Exiled leader of Tunisian Islamist party returning to role in 'new era of democracy'


AFTER MORE than two decades in exile in London, the leader of Tunisia’s largest Islamist movement intends to return to his home country tomorrow to resurrect his party so that it can play a role in what he calls a “new era of democracy”.

“We hope the era of monopoly and despotism is now over, to be replaced by a new era of pluralism, free from any exclusion or persecution. [Our] priority is to work, alongside others, to establish a genuine democratic system in Tunisia, built on a real separation of powers, accountability and democracy,” Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the An-Nahda party, told The Irish Times. He said An-Nahda, which means means “renaissance” in Arabic, is “not seeking to govern” Tunisia.

“A coalition consensus-based democracy is the way forward and the best guarantee against political monopoly by one person, one party, or one force.”

Asked if he would like to see Tunisia become an Islamic republic, Mr Ghannouchi said: “We have made it clear that the highest priority on our agenda is the guaranteeing of freedom: freedom of expression, association and political participation; freedom of conscience; freedom from any form of discrimination; freedom to choose one’s representatives; and equal citizenship, including equality between the sexes. That is the society we aspire to and will work for, together with all other parties which share these values.”

Asked if he considers the ruling party in Turkey, which also has Islamist roots, a model to which to aspire, he said: “We believe each country has its own specificities, history, traditions and needs. Our model is one based on the principles of democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law and social justice, as inspired by our Islamic roots.”

He acknowledged that much has changed since An-Nahda gained 17 per cent of the vote in Tunisia’s 1989 election only to be banned and all but snuffed out by the regime of the now deposed Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali.

“After two decades of repression . . . and the absence of real political life in the country, it is not possible to assess the level of support for any party,” he said. “What we hope for is to see the beginning of a new democratic era where there is no exclusion, repression or monopoly and where all parties will be free to contribute to real democratic reform in our country.

“We have remained committed to the principles of democratic change, political reform and social justice which, as we have seen, are the key demands of the Tunisian people today.”

He said he would not be standing for any political office when he returned to Tunisia. He hopes to pass on the leadership of the party “to the younger generations” during a forthcoming internal ballot.

“I see my role as contributing, intellectually, to the democratic transition in Tunisia and establishing a culture of civic responsibility and a thriving civil society to enable genuine participation,” he said.

Mr Ghannouchi, who was given three life sentences under the Ben Ali regime, said he hoped a general amnesty would be introduced shortly.

Asked how he would compare An-Nahda to other regional Islamist movements, including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he said: “The spectrum of Islamic movements is as broad and diverse as that of, for instance, leftist movements, while sharing a broad common background and inspiration. An-Nahda sees itself as part of that spectrum, being inspired by and rooted in Islamic culture, but it is not identical to or limited to that spectrum.

“We draw on many inspirations from our specific Tunisian context, history and culture.”

On Tunisia’s future relations with the European Union, given the support Ben Ali had from several member states, he said Europe had “turned a blind eye” to the regime’s repression and human rights abuses. “[It] did so because Ben Ali presented himself as the guarantor of Europe’s economic and security interests.

“Europe has the right to seek its interests, but this should not be done at the expense of its founding principles, as that is both unethical and ultimately counter productive. We must go beyond these unbalanced relationships based on pure expediency to create more sustainable, balanced long-term relations built on mutual respect and dignity.”