General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster from power has opened Tunisia’s political landscape somewhat. Political parties and various groups, such as trade unions and lawyers’ associations, are jostling to secure an advantageous position in the uncertain political climate that currently reflects Tunisian society. Political parties that existed legally were obviously tainted by cooperation with the regime.
General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster from power has opened Tunisia’s political landscape somewhat. Political parties and various groups, such as trade unions and lawyers’ associations, are jostling to secure an advantageous position in the uncertain political climate that currently reflects Tunisian society. Political parties that existed legally were obviously tainted by cooperation with the regime. The most credible political party, al-Nahda — or the Islamic Renaissance Movement — that was banned by Ben Ali, and its leader, Rachid Ghannounchi forced into exile because he was handed three life sentences, remains the most appealing alternative to the decrepit and now thoroughly discredited old order. In 1989, al-Nahda had secured 20% of the vote even in the rigged parliamentary elections. Ben Ali was not going to allow such popular support to go unchallenged, hence the brutal crackdown.
The question is whether the existing order and its major power brokers would allow al-Nahda’s emergence in a major role. Equally important is whether al-Nahda can reconstitute itself after prolonged absence from the political scene with many of its leaders and cadre either killed, jailed or exiled.
Al-Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has vowed to return but until Crescent press time, there was still no word when that might happen. He had told the Financial Times of London (January 18) that the decision would be left to party leadership. The Interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi (no relation) has said Rachid Ghannouchi would not be allowed to participate in the political process because he has three life sentences against him. The interim prime minister is still clinging to the past and has little credibility left in the country as is evident from the continuing protests where people are demanding his resignation. Tunis has been rocked by protests as people continue to stream in from the countryside pressing their demand to dismantle the old system completely.
Al-Nahda’s support remains particularly strong in the countryside. People tend to be more religiously inclined and maintain traditional values there. It was people in the countryside that launched the uprising which then quickly spread to other parts of the country finally engulfing the capital Tunis as well. City dwellers are generally more cosmopolitan and influenced by Western thoughts and values, yet it would be wrong to assume that al-Nahda has no support there. Western media reports are trying to create the impression that all urban Tunisians are secular and would not support al-Nahda’s rise. Typical of these was David Kirkpatrick’s report in the New York Times. Discussing al-Nahda’s role, Kirkpatrick wrote that while it was “yearned for by legions of working-class and rural Tunisians,” it was “viewed with just as much apprehension by the cosmopolitan coastal elite” (January 20, 2011).
Kirkpatrick offered no proof for his views but he interviewed Ali Larayedh, one of the leaders of al-Nahda who was imprisoned and tortured for 14 years by Ben Ali’s regime and then hounded for the past six years by the ubiquitous secret police. Larayedh was quoted in the Times as saying “his party posed no threat to Tunisians or to tourists sipping French wine in their bikinis along the Mediterranean beaches.” He was also quoted as saying al-Nahda leaders had enlarged their “views to encompass Western values.”
One point on which the West frequently berates Muslims is the issue of women’s rights. The West insists its norms and values are universal and everyone must conform to them. It seems leaders of al-Nahda have also succumbed to this pressure. “We are Muslim, but we are not against modernism,” Larayedh said. He cited his party’s strong embrace of women’s rights, even to the point of advocating a quota to ensure a minimum representation of women in Parliament, “until they get their voices.” He insisted, “We are not going to exclude women like some other extremists.” One wonders who he had in mind when he referred to extremists because for the West any Muslim that takes his/her Islam seriously is an extremist. Similar sentiments have been expressed by Rachid Ghannouchi in interviews with the media in Britain.
Larayedh, however, appeared unapologetic about opposition to American interference in Arabian countries. He viewed it as detrimental to the interests of the people since the US talks about democracy but supports dictators in power. Such policy has distorted the natural development of every society in the Middle East. “That is why people all over the Arab world hate the American administration,” Larayedh added. “And we are against any foreign troops in Arab countries, not just American troops; it seems like we are not independent countries.”
Al-Nahda leadership faces two crucial challenges. It must secure its place in the political arena but at the same time it must offer a credible program to attract the masses. It would be a mistake to abandon Islamic principles for short-term political gains or for the sake of expediency. Statements by al-Nahda leaders since Ben Ali’s ouster point toward the compromising stance they have taken. They have said, quite rightly, that they must lead by example and persuasion, yet they appear far too eager to project themselves as “moderate”. This clearly appears aimed at appeasing Western policymakers. For instance, they insist they are “more liberal” than Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as well as the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Why do Muslims have to prove their “moderate” credentials and why should they seek approval of Western policy-makers, whether in Paris, London or Washington?
In fact, al-Nahda may harm its own prospects at the polls because the Tunisian people have clearly become far more radicalised, and realized the potential of street power. They are insisting that the old system must be dismantled completely. If al-Nahda leadership misreads the situation, they may find themselves left behind by the rapidly changing developments that are being shaped by people’s determination to consign the old order to the dustbin of history. Al-Nahda has to make clear whether it believes Islam offers the best solution to people’s problems or has it become so diluted after years of oppression and its leaders spending decades in the West that they have been taken in by Western propaganda that insists only secularism offers a solution to people’s problems?