's widow; Beverly, Raymond's widow; and David Sackler, Raymond's grandson.

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Rating: ★★★★


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Women's squad: Hamda Al Shekheili, Shouq Al Dhanhani, Balqis Abdullah, Sharifa Al Namani, Asma Al Hosani, Maitha Sultan, Bashayer Al Matrooshi, Maha Al Hanaei, Shamma Al Kalbani, Haya Al Jahuri, Mahra Mahfouz, Marwa Al Hosani, Tasneem Al Jahoori and Maryam Al Amri

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Race card:

6.30pm: Maiden; Dh165,000; 2,000m

7.05pm: Handicap; Dh165,000; 2,200m

7.40pm: Conditions; Dh240,000; 1,600m

8.15pm: Handicap; Dh190,000; 2,000m

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Best Men's Club of the Year: Chelsea

Best Women's Club of the Year: Barcelona

Best Defender of the Year: Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus/Italy)

Best Goalkeeper of the Year: Gianluigi Donnarumma (PSG/Italy)

Best Coach of the Year: Roberto Mancini (Italy)

Best National Team of the Year: Italy

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Liverpool 2
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  • Natural and grey hair takes colour differently than chemically treated hair
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  • When choosing a colour (especially a lighter tone), allow for a natural lift of warmth
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Developer: SMG Studio
Publisher: Team17
Consoles: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4&5, PC and Xbox One
Rating: 4/5

The specs

Engine: 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6

Power: 380hp at 5,800rpm

Torque: 530Nm at 1,300-4,500rpm

Transmission: Eight-speed auto

Price: From Dh299,000 ($81,415)

On sale: Now

The specs

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo

Power: 268hp at 5,600rpm

Torque: 380Nm at 4,800rpm

Transmission: CVT auto

Fuel consumption: 9.5L/100km

On sale: now

Price: from Dh195,000


Name: SmartCrowd
Started: 2018
Founder: Siddiq Farid and Musfique Ahmed
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech / PropTech
Initial investment: $650,000
Current number of staff: 35
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Various institutional investors and notable angel investors (500 MENA, Shurooq, Mada, Seedstar, Tricap)

Profile of Whizkey

Date founded: 04 November 2017

Founders: Abdulaziz AlBlooshi and Harsh Hirani

Based: Dubai, UAE

Number of employees: 10+

Sector: AI, software

Cashflow: Dh2.5 Million+ 

Funding stage: Series A

Bridgerton season three - part one

Directors: Various

Starring: Nicola Coughlan, Luke Newton, Jonathan Bailey

Rating: 3/5

Everton Fixtures

April 15 - Chelsea (A)
April 21 - N. Forest (H)
April 24 - Liverpool (H)
April 27 - Brentford (H)
May 3 - Luton Town (A)
May 11 - Sheff Utd (H)
May 19 - Arsenal (A)

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Starring: Ramez Galal

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