Rached Ghannouchi and Tunisia’s Transition

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, June 5, 2013

Last week, my colleague Ed Husain and I hosted a meeting with Rached Ghannouchi—the cofounder and president of Tunisia’s Islamist Nahda party—at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The audio is available here.

In January 2011, after more than twenty years in exile, Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia to lead Nahda’s revolutionary rise. Nahda went on to win some 40 percent of seats in Tunisia’s transitional parliament. Ghannouchi–who speaks passionately about the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and modernity–is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading Islamic thinkers. At CFR, his comments focused on his efforts to end Tunisia’s more than half century of political polarization by forging a coalition between moderate Islamists and secularists; the economic challenges facing the country’s transition, particularly with respect to stubbornly high unemployment; his hopes that Tunisia, as the first true Arab democracy, will serve as a model for other Muslim-majority countries; and the threat to freedom and democracy posed by violent extremism in Tunisia.

During the meeting, Ghannouchi spoke out strongly against the violence that has marred Tunisia’s transition. Since the early days of the post-Ben Ali period, religious conservatives have mounted protests—sometimes violent and destructive—contesting basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of belief, and women’s rights. Last fall, extremists attacked the U.S. Embassy and burned the American school across the street; Salafi groups have sacked stores selling alcohol; and in the lowest point yet of the political transition, in February of this year a violent Islamist group assassinated one of the country’s leading opposition figures, Chokri Belaid.

Ghannouchi tried to address audience concerns about discrepancies between his strong statements regarding the importance of combating violent extremism and what seems to be happening on the ground. One audience member expressed dismay at the government’s failure to bring those behind the September 2012 attacks on the American embassy and school to justice. (Those convicted recently received a mere slap on the wrist—a suspended sentence.) Zied Ladhari, a Nahda member of parliament traveling with Ghannouchi noted that the judiciary makes independent decisions, but that the government was upset with the decision and was appealing it. Government prosecutors have indeed filed an appeal.

Much of the conversation centered on Tunisia’s efforts to produce a new constitution–a controversial process that has pitted hardline Islamists against determined secularists. Ghannouchi emphasized Nahda’s commitment to compromise in an effort to hold a moderate center together. Nahda agreed early on that despite demands by Salafis and other conservative groups, the country’s constitution would not be grounded in sharia, and in fact makes no mention of it. Ghannouchi also noted that Nahda backed down from its demand for a parliamentary system; the most recent draft of the constitution allows for a “semi-presidential system” with a parliament and prime minister, and also a directly-elected president who has considerable powers in national security and foreign policy.

At the CFR meeting, Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch (HRW) raised concerns that the draft constitution still does not sufficiently protect human rights. According to a primer on the organization’s website, HRW’s concerns with the last draft of the constitution include“a provision recognizing universal human rights only insofar as they comport with ‘cultural specificities of the Tunisia[n] people,’ the failure of the constitution to affirm freedom of thought and conscience, and the overly broad formulation of permissible limitations to freedom of expression,” among other issues. Zied Ladhari responded that “all of the critiques [Goldstein] mentioned have been taken into account in the last version [of the constitution].”

Last weekend, the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) essentially completed a final draft and presented it to President Moncef Marzouki for review. Amnesty International recentlyexamined this new draft, which seems to have addressed some of the above critiques, although Amnesty still has concerns over human rights issues. The NCA needs to approve the constitution by a two-thirds majority. The NCA has two chances to approve the constitution with this majority; otherwise, a national referendum will decide the constitution’s fate. 

Although Tunisia’s constitution-writing process has come under criticism for its delays, the country has so far avoided the deep polarization that has paralyzed Egypt. But with violent extremism on the rise in Tunisia, it remains to be seen whether a coalition of moderate Islamists and secularists can hold the center.

Ghannouchi closed the meeting by extolling the virtues of Tunisia as a tourist destination. “I think that we can contradict extremism by promoting and developing democracy and developing the economy and developing freedom.” Yes indeed–that is why it’s so important that the constitution clearly protects human rights and freedom and that acts of violence are unambiguously denounced and forcefully prosecuted. Actions must match words.

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