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A Tunisian Islamist Looks to the Future

5:05 PM, Dec 1, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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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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