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.

Rachid Ghannouchi
Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda movement, Tunisia's main Islamist political party, speaks at a news conference in Tunis on June 13, 2012.

Photo by Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

TUNIS, Tunisia—The Arab Spring began in Tunisia on Dec. 17, 2010, when a pushcart vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, sparking a revolt that spread across the Arab world. Beginning with Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, dictators fell from power, and it seemed that a democratic revolution might transform the region. Yet now, on the third anniversary of that catalyzing moment, the outcome seems far less promising. In Tunisia itself, the question is whether the Islamist-led government, headed by Rachid Ghannouchi's Ennahda party, can succeed. Lally Weymouth spoke with Ghannouchi on Tuesday in Tunis. Excerpts:

Lally Weymouth: Can the parties in the long-running national dialogue—including yourself and the other political parties—decide on a new prime minister this week?

Rachid Ghannouchi: I believe that we will be reaching an agreement before the end of this week.

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Can you and opposition leader Beji Caid Essebsi agree on a prime minister?

Ennahda and Nida Tounes are the largest parties in the country, so definitely an agreement between these two parties would facilitate an agreement with the other parties.

Reportedly, Ennahda is seeking certain guarantees in order to leave power—it wants guarantees that its members won't be prosecuted for anything they might have done.

No, we haven't asked for what you call guarantees. These are our conditions: We will resign from government [and turn over power to a technocratic government], but the price we ask for is that the country gets a democratic constitution that enshrines and protects freedoms and rights, and secondly that they give the people an election date and an election commission. But we are not asking for any protection for ourselves because we haven't done anything wrong.

Things haven't gone well in the past two years while you've ruled this country. The economy is in terrible shape. There is a security problem—two secular politicians have been killed. Your army is now fighting the jihadis at the Algerian border. You've had serious problems ruling the country, isn't that correct?

I'm not going to say that we have achieved great successes over the last two years, but we have to remember the country is going through a transitional period after the revolution. Compare our situation to other countries in a similar situation—Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and other Arab Spring countries. Tunisia is obviously faring much better. It is the last candle still shining in the Arab Spring despite all the winds that are blowing at it.
Let us look at the economy. There are some exaggerations in what the opposition is saying. We have dedicated over a fifth of the budget to developing the areas inside the country that have suffered most in the past. One of the reasons the revolution happened is because of inequality. For the last 60 years, the areas inside the countries didn't receive much development. If you look at the constitution—which is nearly ready now after two years—it enshrines all the values of the revolution, like freedom of association, freedom of expression, and equality for women.

Does it really? Because you wanted to make women "complementary" to men, rather than equal—second-class citizens.

We took everything that is contentious out of the constitution.

But you took it out under pressure.

This [term] "complementary" goes both ways: Man complements woman. A woman complements man.

Who has the power if the woman wants to own land or divorce her husband?

Under Tunisian law, a woman can divorce her husband. Total equality. The constitution is nearly finished, and we worked very hard on producing a constitution that represents all Tunisians, not just a part which is the Islamists. Eighty percent of our trade is with Europe, but many countries like Italy, France, and Spain are going through economic problems, and this is affecting our exports and our economy. Taking this into consideration, I don't think we have done a bad job.

Some say you have made compromises, and there are Ennahda hard-liners who are unhappy.

At least they haven't thrown me out yet. There are disagreements in the party on what decisions to make and compromises to give. In the party congress, I wasn't elected by 99 percent, like Ben Ali. Seventy percent voted for me. Maybe this 70 percent has gone down a bit because of the compromises we had to give, but I think the majority of the party still supports the choices we have made.

Why did your party do so little during the attack on the U.S. Embassy in 2012? Why did it allow the Salafist protesters to storm the embassy? It's said that the attack was permitted because your party sympathizes with the Salafists and did not want to attack them as Ben Ali used to attack protesters.

We condemned the attack on the American Embassy and consider it a big security failure on the part of the government. This incident has resulted in a complete change in our policy towards the Salafists and [the radical group] Ansar al-Sharia. Before that, we used to try to convince them to work within the law. But from this moment on, we realized these people do not accept to work within the boundaries of the law, and that is why we started cracking down on them. The government later designated them as a terrorist organization, and the security forces have been working hard against them.

When did the government classify them as terrorists? After the assassination of the opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi in July?

After the assassination of Brahmi last July. But the war against them started months before—tackling their networks.


Are there jihadi training camps in Tunisia?

No. There have been rumors about them training in Iraq, and some have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some people say that because of the lawlessness in Libya, some are training there. And maybe in Mali as well.

Is Tunisia the only place where the Arab Spring might succeed? It has failed in Egypt. In order to succeed, will whichever party is in power have to make compromises?

I believe democracy will succeed in Tunisia, but I also believe that it will succeed in the other Arab Spring countries. In our modern age—in the age of free information—I don't think there is any place for dictatorships. You can see this very clearly in Egypt after the coup.

When you saw the coup in Egypt, were you concerned that this could happen to you here in Tunisia?

Some people in the opposition hoped that what happened in Egypt would happen in Tunisia. But then when they saw the massacres on TV, the opposition started distancing themselves from the Egypt scenario. We have exported revolution—the Arab Spring—to Egypt, and we don't want to import from Egypt a coup. I hope that with the success of the transition to democracy in Tunisia that we will export to Egypt a working democratic model.

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