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Tunisia's Challenge: A Conversation with Rachid al-Ghannouchi

Speaker: Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, Co-founder, Ennahda Movement
Presider: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow, Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
November 30, 2011, Washington D.C.
Council on Foreign Relations

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ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Good afternoon, and welcome. I'm Elliot Abrams, and I'm going to chair the meeting today with Rachid Ghannouchi. First of all, thank you all for coming, and may I ask you to silence your cellphones, BlackBerrys and so forth?

This meeting, I should say, is going to be on-the-record, unlike most that we have here, and I thank Mr. Ghannouchi for that. I'll just very briefly introduce him.

As you all know, he is a co-founder of the Ennahda movement in Tunisia, which is now the largest party in the Constituent Assembly. Mr. Ghannouchi was born in Tunisia, became active in political life there, and was imprisoned from 1981 to 1984 and from 1987 to 1988 again, by the Ben Ali dictatorship. After his release, he went into political exile in London for about two decades until returning home to Tunisia in January of this year.

So we're delighted to have him here as part of his visit to Washington, and what we've agreed is that he'll speak for about 15 minutes about the situation in Tunisia and then we'll have a question-and-answer.

So Mr. Ghannouchi, the floor is yours.

RACHID GHANNOUCHI: Thank you, Mr. Elliott Abrams, for giving me this opportunity to address such (an audience ?) and distinguished thinkers and scholars, and especially esteemed Foreign Relations. And permit me to address myself in Arabic.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We can't hear you.

GHANNOUCHI: My English is not well enough, so I'm asking my colleague, Mondher Ben Ayed, to translate my ideas.

(Continues in Arabic. Remarks going forward are through interpreter.)

What's happening in Tunisia is a big event that -- those that -- those kind of event that change the world, just like earthquakes. They make mountains emerge and islands emerge, so it changes the picture of the world. So it is not a coincidence that the Council on Foreign Relations considers and is interested in such an event.

Just like in medicine, when the normal medicine no longer works, one resorts to surgery. And the revolutions is like the surgery: It's painful and it's the last resort for nations. Also in surgery, sometimes the operations do fail, and that's why many revolutions do fail. What we are seeking in Tunisia is the success of our revolution.

All the region is governed by dictators. To summarize the situation, it's a single individual and the -- his family in general that are controlling all the wealth of the -- of the country. And the whole operation of government is like a mafia, which is robbing the wealth of the country and which is resorting to violence.

Even they distorted the meanings of words so words like democracy, civil society, liberties, freedom -- they have changed the meanings of these words to suit them and suit their policies, in order to give a certain picture, especially to -- on the international scene. They changed the substance of parties, or parties were no longer playing their role. There was no real free press. And even the elections, they resorted to elections in order to get legitimacy, but the elections were -- was not a means of changing the power. It was a means of giving more and more legitimacy to existing powers and rulers.

And this led to a situation of despair, people giving up on the idea that change can be through reform, and a lot of people called for violence means of change. And they have developed theories that the only possible change in the region is through violence. And we find in Tunisia that there were thousands of young people who are Salafis, who were jailed because of their violent ideas, that went to Iraq, to Afghanistan -- also that are also in European prisons.

And this is -- this was caused by the void that has created -- that the regime has created by -- some of them are in Guantanamo as well -- and this has been created by the void that Ennahda has left when the regime decided to delegitimize Ennahda and imprison its leaders.

And in Libya and Egypt the situation is even worse than in Tunisia. But violence and the violent alternative did not succeed, even if it represented itself as the alternative for change against the change from within, which has failed also. All alternatives of reforms have failed and all violent ways have failed. They did not produce a single case of success.

And these people who adopted these violent ways gave arguments to these dictators to present themselves to the international powers as their allies in the war against terrorism and that they are the custodians of the anti-terror war on their soils, and for that they've received support, financial and political support.

Then came the third way, which nobody thought of, which is the popular peaceful revolt. And the third way started in Tunis when people realized that by breaking the fear, they can control their own destiny. And that was a solution for other peoples. That gave them another alternative, and people started believing that they can actually change these regimes. And that's why it sparked the Arab Spring.

These revolution did not have a leader, so there were no picture of any leader during these revolutions, nor did they carry any ideological slogans. The only slogans were slogans that were asking for human dignity and human rights, basic rights: employment, dignity and democracy.

And because the Islamists were prosecuted for many years during the past years and many of them were enjailed and were tortured, Islam has come back on the scene as an important factor in these revolutions.

Islam gave people self-confidence so that they can break the fear, they go out to the street. They present themselves as peaceful martyrs -- some of them have been killed and -- to topple these regimes. And also it gave them energy to go forward in these revolts.

