Interview transcript: Rachid Ghannouchi
Published: January 18 2011 11:47
Last updated: January 18 2011 11:47
The Financial Times interviewed Rachid Ghannouchi, exiled leader of Tunisia’s Nahda party, in London. The interview was conducted on Sunday evening, just before a new unity government was announced in Tunis.
FT: A government is about to be formed in Tunisia following the fall of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali. It includes parties that are there, on the ground, and you are not there. How is Nahda going to find a way to be involved on the ground?
RG: The government that is to be announced tomorrow is a continuation of the 7 November era. This is not a rupture with that era. The revolution wanted a rupture with that era. The revolution was against a dictator and the era of 7 November. But the faces we see are the same faces of the old regime with some new faces from the official opposition.
FT: How would you describe this current stage? Is it just the beginning of the end of the Ben Ali era or do you feel that perhaps the revolution is not yet completed?
RG: There are many contradictory wills within this government. Perhaps some of those participating in this process such as Najib Chebbi (opposition leader) believe that this is the path for moving from the dictatorship to a democracy. Some of the others, the ruling party and the domestic opposition see democracy as just a facade for the dictatorial system and indeed an attempt to contain the revolution.
FT: This is all new for Tunisians, the end of the Ben Ali era. How can you make a very strong break today from the system, when there is nothing to replace it? Don’t you need this type of transition period?
RG: Basing the transition on the (current) constitution to build a democratic system is a futile attempt to build democracy from dictatorship because only God can bring out life from death. We cannot bring out a democratic system out of this corrupt, dictatorial system. We have to put an end to the authoritarian system and start a new one. Basing this transition on Article 56 or 57 is a continuation of the old system. The constitution was a tyranny, the state was reduced to one man, who had in his hands the executive, judicial and legislative powers and was not accountable to anyone. How can such a constitution point towards building a democratic system, even as a starting point.
The first step of building a democratic system is to build a democratic constitution. For this we need a founding council for rebuilding the state, one in which political parties, the trade unions and the civil society join. This council will rebuild the democratic constitution and will be the basis for building the democratic system.
FT: But who will decide who takes part? Ben Ali controlled so much as you know but now that he’s gone, political parties that are there are very weak, trade unions are weak, who will bring people together?
RG: Who made this revolution? It is the people who made this revolution.This revolution was not made by an angry, out-of-control mob. There are 250, 000 university graduates who are in fact the basis for this revolution. It is not angry, uneducated people. They were the base of this revolution with their creative ways of using the internet and other media. As to the trade unions, it’s true that their leadership has been subservient (to the regime) but the regional union headquarters were the centre of the protests and they led the revolution.
The lawyers also led the main protest marches and these are important bodies which were later joined by the opposition towards the end. There are still important civil society institutions, lawyers, trade unions, political parties, the representative bodies of unemployed graduates and it is them who (could potentially) support the constitutional council. What we see is that they are not present in this (current) transition.
FT: Are you in contact with the other leaders in the opposition? Have you been consulting with them?
RG: We as a member of the October 18 movement which we founded in 2005 and it brings together parties and civil society institutions, including Nejib Chebbi from the Progressive Democratic Party, the Tunisian Communist Workers Party, and the Conference for the Republic and other human rights organisations. This was founded in 2005 for one simple demand: to call for freedom of expression and association for everyone and for recognising the rights of all parties.
Later when we developed this coalition, to elaborate this joint intellectual basis we produced several papers which all members of this movement agree on and embrace. The first was a paper on philosophical pluralism. There is no limit to pluralism except not embracing violence, and giving the rights to anyone to found the party.
The second was the rights of women because the government used to always say to frighten people away that (the Islamists) will take away the rights of women. Then we had to reassure others in this coalition who were being accused of working with the Islamists. And we all recognise, we accept the personal status code and will not cancel it or refuse it. Indeed we had expressed this since 1988 on 17 July where I made a statement in which I recognised the personal status code.
