Washington — Rachid Ghannouchi is the co-founder and president of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennadha Party. Ghannouchi, a leading thinker on political Islam spent 22 years in exile until Tunisia’s authoritarian government collapsed in the face of Arab Spring protests in early 2011.
More recently Ghannouchi played a key role in the drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution, considered one of the most progressive in the region. Will the country that started the Arab Spring continue to inspire the region, and what can the Tunisian approach to resolving political conflict and reconciling Islamism and democracy teach us about the prospects for successful transitions elsewhere in the Arab World? VOA’s Carol Castiel and Idriss Fall of VOA’s French-to-Africa service explore those questions with Rachid Ghannouchi on VOA’s Press Conference USA.
VOA: What was Ennahda’s special contribution to the Tunisian constitution?
GHANNOUCHI: Ennahda is the main (political) party in Tunisia, it contributed to the whole process of democracy, without Ennahda it would not have been possible to see this constitution or make the national dialogue between more than 220 parties succeed.
Tunisian elites whether secularists or Islamists succeeded in dealing positively with the very complicated realities. They had enough patience to continue their national dialogue and reached a consensus about democracy, the good marriage between Islam and democracy, between Islam and moderate secularists.
So, we managed to avoid the confrontation between all factions and succeeded to preserve the national unity around democracy, moderate Islam and moderate secularists.
VOA: Many say that Tunisia’s constitution is such a liberal document, making Tunisia a civil state with an Islamic identity. Does that smash the stereotyping about Islam?
GHANNOUCHI: We understand Islam as justice, equality, mercy, national unity and universal values, so Islam is not terrorism, not hatred toward others. Islam is not fighting against democracy or human rights Islam is mercy and justice.
We participated in drafting the constitution and we strongly believe that Islam, democracy and human rights are compatible. So since 1981 we tried to deepen these universal values within the Islamic culture.
VOA: Despite being democratically elected, Ennahda agreed in December to step down in favor of a more technocratic government, to serve until the elections later this year. To what extent did the military coup that ousted elected President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt affect your party’s decision to step aside?
GHANNOUCHI: We focused on the main goal of our nation, which was to make the process of democracy succeed. So keeping the power in our hand or not was not the most important thing.
We offered the Tunisian people a very democratic, moderate constitution. We sacrificed our position in government because the national interest was to guarantee that the Tunisian people have a constitution and a neutral government. We are very keen to put the Tunisian train on the track of democracy and we did.
VOA: Would you be an Ennahda candidate for the presidential elections?
GHANNOUCHI: No, I do not have this ambition; this revolution was made by the youth, so I am very keen to give the opportunity to the Tunisian youth.
VOA: What are the prospects of coexistence between Islamists and secularists within Tunisia when there are still fundamentalist elements among the Islamists who could derail progress?
GHANNOUCHI: Any faction that uses violence we have to fight against it because problems in the society have to be solved through dialogue and not through weapons, killing people or excluding them.
Salafism is not one phenomenon; it is a very complicated one. So Salafists who do not use violence, we dialogue with them and there are two or three Salafi (political) parties in Tunisia, working within the law. Whoever uses violence to impose his ideas we will have to fight against him.
The phenomenon of international terrorism is a very marginal one in Tunisia and the general culture in Tunisia is a peaceful one, so there is no future for fundamentalism or violence.
However a lack of (economic) development is fueling this phenomenon, it spreads in the poorest areas, so without a real project to develop these areas, no solution can succeed.
Also there is a lack of real knowledge about Islam, there is a need for a real interpretation of Islam that is not killing or fighting against democracy and gender equality.
Rachid Ghannouchi is this week’s guest on Press Conference USA on the Voice of America