The case in Tunisia was characterized by the fact that the Islamists and also the secular and leftist parties of the opposition came together in 2005 and they established a common platform between them; a platform that is agreed upon by all parties; that establishes a civil, democratic way of government, that recognizes universal human rights, including the rights of women as defined by the Personal Status Code in Tunisia; that also defines a clear role between government and religion -- government, the state, whose role is not to impose any religion or to forbid any religion.

Ennahda won the first elections in Tunisia because of two factors. The first factor is the capital of sympathy that it had with people because it was the most prosecuted in the past years, so -- and the second factor is because Ennahda spoke a very easy language, a language that is very close to the people, to their understanding; and that it freed Islam so that Islam became a symbol of fraternity, a symbol of freedom, including the freedom of women's right. And for that matter, even the practice illustrates that, since in the constitutional assembly there are 49 women today elected among 217, 42 of whom are from Ennahda. And some of these Ennahda women are -- have the headscarf. Others don't.

Ennahda had the very open platform that was inclusive of most -- of most Tunisians, and the message that it sent to the people is that it do not interfere in their personal religiosity, and -- because the state or the government has no business in people's personal choices.

We wanted the dividing lines in society not to be along religion lines, so we don't want to divide the society into believers and disbelievers, into pious and nonpious. The real competition should be -- the real division should be between forces that are pro-democratic and that are for democracy and those who are not, who would like to bring us back to dictatorship.

And that's why we were keen on forming a national unity government, a national coalition that includes Islamists, but also includes secular parties, parties from the left, parties who are liberal, in order to say to the people that we want to unite and include, not divide, and that the debate is not between Islamist and non-Islamist or Islamist and secular. There are many kinds of secularism and many models for secularism.

French laicite is probably aggressive and antagonistic to the religion, but there are other models of secularism in the world where there could be reconciliation between religion and secularism.

Mr. Alain Juppe called me after the election to congratulate me and he said that we believe what Ennahda says, that democracy and Islam does not necessarily -- are in contradiction, and that even the French model of secularity, or laicite, is not the only model of the world. There are other models where religion and secularism live and coexist peacefully.

These revolutions today face -- our revolution face a lot of challenges. One of the big challenges is how to make people exercise their freedom in a responsible way without violence, because before, to keep the order, we used to use the police. Today we're not resorting to violence. People are free to do what they want, so they are learning how to exercise their freedom in a responsible way. Freedom needs training and exercise, and we are in the process of being trained -- (inaudible) --

The other big problem is how to treat the problem of unemployment. Before the revolution, we had 400,000 unemployed people and today we have doubled that number. But the development challenge is a challenge that we can meet because we will introduce political reforms that will fight corruption and that will improve the environment of investment.

We'll also introduce reforms that will develop the free market; encourage more free investment, both internally and externally; develop the judiciary system towards more justice and more independence so as to secure the investors. So we are confident that if we provide the right environment, we can succeed in meeting the development challenges ahead of us.

I think these revolutions is a new opportunity to introduce Islam back on the international scenes and in the international relations, not as a symbol of violence and terrorism, but as a symbol of the unity of mankind and the -- and peace. We are initiating -- we are keeping our -- we have announced our intention to keep all the international agreements that Tunisia and -- the state of Tunisia has established, including the -- our free trade agreement with Europe. We even want to improve that and get the status of privileged partner.

We are also seeking to find the new markets with our neighbors, with other nations in Asia, in both the Americas, North and South America. And we want to send a clear message that Islam today is a factor of bringing together mankind, because we believe that in the Koran God has addressed not the Muslims, but he said many times, all you mankind. And through international trade and through peaceful relationship, we should be able to bring mankind closer together.

And we -- Tunisia has deep-rooted the relationship with the United States. Tunisia has -- was one of the first country that recognized the independence of the United States. The United States also recognized the independence of Tunisia and helped Tunisia during its independence. And we consider that the positions of the United States, which are very supportive of what happened in Tunisia in the Arab Spring, as -- in general are very good positions, and we thank you for that.

And we want to start a new page, a new relation where the Muslim world has a strong and a good relationship with the West and also with the United States in particular. And thank you very much for your attention.

ABRAMS: Thank you very much. Let me thank also Mondher Ben Ayed for helping arrange this event and for serving as interpreter here.

Questions and discussion. Let me ask that you turn your placard on its side, and I will try to keep a list of people in order.

Nobody has a question? (Inaudible.) I'm sorry. All right.

Ed Perkins?

