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A Tunisian Islamist Looks to the Future

5:05 PM, Dec 1, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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Earlier in the week Israel Hayom reported that the new Tunisian constitution may include “a section condemning Zionism and ruling out any friendly ties with Israel.” Yesterday Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of al-Nahda (Revival), the main Islamist party that won more than 40 percent of the seats in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections two weeks ago, disputed the report. “I don’t think this clause will be included in the constitution,” said Ghannouchi.

Rached Ghannouchi

His aides clarified that the condemnation of Zionism was in a document between the leading parties. As for the constitution itself, Ghannouchi continued, “I don’t think it should be included.” There’s no reason, he explained, to outline policies about a situation in flux like the Arab-Israeli crisis. “The only country that should be named in the constitution,” said Ghannouchi, “is Tunisia.”

Ghannouchi’s comments came during the course of an hour-long meeting at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Wednesday morning. The 70-year-old intellectual and activist is making the rounds this week in Washington, D.C., to give policymakers, researchers, and journalists a preview of what’s in store for post-Arab Spring Tunisia and the rest of the region.

Often described as the very model of the moderate Islamist, Ghannouchi spoke of women’s rights, democratic principles, and freedom of speech in the new Tunisia. Regarding freedom of religion, he seems to have surprised most of the dozen or so assembled scholars and analysts when he offered his opinion that people “are free to quit any religion, or change their religion.”

Leaving, or reverting from, Islam is typically considered apostasy and many schools of jurisprudence contend that the act is punishable by death. In countries like Egypt with a large Christian population—Tunisia is almost exclusively Sunni Muslim—charges of apostasy have frequently been at the center of Muslim-Christian conflict. How much weight his interpretation carries is unclear. For instance, Ghannouchi’s patron, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars Yussuf al-Qaradawi, seems to have a much more traditional understanding of apostasy.

Ghannouchi lived in exile in London for 20 years before returning to Tunisia in the wake of the uprising that deposed President Zein Abdine Ben Ali. After the Tunisian Islamist thanked the “martyrs of the revolution” for making this trip to the United States possible, Washington Institute executive director Robert Satloff reminded Ghannouchi why he had been denied a visa for so long. Among other things, he’d threatened attacks against the United States for its 1991 war against Saddam Hussein. Ghannouchi supported Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait—a political position at odds with a reputation now bolstered by his opposition to despotic, and secular, Arab republics. Avoiding altogether the subject of Saddam, he explained that his ideas had developed and he disagreed with Ayatollah Khomeini’s idea that America was the Great Satan. “The United States is a nation that makes decisions,” said Ghannouchi, “some of them good, and some of them bad.”

He had relatively kind words for America. The U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks were evidence, said Ghannouchi, that the United States was “slightly better” than France in so far as they were concerned with Ben Ali’s human rights abuses. He sees “the position of the U.S. on the Arab revolutions as very positive,” said Ghannouchi, “It provides a new basis on the ruins of what the extremists have wanted to destroy through war.”

Nonetheless, Ghannouchi says, “bin Laden was right.” “The regimes can’t be changed from within, but he didn’t see they could be changed peacefully,” said Ghannouchi. “This is our contribution,” he said of Tunisia, where the winds of the Arab revolts first picked up almost a year ago now. “It’s our patent,” said Ghannouchi, “and Tunisians are very proud of it.”

If this was the year for the regimes of Arab republics—like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—to fall, “next year,” said Ghannouchi, “will be the kingdoms.” In the past, Ghannouchi has had problems with Saudi Arabia, the most influential of Arab monarchies, and his forecast may come back to haunt him. If the Arab Spring gave Tunisians the chance to take their “destiny in their hands,” as Ghannouchi said, it is precisely those kingdoms that will be expected to pick up much of the tab.

Oil-rich Libya could afford its Arab Spring, but for Tunisia, and Egypt, it’s a different matter. Tourism, a major source of revenue for both Tunisia and Egypt, is way down, and there is no telling when it’s going to recover. In September, the World Bank, IMF, and G8 countries pledged nearly $80 billion in assistance to struggling Arab states, but very little of that has reached its intended recipients so far. Given Europe’s financial crisis, propping up Tunis and Cairo is not the highest of the continent’s priorities. If the oil-rich Gulf monarchies wind up in the middle of a life-and-death struggle, then Tunisians are apt to feel it as well.

Ghannouchi cited the Turkish model as a likely pattern for Tunisia—perhaps unaware that the Turkish economy is also in free fall. Both countries are led now by Islamist factions that came out of the Muslim Brotherhood, and, as Ghannouchi noted, his books enjoyed a wider readership in Turkey than in his native Tunisia, where they were banned under Ben Ali.

Recently, however, Ghannouchi cited other possible precedents that might influence the new Tunisia. "Gaza, like Hanoi in the '60s and Cuba and Algeria, is the model of freedom today,” Ghannouchi said in a TV interview in the spring. When asked yesterday, he couldn’t recall making that statement but contended that the Hamas government was legitimate insofar as it came to power through legitimate elections.

Even before the elections that brought Hamas to power in 2005, Ghannouchi supported Palestinian rejectionists. A decade ago he thanked another kind of martyrs, suicide bombers, and the wombs that engendered them. “I bless the mothers who planted in the blessed land of Palestine the amazing seeds of these youths, who taught the international system and the Israeli arrogance, supported by the U.S., an important lesson. The Palestinian woman, mother of the martyrs, is a martyr herself, and she has created a new model of woman.” This is a very different sort of woman’s rights agenda than the one Ghannouchi says he is pushing for Tunisian women.

When Ghannouchi explained that policies regarding ever-shifting issues like the Arab-Israeli crisis should not be noted in Tunisia’s new constitution, he was perhaps hinting that the problem will be solved in due course—with the elimination of the Jewish state. As Ghannouchi said just this year, in the midst of the fervent of the Arab Spring: “I bring glad tidings that the Arab region will get rid of the germ of Israel. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, leader of the Hamas movement, once said that Israel would disappear before 2027. That date may be too far off; Israel may disappear before that.”

Yesterday Ghannouchi was reluctant to speak about Israel and the Palestinians. His focus he says is on Tunisia. That’s also where Ghannouchi most credibly establishes his credentials as a moderate Islamist. In this context, he is an admirable advocate of women’s rights, human rights, and freedom of speech. Perhaps the Tunisians are fortunate in their newly elected government, and if not maybe they’ll take their destiny in their hands once again. It’s all the rest of us who have to worry about a hate-filled eliminationist who heads the party that has now come to power in North Africa.

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