The political transformations that occurred after the Arab Spring saw the emergence of political Islam with new force. This occurred not only in Tunisia, where the revolutions began, but more widely in the whole Middle East and North Africa region. More than three years after Ben Ali’s fall, Islamists are still part of political processes in Tunisia, whereas in some other places (like Egypt) their role in politics has been significantly restricted. This interview with Dr. Yusra Ghannouchi, the international spokesperson for the Tunisian Ennahda Party and daughter of its founder Rashid Ghannouchi, was held in London at the end of February 2014. It assesses the performance of Tunisian Islamists since 2011 and explores some of the mistakes Ennahda made while it was a key player in the government. It sheds light on Ennahda’s economic policies, its attitude towards Tunisian Salafists, and the wider ramifications of Tunisian transformations and challenges ahead.
The Tunisian Islamists, after winning thirty-seven percent of votes in the elections following Ben Ali’s flight from the country, emerged as a key player on the country’s political stage. Yet, before they won the parliamentary elections in 2011, the party faced the difficulty of merging different experiences into one organizational structure. The party also faced the challenge of re-elaborating its ideological tenets in an effort to combine Islamism with respect for pluralism and liberal democracy. From the very beginning of its political re-emergence, many expressed fears that Ennahda’s supposed “real goal” was the creation of a Sharia-based Islamic state, in which both women’s rights and civil liberties would be severely limited. These fears took root in spite of the efforts of its leader Rashid Ghannouchi to dispel concerns of the party`s opponents during numerous conferences and public speeches, in which he advocated political pluralism and civil liberties as the undisputed foundation of the new political system. At the same time, Ennahda had to also face criticism from the Salafists. The emergence of a varied Salafist camp constituted an additional challenge to Ennahda as it ceased to be the only religiously oriented actor in the system. Thus, the party has had to try to find a balance between the secularists and the Salafists, to navigate criticisms of some troublesome developments (like the jailing of rapper Weld 15 and feminist activist Amina Sboui) under its watch, and attempt to address some key social and economic demands of Tunisian society in the turbulent region.
Konrad Pędziwiatr & Rachela Tonta: While initially Ennahda held a majority of key posts, it later held only a minority—and from the very beginning it shared power with other parties. How do you assess Ennahda’s performance as a governing party, taking into account the mutable aspect of governance?
Yusra Ghannouchi (YG): Yes, this is the point that I wanted to make first: Ennahda was obviously part of the government (and the prime minister was from Ennahda) but [the party] never had full control over [the government]. A generalization is often made about its “domination,” but this is inaccurate. The proportion of Ennahda ministers changed over the last two years, but from very beginning there was nothing that you could describe as a dominance of Ennahda in the government. From the very beginning Ennahda held around forty percent of the ministries, and the other two parties held around thirty percent. The rest were independent. And this reflected, more or less, the election results: the two others parties had less than twenty-five percent of the votes in 2011.
Ennahda obviously held some keys ministries, such as the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but some other parties in the coalition led important ministries like Finance. Then in March 2013 Ennahda gave up the key ministries and a number of other ministries. The other two parties also gave up some of their ministries but not as many as Ennahda. And thus, three parties of the coalition held around fifty percent [of the ministerial appointments] and the other fifty percent belonged to independent candidates. The technocrats and independents were already part of the government. So, from the very beginning and even before the election and before the results came out, Ennahda’s intention was to include as many parties as possible who shared not identical ideology or the same political or economic views, but who shared the aims of the revolution and wanted to use this transition to set up democratic institutions in Tunisia. We consulted many more political parties than those that agreed at the end to cooperate with us. During the reshuffle that took place at the beginning of 2013, we contacted many opposition parties and proposed key ministries, and it was their decision to remain in opposition. So the goal to have a broad coalition, which is very important for the transition period to achieve agreement and stay away from political conflicts and wrangling, was important for Ennahda from the very beginning.