QUESTIONER: Thank you very much, sir, for a very illuminating discourse. In the past, the United States has relied on Tunisia to be a go-between sometimes with -- (inaudible) -- especially in the Middle East. Do you see Tunisia continuing to play that role and maybe increase it?

GHANNOUCHI: Tunisia is a very small state compared to other states in the region. Egypt has probably a much bigger weight in the international relations, traditionally, in the region. And we are not at the center of the Middle East. We are in North Africa, and even in North Africa countries like Morocco and Algeria have stronger weight than Tunisia.

Tunisia will continue to be a source of influence, not through its size but through the ideas and the models that it represents. In today's world, the world may be in the future influenced through ideas as much more important than influenced through size. So Tunisia will continue to contribute to the region from that perspective.

Ten days ago I was visiting Algeria. And we felt that Algeria is a bit fearful about what was happening on its border with Libya and Tunisia. So I visited Algeria and I had a very long conversation with President Bouteflika. And during the conversation, I reassured the president that Tunisia has no intention whatsoever to export its revolution. And we are not in the business of exporting the revolution, especially to Algeria, which has a deeper revolution history than ours.

And he said if we had any intention to export something, we would export a working -- successful working model, a model that reconciliates between modernity in Islam, a model that reconciliates between Islam and democracy. That's what we are interested to export to the world.

ABRAMS: James Pritchett (ph).

QUESTIONER: Thank you for taking the time to come today.

You've made some comments in the past that have been very controversial in the United States and have caused some concern. And so I wanted to ask you about those comments and see whether or not they've been distorted, if you stand by them; or as we like to say, if you'd like to perhaps revise and extend them.

In the first Gulf War you vocally supported Saddam Hussein and you condemned the United States as a, quote, "enemy of Islam." In a speech in Khartoum in 1991 you are quoted as calling for unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, and you called on followers to, quote, "burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world."

Do you stand by these comments? Were they taken out of context, or did you not make them?

GHANNOUCHI: I think these comments, first of all, if they've been -- they've been distorted and not probably accurately reported. But the second characteristic of what you have said is that it has been said 20 years ago, and only stones do not change in 20 years, but people do.

And if you look at the literature that we have produced at Ennahda or my personal writings since the '80s, you will find such as people who have studied this, like Mrs. Robin Wright, that what I have been saying in my remarks is completely consistent with my thinking and what I have been writing about.

ABRAMS: Robin Wright.

(Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: OK. You will -- the new order in Tunisia will be judged by its regional relationships, foreign policy as well as its domestic policy. So let me ask you about your intentions for relations on two countries, one which you've been close to in the past and visited, Iran; and the other is Israel, which you have criticized in pretty tough terms in the past.

GHANNOUCHI: These two countries are not close to Tunisia in terms of frontiers.

QUESTIONER: But your position -- (inaudible) --

GHANNOUCHI: And one of them I was not allowed to go in. For the case of Iran, I have not been allowed to go into Iran, but it's a country, which is far away from Tunisia. We're neither in a hostile relationship with this country nor in a particularly friendly and close relationship with this country.

Concerning the Palestinian-Israeli issue, it is mainly a Palestinian concern and a concern of the people that represent the Palestinian people -- the Palestinian Authority or whomever represents the Palestinian people. And if the Palestinian people reach an agreement with the Israelis, it's no longer a major issue for other Muslim countries. So the first and primary concern is for the Palestinians.

Just I want to note that the Israelis have so far failed to find a solution with Yasser Arafat, with Abu Mazen, with even Hamas, which recognized a two-state solution. And even the two-state solution, we fail today to implement it. So I don't want to answer questions of if -- if the Palestinians and the Israelis find a solution; if there is a Palestinian state, what would happen after.

I don't think that any of the Muslim countries will have a tougher or more radical issue, position, than the Palestinians themselves would have.

ABRAMS: Amitai Etzioni.

QUESTIONER: I want to thank you for the discussion of the reconciliation between religion and secularism. When we look at it closer, we find that until recently the Norwegian king had to be Lutheran, and while they don't support mosque and synagogues or other place of worship, they do pay for cathedrals on the ground that they're historical places. And the Germans don't allow headscarves, but they allow crucifix. I could go on. So the notion that this is separation of state and church is slightly exaggerated.

But could you be a little more specific. Because it is kind of in the French tradition we have these global generalizations, but Americans like to be a little more concrete. So what -- (inaudible) -- the majority of the Tunisians would vote for a traditional form of divorce? And give us some examples. What would this reconciliation between religion and secularism look, in a new kind of democracy?

GHANNOUCHI: Thank you for this separation question, practical question.

