Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rached Ghannouchi: the Muslim Brethren of Egypt should form a coalition government with liberals

    Wednesday, December 07, 2011   No comments

By Marc Lynch

"I think the Muslim Brotherhood [in Egypt] should govern by coalition that includes the people from secular parties and the Copts." That was the advice which Rached Ghannouchi, President of Tunisia's el-Nahda Party, offered his Egyptian Islamist counterparts during an interview with the editors of the Middle East Channel last Thursday. He warned pointedly against repeating the mistakes of Algeria when, as he put it, "the Islamists won 80 percent of the vote but they completely ignored the influential minority of secularists, of the army, of the business community. So they did a coup d'etat against the democratic process and Algeria is still suffering from that." Avoiding a replay of that catastrophe weighs heavily on Ghannouchi and his party.

Ghannouchi was in Washington at the invitation of Foreign Policy, after being named one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers. He took full advantage of the opportunity to visit the United States for the first time in twenty years, appearing at a wide range of think tanks including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Washington  Institute for Near East Policy and meeting with a range of U.S. government officials, journalists, and policy analysts. He had warm praise for the Obama administration as "supportive of the Arab Spring," and described the new willingness in the United States to talk about a more positive relationship between democracy and Islam, and between Americans and the Islamic world, as a very important new development. His reception in Washington is a sign of the times, as the United States struggles to adapt to the reality of Islamist electoral success and Islamist parties struggle to reassure those who fear their ascent while delivering on their own programs.

I last saw Ghannouchi in June, when I was in Tunisia researching an article about al-Nahda. I had asked Ghannouchi at that time what al-Nahda might do with an electoral victory, and he had assured me that they would seek a national unity government. It did just that. After al-Nahda scored a major victory in Tunisia's first post-Ben Ali election, it quickly formed a national unity government while ceding the post of president to the secular human rights campaigner Moncef Marzouki. Ghannouchi explained that his party "would opt for a coalition government even if al-Nahda achieves an absolute majority, because we don't want the people to perceive that they have moved from a single party dominant in the political life to another single party dominating the political life."  Such reassurances have been meant to respond to the suspicions of Islamists and the political polarization endemic to post-Ben Ali Tunisia -- and seem thus far to have succeeded. 

When I asked Ghannouchi what al-Nahda's top priority would be in government, he answered not with talk of shari'a [Islamic law] but with a "guarantee that dictatorship will not return to Tunisia." He dismissed fears that al-Nahda employed a "double discourse" (i.e. saying one thing in English and something else at home) as a relic of the Ben Ali era's propaganda. He acknowledged that al-Nahda was a large movement, with many distinct points of view, but insisted that "there are no people in al-Nahda who are takfiri [i.e. declaring opponents to be non-Muslims]; there is no one in al-Nahda that believes that violence is a means of change or to keep power; there is no one in al-Nahda that does not believe in equality between men and women; no one in al-Nahda believes that jihad is a way to impose Islam on the world."

But Ghannouchi clearly understands both the difficulty and the urgency of convincing Tunisian secularists and outside observers of those convictions.  He told me that he expected the party to be judged by its performance. He insisted that al-Nahda's commitment to democracy had been strengthened by the Ben Ali experience, when thousands of its members were imprisoned or forced into exile. "The prosecution of al-Nahda movement could have led us to violence, and this is what Ben Ali wanted. But our experience in prison has deepened our belief in freedom and democracy, and Ben Ali failed to drag us into violence. And that's why he fell."

And what of the salafis with more extreme views? Ghannouchi laughed, "if Tunis becomes Salafi country, nothing can be guaranteed." Tunisians tended toward moderation in their Islamic beliefs, he emphasized, which shaped al-Nahda's approach. Turning serious, he went on to argue that salafis grew radical under torture and repression, and argued that in a more open environment al-Nahda would help convince them to adopt more moderate understandings of Islam. When I pushed him, he said bluntly that al-Nahda would actively resist any salafi efforts to push for a more Islamic constitution.  His party will be judged by whether it lives up to such commitments. 

An edited version of the interview follows:

Read Interview.


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