Another paper was on the freedom of conscience, to address the allegations that Islamists will be using the punishment for apostasy and will kill people for what they believe. The paper recognised that Tunisians have the freedom to believe in anything, to leave or embrace any faith, as faith is a personal matter. On the basis of these papers the coalition moved from no longer being a short-term political coalition, but a social project for society.
For the Tunisia that we are working for, one in which women enjoy equality, people can establish and join any party and they have the freedom to believe any faith.
FT: Have you been talking to some of the leaders over the past two days? Is there any coordination?
RG: Yes we are in communication with members of this coalition…. However with the recent developments in the county, differences have appeared between members of the coalition, in their evaluation of the situation. In that Nejib Chebbi two days before the fall of Ben Ali met with the former prime minister, who is indeed has been currently re-installed as the interim prime minister. This was Ben Ali’s last trick to try to remain in power, to call for forming a national unity government. So indeed what we see now, this national unity government, was planned by Ben Ali. Chebbi agreed to meet the Prime Minister, (others) rejected this.
FT: What is the representation of Nahda today in Tunisia? It was a long time ago that you were there...do you think people are still attached to Nahda?
RG: Only elections can reveal that. In the West the popularity of a party is judged through elections – they may have 10, 20 or 30 per cent of the vote. Anyone can claim 99 per cent popularity. When the ban on parties is lifted (in Tunisia) only then can we can judge the success and failure of parties or the extent of their popularity.
I could tell you that we are very popular, but how would you believe that? There are new generations now who have not had the opportunity to be familiar with Nahda and nor does Nahda know them. We have not had the opportunity to address or influence them.
We expect that many still remember us. The crackdown on Nahda was very severe, and there is not a family in Tunisia who hasn’t had one of its members because of association with Nahda, imprisoned, lost their jobs or been exiled (for political reasons).
One of our members was recently killed in the latest protest. He was (first) abducted, then killed.
Thirty thousand of our members and sympathisers were imprisoned in the beginning of the 90s. There was a crusade against us. Over a hundred died under torture or suffered torture in prison. While this was happening Ben Ali was receiving great support from Europe, and Tunisia was the first country of the southern Mediterranean to become a trade partner (referring to the Association Agreement) with the EU.
While torture was taking place, documented by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, and repression was at its highest point, Europe was praising Ben Ali’s great achievement and supposed economic miracle. And European universities were awarding Ben Ali human rights awards, whilst he was slaughtering Tunisians, they were granting him honorary doctorates.
When I left Tunisia, I was prevented from entering many European counties. I had visas for France, Germany, Italy and Spain. All were cancelled when Ben Ali’s crackdown started on Nahda – except for Great Britain. And I appreciate that this country gave me refuge when all other European countries prevented me from entering their soil, not to mention all Arab countries who deported members of Nahda or handed them over to the Tunisian government.
FT: You alluded earlier to the fact that even within the October 18 movement, with fellow Tunisians from other parties, that, as an Islamist you had to make your position clear on a number of issues preemptively in order to be accepted as a legitimate member of the movement. Do you worry that an Islamist component within the unity government might harm Tunisian’s external relations, particularly with the EU?
RG: Well I don’t accuse the EU of not putting pressure on Ben Ali for repressing Nahda. Ben Ali was very keen to repress us not because we were religious or an Islamist party but because we represented a powerful opposition to his system.
Habib Bourguiba (the country’s first post-independence President, later deposed in 1987 by Ben Ali in a coup d’état) and Ben Ali’s regime, under them, Nahda members were not the first to occupy their prisons. In the 50s prisons were filled with Youssefites (political activists loyal to Salah Ben Youssef, a senior official who broke away from Bourguiba’s ruling Constitutional Party); in the 60s it was the Leftists; in the 70s it was the trade unions; and in the 80s it was our turn to replace them under this regime, which represses anyone who represents a credible opposition.
We do not hold the EU responsible for Ben Ali’s repression; Ben Ali repressed anyone who opposed him. But Europe did not oppose or criticise this repression. The EU accepted Ben Ali as a partner and while the EU-Tunisia trade agreement has an economic aspect with human rights and political clauses that require those in charge of government to protect human rights, democracy.