We believe, we strongly believe that the state has no business to impose in the name of religion, nor does it have any business to forbid the society in its practice of religion. And in your country, this is clearly written in one of the walls that I have seen on my way to the Capitol Hill, which is on Newseum -- on the Newseum wall.

We in Tunisia have no problem with respecting other people's religion, and we have a long tradition of that. We have a Jewish minority in Tunis that lived for many years, and just after the election the president of the community came to congratulate Ennahda. And after he went out, he made a declaration to a journalist who asked him, are you afraid now that the Ennahda is in power.

And he said, why should I be afraid. I'm not afraid at all. If I'm afraid in Tunis, we are afraid of the Salafists who want to fight Jews.

They should not come and fight us. We are Tunisians; we exist here for many years. Those who want to fight, they have to go to Israel, not to Tunis. We declare that we uphold the Personal Status Code of Tunisia as it is, and in the Personal Status Code of Tunisia, the divorce decision is in the court. It's the judge's decision.

And we also -- you probably know that in our Personal Status Code, polygamy is abolished by law. And we have accepted this as an Islamic -- (in Arabic) -- or interpretation, which is a legitimate interpretation. It's not a contradiction with Islam for us. So for us, we will keep the Personal Status Code as is.

Regarding the Jewish matter, I would like to stress that in Tunisia we have one of the oldest synagogues that have existed, in Djerba. We had have never problems with Jews in Tunisia and we have always protected them through all the years. And even in the Muslim world, the Jews did not have problems.

I would like to remind everyone here that the Holocaust happened in Europe, not in the Muslim world.

ABRAMS: Zaid Asali.

QUESTIONER: Welcome to Washington, and congratulations on your revolution and on your elections, which the world witnessed and commends you for the process that was done, commend you on the results of the -- of the elections.

I was impressed with the fact that you are very aware of the symbolic significance of your ascent to power as an Islamic party, and your quest to resolve the issues of modernity and originality of Islam. There are two specific areas that everybody's watching, where -- for answers -- that may impinge on the right of the citizen in Tunis.

One is the possible discrimination against women; the other is possible discrimination against non-Muslims. Where do you see the role of Sharia in defining areas where such two subsets of people might be disenfranchised, and how do you intend to deal with the resolution of such an issue?

GHANNOUCHI: I have written a lot about the human rights in my books and I have a book dedicated to human rights in Islam since 20 years ago. And for me, the essence of Islam: Islam was revealed to establish human rights. This is the very essence of Islam.

Everything that establishes justice, equality between people, is from Islam, even if we don't find the clear text which says it. World harmony with Islam -- any interpretation of Islam which is against the basic human rights and universal human rights or against the justice is refutable and is not part of Islam. Even some -- even if some people come up with a justification by a text. For me, the text is ill interpreted. It cannot be part of Islam.

Whatever discrimination that has been done against women in the name of Islam for me finds no justification, no real justification in the texts. The creator says in the Koran that he does not look to our colors, to our bodies. He will look to our deeds and our hearts. That's what the Koran has revealed.

MONDHER BEN AYED: OK, hold on with me. This is complicated. (Laughter.) We're getting really philosophical here.

GHANNOUCHI: There is -- there is one issue that has bothered me at one time, which is the right to revert, get out of Islam. And for me, I was very uncomfortable with the idea that the people in their belief are not free. It's one way. They go one way; they cannot go the other way. And I thought about that while I was in prison, and I started researching that.

And I came up to the conclusion that people are completely free in their belief. They're free to go in, they're free to stay, and they're free to go out as well. And even the historical case which is used for not reverting, which was the Caliph Abu Bakr, who fought the tribes, who reverted or went after the prophet away from Islam, for me I reached the conclusion that it was a political war. It was not a belief war. It was not because they decided to go back on Islam, it's because they are citizens of the Muslim state that have refused to pay taxes and that used weapons to defend their position. And any modern state will do that, if citizens refuse to pay taxes and use violence to defend their positions.

So from that point on, I had this thought, which is now spreading that people are completely free in their belief. They can go inside to Islam freely and they can go out from Islam freely, and there is a verse in Koran that says there is no compulsion in religion.

MONDHER BEN AYAD: I hope I did this right.

ABRAMS: For how many years would you go to prison in Saudi Arabia for saying what you just said? (Laughter.) (Inaudible.)

QUESTIONER: Thank you. You had mentioned -- (in Arabic.)

GHANNOUCHI: They prevent me from going there, to Saudi.

(Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: You had mentioned the phenomenon of young Tunisian Salafis traveling to Iraq. As the United States brings its military intervention there to a close, how would you assess the impact of the Iraq War on the cause of democratic reform in the region? Did it encourage it? Did it hinder it? Was there no impact on it?

