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Tunisia Feature: An Interview with Rached Ghannouchi (Abedin)

Yesterday Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the al-Nahda Party, returned to Tunisia after more than 20 years in exile.

Al-Nahda, banned by the Ben Ali regime, is generally labelled an "Islamist" party, and there has been a lot of chatter about its intentions and policies. Ghannouchi has been giving a series of interviews to try and assuage any concerns and to set out the possibilities for the party.

Last Thursday, Mahan Abedin interviewed Ghannouchi for the site Religioscope:


Mahan Abedin - Were you surprised by the speed of the apparent revolution in Tunisia?

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - I expected a revolution to occur in Tunisia, but not of the speed that we witnessed.

Mahan Abedin - You were expecting change for a long time?

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - There have been uprisings in parts of Tunisia in the past two to three years, especially in Gafsa and Ben Gardan in the south. Several months ago I wrote on Al-Jazeera net that this chain of dissent will eventually cohere and erupt in the capital city. I have argued for a long time that the Tunisian regime can't reform from within; it has to be changed from without. 

Mahan Abedin - On that note, it appears that the old guard is pulling out all the stops to cling to power. Are we witnessing a true revolutionary moment or a carefully managed and contrived change? 

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - It is a revolutionary moment. When you talk to people in Tunisia you feel that a real revolution has occurred. The people are ready to sacrifice their lives to safeguard the achievements of recent weeks. The people want to see an end to all the symbols of the RCD [Constitutional Democratic Rally] party and the former regime.

Mahan Abedin - Given the complex dynamics at play - for example the role of the army and the security forces and the external dimension namely the desire by the Western powers to contrive reforms under the existing regime rather than risk the emergence of a new system - are you hopeful that meaningful change can come as quickly as you would wish? 

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - The Tunisian street can't be appeased with small and half-hearted gestures. The Tunisian street is active and is keeping the elites under intense pressure. Until now the Tunisian elites have failed to reflect the people's will, namely to construct a democratic regime without the RCD apparatus. Another problem is that the international order has intervened on behalf of continuity in Tunisia. They want to change the appearance of the regime and not its essence. 

Mahan Abedin - What is your personal situation; have you been granted an amnesty to return?

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - Yesterday [26 January] I went to the Tunisian Embassy in London to collect my passport. For 22 years I have been protesting outside the Tunisian Embassy, it was only yesterday that I was allowed inside. The people in charge of the embassy received us warmly but in the evening they phoned my son to say that my amnesty hasn't been approved. They said that if I go back to Tunisia I'll be doing so at my own risk. 

Mahan Abedin - You haven't visited Tunisia for 22 years?

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - Yes. 

Mahan Abedin - The fact that they are implying that you may be arrested upon your return indicates that the old security clique is still powerful, don't you agree?

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - I don't think they will arrest me. They are very weak and need legitimacy from the people. It is the people who are on the offensive. Even if they do arrest me it won't advance their cause. 

Mahan Abedin - Why haven't you gone back already?

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - I have been obliged to go into exile by the dictatorial regimes. Now that the regime in Tunisia has collapsed or is on the verge of collapsing I am going back. 

Mahan Abedin - Are you making preparations to go back?

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - I am going back on Sunday [30 January]. My flight leaves at 8.30 in the morning.

Mahan Abedin - Why haven't Islamists played a prominent role in the street protests? The people on the streets appeared to be of the trendy variety; left-wing beards and fancy veils dominated the scenes.

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - Islamists can be trendy too! The Tunisian Islamists are different to Islamists in other parts of the Arab world. They have been fiercely harassed and repressed for decades and as a consequence they are reluctant to show themselves or to adopt an Islamist appearance. For the past 22 years they have kept their Islamic identity in their hearts as opposed to wearing it on their sleeves in the form of headscarves and beards. 

Mahan Abedin - On a more serious note, you are adamant that Islamists played a leading role in the street protests that forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power? 

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - No one can pretend that this revolution has been led by Islamists or Communists or any other group for that matter. This is a popular revolution and all the trends in Tunisian political society are present on the scene. At the same time it is clear that the Islamists are the biggest political force in Tunisia. The former regime suppressed all groups and in this transitional period all the groups are concentrating on rebuilding themselves. 

Mahan Abedin - You are widely regarded as a reformist in the international Islamist current. In your interview with Al-Jazeera on 22 January you appeared to categorically reject the Islamic Caliphate in favour of democracy. Is this the culmination of your reformist Islamist thought?

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - This is the authentic and realistic position. The notion of Khilafah (Caliphate) is not a religious one as some groups claim. It reflects a period of time. 

Mahan Abedin - Is your embrace of democracy strategic or tactical?

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - It is strategic. Democracy is crucial to dealing with and reconciling different and even conflicting interests in society. Islam has a strong democratic spirit inasmuch as it respects religious, social and political differences. Islam has never favoured a monolithic state. Throughout their history Muslims have objected to the imposition of a single all-powerful interpretation of Islam. Any attempt to impose a single interpretation has always proven inherently unstable and temporary. 

Mahan Abedin - Of late Islamism has been more focussed on moral issues and identity politics, as opposed to taking concrete steps towards securing social justice. I refer to staple social justice demands, like affordable housing, cheap food and job security. Is Al-Nahda in a position to address these issues both at a theoretical and practical level?

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - The origin of most Nahdawis [supporters of Al-Nahda] is in the rural areas of Tunisia. We understand social justice very well. 

Mahan Abedin - You used to have a left-wing outlook and rhetoric in your earlier days, especially the 1970s and early 1980s. Is that still the case? 

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi - In my youth I was a Nasserist. Islam is against injustice and the monopoly of wealth and resources. The notion of Brotherhood in Islam has profound socio-economic implications in so far as it points to the equitable distribution of economic resources. In the economic sphere Islam is closer to the left-wing outlook, without violating the right to private property. The Scandinavian socio-economic model is closest to the Islamic vision.

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