KP & RT: Did Ennahda make any political mistakes during its three years in power that you think could have been avoided?
YG: Obviously the situation was far from perfect and that is to be expected from any party for the first time that it is part of a government and part of pluralistic and democratic experiment. I think that applies to all "Arab Spring" countries. New parties in power were, in the past, just opposition parties; unlike parties in democratic societies, they operated in conditions where nothing was allowed, including free elections. Now we have a new situation where it is possible not only to freely express yourself but also to be part of the government. This happened in a very sensitive period of transition with high expectations and numerous challenges.
So it has been very difficult. There was a lot of learning in this period and a mixed performance by various ministers from Ennahda and from other parties new in government. Different sections of the population have different priorities and it was difficult to please everyone, achieve economic improvements, and focus on accountability and the transitional justice process, which was delayed. There was some dissatisfaction in many sections of the society, but I think that in all these fronts there has been relative success. I think that this period under evaluation is quite short. Not all, but relatively a lot has been achieved. There are various causes for that. Some are internal, like the new political elites’ lack of experience, and some are external and associated with some political actors’ lack of interest in success. Taking all these things into consideration—that is being in the revolutionary period, having parties with little experience in government, wider regional situation, security challenges, and economic recession in Europe with which Tunisia has strong links—I think that what has been achieved is significant.
KP & RT: One of the issues you mentioned—namely economic conditions and, in particular, the reduction of unemployment and improving the general economic situation–were Ennahda’s key promises. What are the reasons that the government has not managed to live up to these promises?
YG: I cannot agree with you completely. As I have said, not everything that was promised and intended could be achieved because of circumstances. Some of [these circumstances] could have been predicted (like the situation in Europe), but some (like the behavior of other political parties) were less predictable. There are structural problems in the Tunisian economy that everyone knows will take long time to resolve, more than just two years. Many people also assess the government for a period of the past three years, forgetting that one year after the revolution the post-election government was formed, and that it was also restructured. Many ministries were completely new—like Human Rights and Transitional Justice—so it took them some time to establish themselves.
Many problems with the economy and unemployment are structural. The main problem is youth and graduate unemployment as a result of an imbalance between skills and the job market. There is a clear mismatch and it cannot be solved easily, so many of the structural problems in the economy continue. The fact that the situation in Europe has not been improving much also has an effect on Tunisia. Eighty percent of Tunisia’s trade is with Europe. The situation in Libya, which has been not as good as expected, absorbs a lot of Tunisian workforce and has also had an effect on the country’s economy.
Unemployment in fact has been reduced. When the government took over it was nineteen percent and now it is 15.4 percent I believe. So, taking into account all the challenges, the fact that the government has managed to reduce unemployment is very significant. But we should not be mistaken—the high unemployment especially among fresh graduates will stay for some time. The World Bank estimates that if Tunisia manages to achieve around three to four percent growth, then it will allow it to keep unemployment at the current level. This is because every year thousands of new people enter the job market. Thus, there is an urgent need to create new jobs. Tunisia needs to increase its growth to six to seven percent to really reduce unemployment and start to resolve the problems in a permanent way. But again, when the [current] government took over the economy, it had shrunk by 1.8 percent. Under this government is has been growing at three per cent. Of course it is not enough, but in Europe, in France for instance, they celebrate 0.1 percent increases in growth. So it is something to celebrate in Tunisia.
Many tried to evaluate the government on the basis of the fact that it has not managed to take back tourism to 2010 level. But the fact that it is ninety percent of that level is a great achievement considering all the challenges. We hope that soon we will see not only recovery to pre-revolution tourism rates but even exceeding this level.
KP & RT: What do you think about the accusations of the secular parties that while being in power Ennahda treated Salafist organizations too mildly? They often argue that Ennahda is responsible for significant deterioration of the security situation and deepening of social cleavages. Do you think that Ennahda made any mistakes at the beginning when it started to negotiate with Salafists? What do you generally think about relationships between Ennahda and the Salafist groups?
