Considered the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia was the first country to hold democratic elections after the fall of its authoritarian regime. In October, Tunisians went the polls and the moderate Islamist party Ennahda won 40 percent of the vote and the right to form a government. Carnegie hosted a discussion with Rached Ghannouchi, co-founder of the Ennahda party. In discussing the rising trend of Islamism in the region and his party’s goals for the country, he addressed the role of Islam in the region, Tunisia’s economic challenges, and democratic rights in the country.

Ghannouchi’s Key Points

  • The Role of Islam: It is clear that Islam is going to play a significant role in the region. Recent trends will hopefully show that Islam and democracy are compatible. Ennahda, as a party, seeks a democratic regime with Islamic values. The party would like to establish a coalition government to indicate that it is also possible to work with secularism.  
  • Investment and Economics: Tunisia faces a number of challenges, among them unemployment (there are currently about 1 million unemployed Tunisians) and high corruption levels. If Tunisia can establish good governance, then it can encourage investment in the country. Ennahda believes in a free market system that is responsible to its people, especially the poor. 
  • Failure of Ben Ali Regime: Ennahda believes that one of the greatest failures of the Ben Ali regime and earlier governments was the exclusion of Islam from politics. Islam is a set of values and way of life, not just a religion. Ennahda seeks the translation of Islam into democracy.  
  • Rise of Salafism: In Tunisia, Salafism is a relatively new and weak phenomenon. With the arrests in the 1990s and the closing of Zaytuna University, a religious vacuum was created and this is where Salafism may have stepped in. Ennahda plans to deal with Salafism just as the West deals with their extreme left and right. In Egypt, pushing Salafists into politics is good because it forces them into reality and away from an ideal. 
  • Women: Ennahda will not change the status of women in Tunisia or the personal status code. Emphasizing the role of women in his party, Ghannouchi stated that out of the 49 women elected to the constituent assembly, 42 of them are affiliated with Ennahda.  
  • Pluralism: If Ennahda loses its prominence in the next elections, it must respect the Tunisian choice. It is then Ennahda’s prerogative to work to change the mind of Tunisians by the next set of elections. Just like there is no compulsion in religion, there is no compulsion in politics. Every party, even a Communist one, has the full right to exist.  
  • Apostasy and Heresy: Ghannouchi is of the opinion that the issue of apostasy (the renouncement of religion) as referred to in Islam is a political issue that related to tribes committing to Islam but refusing to pay their taxes or zakat. He stressed that Islam is based on freedom and just like you enter Islam freely, you have the freedom to leave Islam as well. 
  • Foreign Relations and Palestine: Ennahda will focus its efforts on Tunisia. Once an ideal model is reached, then Tunisia can begin to think about influencing other countries. The Tunisian revolution, however, is not for exporting. On the issue of Palestine, Ghannouchi believes that Hamas was elected by the Palestinian people in an honest and fair election. Whether he accepts the policies of Hamas is a different question, however.
  • Mistrust of Ennahda: There is no doubt that mistrust of Ennahda exists. Ghannouchi contends that much of it is due to the propaganda that was put in place by the Ben Ali regime linking the party to terrorism and labeling it as a threat to women’s rights. He stated that in light of this propaganda, the 43 percent that Ennahda won in the most recent elections is a considerable amount. Unlike Ben Ali, however, Ennahda is not looking for a 99 percent victory.