Rachid Ghannouchi interview: The Tunisian leader of the Ennahda party on Tunisia and the Arab Spring.

Why Tunisia Is the Arab Spring’s Last Best Hope

Why Tunisia Is the Arab Spring’s Last Best Hope

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 12 2013 3:55 PM

The Arab Spring’s Last Hope

An interview with Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s largest political party.

(Continued from Page 1)

Some argue that former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi made mistakes: giving himself immunity from prosecution, refusing to compromise with secular groups.

Morsi committed mistakes, but they don't justify a military coup. And whatever mistakes were committed do not justify Western countries staying silent about the dictatorship that is being built in Egypt.

You mean the United States?


The West shouldn't stay silent about the massacres, the repression, and the beginnings of a dictatorship that are being built.

Morsi put himself above the law; he refused to talk to any of the secular groups.

Despite everything we say about Morsi—and he has committed mistakes—not a single massacre was committed, not a single journalist was imprisoned. The media now is being controlled by the military junta to be a mouthpiece for them.

Did you have a good relationship with President Morsi?

I know him. Yes, I respect him.

You are a senior member of the international Muslim Brotherhood?

We [Ennahda] are a Tunisian party.

Aren't you the head of the political bureau of the international Muslim Brotherhood?

No, you are talking about the International Union of Muslim Scholars. It's not political.

It is run by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi [one of the top Muslim Brotherhood ideologues].

It is not a coincidence that Tunisia was the first country of the Arab Spring. I believe that Tunisia will be successful in presenting a successful democratic model because we have a homogenous society, with a small Jewish minority. Education is widespread; we have a large middle class, which supports democracy. We have a moderate Islamic party, which has been one of the champions of the idea of the compatibility between Islam and democracy.
We could have written the constitution on our own, but we didn't do this because we wanted the constitution to be written not just by Islamists but by everyone. After the elections, we chose to form a coalition government not with other Islamists but with other secular parties because we wanted to send a message that the country is for everyone.

Many believe Ennahda is not moderate—that it is a party with a serious Islamist agenda.

Many tried to scare people off Ennahda by claiming Ennahda would impose strict dress rules. But if you walk around the streets, you find women choosing whether they want to wear a scarf or not. The opposition also tried to scare the West by saying that if an Islamic party comes to power, it would cut off relations with the West. After two years, we have a much more developed relationship with Europe and the U.S.

In 2011, you predicted the end of Israel. Do you expect this to come true?

This is the first time I've heard about this.

What do you think of Israel?

There is a problem there that hasn't been solved yet. There is a problem with occupation. So far, Israel has failed to reach an agreement—with [Yasser] Arafat in the past and Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] now. We hear that even Hamas is supporting the idea of a two-state solution, but we don't see Israel going towards this solution.

So you're not trying to create an Islamic state with Islamic laws here?

Tunisia, under the existing constitution ratified in 1959, is an independent state—Islam is its religion, and Arabic is its language. This is enough for us. In a democracy, it is parliament that makes the laws. We don't want a theocracy on top of parliament. Some people tried to add sharia to the new constitution, and we have rejected these calls. People don't agree on sharia, so we should leave it out.

Why was nothing done to arrest the people who assassinated secular opposition politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi this year?

A number of the people who took part in the assassinations have been arrested by security forces. These assassinations were done by professionals, so it is difficult to arrest them. In the U.S., it's still not clear who actually killed Kennedy.

When and why did you create the party?

In 1981. Here in Tunisia. It became the main opposition party.

What happened when you founded the party?

They threw me in prison in 1981 and sentenced me to 11 years. President Habib Bourguiba thought I insulted him and his government, and [that I] encouraged people to revolt. I spent four years in prison and was released and continued my activities, and in March 1987, I was arrested again and sentenced to life in prison. I was nearly sentenced to death. Bourguiba wanted me to get the death sentence, but then he was overthrown. I left prison in 1988.

And then?

In 1989, general elections happened, and we participated and gained the majority. Prime Minister Ben Ali decided to falsify the results and to arrest me again. So I fled the country. I continued my campaign against the Ben Ali regime from outside until the revolution started. I was received again in Tunisia by thousands in January 2011.

Why did you decide not to become prime minister?

I prefer to leave the opportunity to the young people and my colleagues who suffered more than me. Ali Laarayedh, the prime minister, was sentenced to death two times.

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.