The leader of the North African country’s largest political party defends it against accusations that it poses a threat to secularism in the birthplace of the Arab Spring
by Robert Fisk, The Independent
When Rached Ghannouchi met Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali – before Mr Ghannouchi wisely exiled himself to London as an enemy of the dictatorship – a very odd thing happened. “He didn’t look me in the eye,” Mr Ghannouchi said. “He didn’t speak that much. But when I was with him, they brought coffee for both of us.
“I was talking and he was silent and listening, then he surprised me. He switched the coffee cups round. He gave me the coffee that he had, and took the coffee that I had, saying: ‘Did you have some doubt about the coffee?’ But this never crossed my mind! So I switched the coffees back again and took the one I was originally given.”
Odd indeed. It must have been the first time in history that a dictator thought his guest feared being poisoned. And at this very moment in our conversation, a lady entered Mr Ghannouchi’s office with cups of coffee. Don’t switch the cups, I warned him. The point was not lost. But Mr Ghannouchi is not a naturally humorous man and he spends a lot of his time these days trying to persuade his antagonists that – as founder and leader of the country’s largest party, Ennahda – his doesn’t want an Islamist state in Tunisia.
Only 24 hours earlier, a Tunisian law professor, Jamil Sayah, had written a long and thunderous article in La Presse de Tunis suggesting that the difference between Mr Ghannouchi and the majority of Tunisians was that “the head of Ennahda wants to Islamicise modernity while Tunisians want to modernise Islam”. I don’t think Mr Ghannouchi had read the article – like most reports in Tunisian newspapers, it was at least 2,000 words long – but he went for the bait.
“He (Sayah) is the one who wants this,” he said. “I don’t believe Tunisians want to change Islam but they want to be modern while being Muslims. Islam is a modern religion, We don’t need any surgery on Islam to make it modern. From the beginning, Islam was a pluralistic religion. From the beginning, Islam believed in freedom of religion and conscience, in the legitimacy of the state in a contract between the citizens and the state.”
So what about the mysterious video – it was the last question on my list but was not set as a trap – that surfaced early this year and showed the slightly rotund figure of Mr Ghannouchi greeting Salafist leaders and caused an avalanche of condemnation to fall about Mr Ghannouchi’s head?
The video, originally made last March and released on YouTube – then re-edited in order to represent Ennahda as a threat to secular Tunisia – has gone the rounds of the country. And Mr Ghannouchi’s explanation shows him to be as ruthless as he is apparently pragmatic.
“The context during which this meeting took place was the big debate in Tunisia around sharia, whether to include sharia as a source in the constitution or not,” he said.
“The Salafists had organised big demonstrations to demand the inclusion of sharia, and at the same time the secular elites felt threatened by these calls.”
Tunisia was dangerously divided. Even within Ennahda, there were divisions and its 71-year-old leader – who returned after 20 years in British exile to participate in his country’s revolution – said that he had to react “forcefully” and immediately began a large number of meetings with the Salafis. “I had to convince them,” he said, “that the way people understood sharia wasn’t very clear – that the term ‘sharia’ had been linked to many applications that went wrong in Afghanistan and in some other places.
“I was afraid that sharia was being preached about as anti-women’s rights, anti-human rights, anti-equality and anti-freedom. I was trying to convince them [the Salafis] that constitutions are based not on what divides people but what unites them. So if there’s a lack of clarity on the issue of sharia, if there is a division around it, then it shouldn’t be let out. I was trying to convince them that the revolution had provided them with freedom. They used to be in prison, but now they have freedom to operate in society and through community organisations, in the mosques and by setting up charities and associations.”