This human rights aspect was put aside and Ben Ali was accepted whilst he was involved in using the most severe violence against Tunisians, falsifying elections, winning by 99 per cent of the vote and Europe was silent. Why? Because Ben Ali presented himself to Europe saying that we are in one battle, we are (his regime) against fundamentalism, we have a common enemy, we are part of the war in terror.
While Ben Ali has in fact been a great source of terrorism. When Nahda was in Tunisia, functioning inside Tunisia there was no al-Qaeda and there were no violent acts, whereas now there are hundreds of Tunisian youths who are involved in fighting in Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan due to not having the opportunity to be familiar with a moderate Islamic movement and have been influenced by al-Qaeda’s ideology.
Ben Ali sold himself to Europe saying support me and I will be a barrier to terrorism when in fact he has been the greatest source and exporter of terrorism to Europe.
FT: Are you really going back? You have been saying you are returning so when do you expect to be in Tunisia?
RG: I decided to return because the cause for which I left Tunisia has now disappeared. I was sentenced to life imprisonment (three life sentences, when one would have been enough), and I did not accept to spend the rest of my life in prison. I had to defend my right to freedom.
Now Ben Ali has gone, the natural state is for me to be inside the country, to be involved. The dictator has fallen, but the dictatorship is still there. I wish to be involved in contributing alongside others to the dismantling of the dictatorship and to help in the process of taking Tunisia from the dictatorial system to a democratic one. To help in these efforts to take Tunisia though this transitional process.
We’ll go back to organising ourselves and contribute to the education of the new generation through our moderate, democratic thought.
Our thought is similar to that of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey, currently in government. Indeed my books have almost all been translated into Turkish and are widely read there.
However I have no political aspirations myself, neither for standing as a minister, for parliament or president. Some are presenting me as a Khomeini who will return to Tunisia – I am no Khomeini.
The natural state is for me to be in Tunisia. As for the timing I have left this for my brothers, members of the Nahda have been informed of my intention and desire to go back, and arrangements have been left with them to prepare. Indeed the day they say ‘come’, I will go back.
My age does not allow me to consider such aspirations. I am nearing 70 years old and there are new generations inside Nahda more able, more suited to political activism. I intend to concentrate my contribution to the development of Islamic thought and my involvement in the causes of the Muslim world, and I hope to dedicate the rest of my life for working towards these endeavors.
Tunisa is one part of the Muslim world, and it will be one among my many duties and interests.
FT: You cited Nahda as being similar in some respects to the progressive AKP party in Turkey. If you were to look at Nahda within the spectrum of other regional Islamist movements and parties, how far are you from the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood)?
RG: (When I first came to the UK) I gave a lecture Manchester University in which I said democracy should not exclude communists. At the time this was rejected strongly by Islamists who saw it as accepting atheism. I said that it is not ethical for us to call on a secular government to accept us, while once we get to power we will eradicate them. We should treat people like-for-like. As the Prophet Muhammad said, one should wish for his brother what he wishes for oneself. And Kant said you should use your behaviour as your base for treating the rest of humanity.
At the time this was alien to political thought (among UK-exiled Arab Islamists) and I was described as a secularist and part of a secularist movement because I called for democracy that does not exclude anyone.
Indeed since our first statement, our founding statement on 5 June 1981, journalists have asked me: if the Tunisian people elected communists would you accept that?
I answered that if the Tunisian people do that then I would respect the will of the Tunisian people and I’ll then address them to convince them that this is not right and when there are elections, the elections will tell whether we managed to convince them.
And from 1981 to this day, there have been many changes to the Muslim world, democratic thought has spread and Islamists have realised the danger of dictatorships, and the benefits of democracy. And they have also realised the harm of Islamic regimes that are not democratic such as the model seen in Afghanistan under the Taliban and Islamist Sudan.