GHANNOUCHI: There are hundreds of young people from Tunisia that went to Iraq, and hundreds have already been died -- have died over there. Tens and hundreds are still in prisons, and some of these prisons are secret. And some of them have been judged with the capital punishment and have been executed. And this presents a big problem for the -- for the public opinion in Tunis, and this is a source of stress between the -- in the relation between Tunisia and Iraq.

And there is tremendous pressure on all politicians in Tunisia to try to mediate in order to bring those young people back, or even transfer their bodies after their execution. And nobody who has a sensible mind, a religious mind encourages these people to go to Iraq. Because the Iraqi matters concerns the Iraqis, and the Iraqis have found their way.

We have our embassy in Iraq and we have all the intentions to strengthen our relations with Iraq. And many of the current rulers of Iraq are our friends and we have been exiled together in London for many years. And we will strengthen our relation with Iraq.

ABRAMS: We're getting very short on time, so let me ask -- we have four questions, but we'll never get to them. Why don't we take the first two? Can you just ask the two questions and then we'll see if we get to the latter two?

QUESTIONER: Thank you for the discussion and talk here today. My question is for Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the Tunisian -- or the Islamic thinker, more than the Tunisian politician in specific.

Islamism as a modern discourse has been informed and transformed by the crisis, facing crisises and defeats in front of those crisises. From -- (inaudible) -- and his plight, or his problems at the Egyptian prisons. What does victory mean for Islamism as an ideology? How does it transform Islamism as a thought? Thank you.

QUESTIONER: And then on a separate topic, I would ask, to what extent do you feel the Tunisian government or you personally have an obligation to stand with dissidents elsewhere -- in Syria, Iran, Cuba, Burma -- to take action against governments that oppress people there who seek the same political freedoms that your fellow countrymen have secured?

GHANNOUCHI: Concerning the Islamism as an ideology, this a general subject. You can talk about the Islamic movements; nobody can judge them in one bucket or in one bag. It's a full spectrum. Islamism has many currents; some of them are even contradictory. The spectrum of Islamism goes from bin Laden to Erdogan.

There are people who have -- they have Islamic movements that say that democracy is not part of Islam. There are those of us who say democracy and Islam are not contradictory. There are people who say that jihad or the struggle or the fight should be to impose Islam on others. There are those of us who say that jihad is just reserved to defend the country when it's aggressed.

So we believe in Ennahda that we represent the moderate, centrist current in all of these currents. And these currents are the dominant currents currently. You find them in the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, in Turkey, in Tunisia. And even these currents have some specificities and differences.

So my feeling is that the dominant current is going to be in the future, this centrist, moderate current. For me it's obvious the people who have been prosecuted, who made the revolution and succeeded to free themselves, should support all the revolution and freedom movements of other prosecuted people. And that's why we are -- we have been already supportive of the revolution in Libya, the revolution movement in Syria, and it's a principle that is completely obvious for us.

We have promised to recognize the transition and National Council of Syria and to give the embassy, the Tunisian Embassy to that council. If we succeed to convince our other partners in the coalition to make a distinction between a party position and a state position.

ABRAMS: And to take the last one? OK --

QUESTIONER: Thank you very much. Thanks, Elliott, for stretching the time.

Thank you for your openness and thank you for your recognition of the historic role of the Jewish community in Tunisia and your affirmation that the future Tunisia would be a religiously tolerant, pluralistic society.

Let me just ask a follow-up to the question asked previously about Israel. There's been talk, as you know, about the possibility that the Tunisian constitution may include language against normalization of relations with Israel. Can you say that that does not belong in the constitution of Tunisia?

GHANNOUCHI: First of all, I would like to stress that the Jewish right, for me and my understanding -- even in other religious groups, not just the Jewish -- is beyond the constitution. For me, it's a divine religious right. And even the people who do not believe, it's a divine religious right. We have to respect the freedom of religion of everyone, and we have to defend their right to be different and to exercise freely their religion. And it's not even -- it's even more important than to be put in the constitution.

As for your question, what we -- what had happened in Tunisia before, during the political reform process in the Ben Ashur committee was a document that has been agreed upon by parties not to establish relations with Israel. For me, it's not a matter to be included in the constitution. The constitution is much more important; the constitution should talk about no country whatsoever; it should talk only about Tunisia.

In the constitution we should have principles for hundred years to come. We should not include political decisions that might change with time as the problems are solved. It's not a constitutional issue, and we are not to include any of such language or articles in the constitution.

ABRAMS: Well, let me ask you to join me in thanking -- (inaudible). (Applause.) Thank you all for coming. And thank you, Mondher, too.

BEN AYED: I did my best.

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