I believe that my thoughts, these ideas have been adopted by the mainstream of the Islamic movements. For instance, the Ikhwan, the largest Islamic movement, have accepted democratic principles and they have since issued many papers on the principles of pluralism and political participation of women. In the latest political programme of the Muslim Brotherhood (of Egypt) they have adopted these ideas although there remains some reservation on women as the head of state and on non-Muslim heads of state, Coptic Christians for instance, and where scholars oversee the legislative process. I openly criticised this stance on television and also in an article on Al-Jazeera in which I said that we should embrace the principles of citizenship as the basis for running the state. And since women and Coptic Christians are citizens they have the right to run for any position and there should be no overseeing of the legislative process by scholars.
In addition I should also actually add that this project published by the Muslim Brotherhood (of Egypt) was circulated for general discussion, it was not final. When they met with internal opposition they realised the error in this. Especially after the latest events in Egypt, many such as Ibrahim Munir (Secretary General of the International Organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood) have stated that they do not oppose the standing of Coptic Christians for head of state and have retracted their previous statement. This would otherwise undermine national unity, so we see a gradual development taking place. So we see a gradual evolution, we (Nadha) drank the cup of democracy in one gulp back in the 1980s while other Islamists have taken it sip by sip.
FT: Do Tunisians feel betrayed by their European neighbours in terms of allowing Ben Ali to continue his regime? And do you feel Tunisia’s relations are overly reliant politically and economically on the EU? If so, should Tunisia rebalance its relationships more towards the East, like Turkey have done?
RG: Europe has the right to seek its interests, we are not opposed to that. We do not teach them where their interests are, they know where their interests lie. The EU states have supported Ben Ali for their own interests, but now realise that it was short-sighted and at the expense of principles and ethics.
We believe in the interests can be sought while respecting ethics that there is no contradiction between ethics and interests.
The dictators should realise that they are supported when they are strong but abandoned when they fall .... As we saw, France supported Ben Ali but when he fell they united against him. Ben Ali’s plane was not allowed to land in Paris.
However Britain and France have been positive on the whole from the beginning of these events. They recognise the right of the Tunisian people to democracy and freedom...and other countries also eventually expressed this, including the United States.
It is the Arab world that expresses displeasure and concern, worrying that the flames will spread. Although we try to reassure them that each county has its own condition, but they still seem fearful. It seems that we have not yet exceeded to expel that fear.
The dictators are supported by the West but once they lose the trust of the people they will be abandoned by the West. But dictators are foolish and they only realise that too late and they did not read history...including very recent history. The Shah of Iran upon expulsion flew around the world (looking for assistance upon fleeing Tehran in 1979), but no one accepted him.
Regarding the relations with Europe, the departure of Ben Ali did not end the relations with the Europe Union. Such relations are not decided by which government is in power but by geography.
The EU and North Africa has had strong relations before and after Ben Ali. They are our near neighbours and always had strong relations of trade and culture between the North and South of the Mediterranean. In the era of the Romans, the Carthaginians and in the Islamic era, the relationship with Europe is not linked with any particular individual. On a clear night in fact one can see from the Tunisian coast the lights of Europe.
The demand of nationalist forces in Tunisia does not put an end to relations with Europe but a balance. Relations (must be) built on mutual respect and based on equality, and relations that are not at the expense of the wealth of the people, (or their) freedom and dignity.
Despite what I mentioned previously, Nahda greatly appreciates that several thousands of its members were accepted as political refugees in European countries – in France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Britain and almost all European countries, despite great pressure from Ben Ali who claimed that these were extremists. But no European country accepted these claims....and this is an ethical stance that we appreciate.
Over 1,000 Nahda members were not only refugees but have become citizens of Europe and become involved in all aspects of life. Many are businessmen and women and are part of and participating in the wider Islamic community of Europe and are forwarding the agenda of moderation and are working against extremist ideas. So I hope we have not been a burden on Europe, that we are seen as a positive (force) living in Europe, and we have attempted to remain faithful to the contract, pact of sanctuary.