YG: I will start from the end of your question. It is important to distinguish between Ennahda and various trends of Salafism in Tunisia. There are important differences and yet some secularists are not able to distinguish these differences, as if all religious people were the same. However, all decisions should be made from the basis of clear information. Ennahda, and Tunisians as a whole, wish to stay away from Ben Ali’s policies of victimizing entire communities without any basis. After the revolution Ennahda and the majority of other parties made a choice that everyone has to be responsible for his/her individual action. The only way to deal with Salafists then is to correct their interpretations as they were also victims of Ben Ali’s policy of repression and eradicating moderate Islamism in Tunisia. We should not exclude them, but rather engage with them in order to change their views. That was Ennahda’s and the government’s policy towards Salafists. It started to change since the attack on the United States embassy in September 2012. So the actual facts that proved that some of them would go as far as the use force to impose their views and ambitions changed the situation. But it is not up to Ennahda but up to the state, the security, and the legal systems to deal with them by applying the law and not beyond that. So, I do not see how that can be seen as being lenient towards Salafists.
When Ansar al-Sharia was proscribed there were accusations from the same quarters [secular parties] that this is going too far, that this is unjust etc. So there is a very delicate balance, and some are ready to criticize whatever your choice. But generally dealing with extremism is very sensitive and delicate. Achieving the right balance is difficult not only in Tunisia but also in many European countries. How to deal with violent extremism without unjustly alienating and victimizing large segments of the society is a key issue facing many countries, not only Tunisia.
KP & RT: How has the situation in Egypt affected Tunisia (especially the events of the last year—the ousting of President Mohammad Morsi and naming Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization)?
YG: Before the coup there was not much interest in Tunisia about the situation in Egypt. Of course, there have been some comparisons pointing out, for example, that in Tunisia it took very long to write a constitution while in Egypt there were many elections and the assembly passed the constitution, etc. But generally speaking I would say that before the coup our interest was local and we mainly focused on the Tunisian situation. After the coup in Egypt, no one could ignore what happened there. Egypt is a much larger country of strategic importance and it has significant influence in the region. So whether they go further towards democratization or go back towards dictatorship is very important for the whole region. And this is why there has been so much interest. Not because the Islamist president was removed from office but because the democratic process has been aborted and Egyptian society has been brought to the pre-revolution era or even worse.
KP & RT: Is there any chance in your view that Egypt will return to the path of democratic transition?
YG: I cannot predict any time frame or how it could happen. Right now the situation is in many ways worse than during Mubarak in terms of arrests, human rights violations, complete denial of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, atmosphere of fascism against all those who are different, against all foreigners, etc. It is worse than under Mubarak. However, I do not think that Egyptians after all the sacrifices they have made would accept to go back to pre-revolution era. How long it will take? I cannot predict, but I hope that it does not get much worse before it gets better.
KP & RT: One scholar, Alfred Stepan, has argued that the Tunisian situation of religious citizens respecting the democratic state and vice versa could be described with the term “twin tolerations.” In his view these tolerations were absent in the case of Egypt and led to the coup d’état in July 2013. What you think about this concept? Do you find it useful in explaining transitions in Tunisia and in Egypt?
YG: Definitely there are important differences between these two countries, and I think the concept is quite useful. Tunisia has this pluralistic tradition and a long history of reforms. Although at the same period in the nineteenth century, ideas of constitutional reform and limits on the power of the state were also circulating in Egypt. However, twin tolerations and acceptance of the intrinsic pluralism and diversity in Tunisia is very important. It is the only way to have a stable democracy in Tunisia. No one should dream about eradicating the other, whether secularist or Islamist, but should accept the intrinsic and inherent diversity of Tunisian society. And I think that is what is happening and it is reflected both in the government and in the constitution in the sense that no one had dominated the process; it has been a shared process.
Sadly that has not been the case in Egypt. There are also many more differences between Tunisia and Egypt in terms of [military] involvement, etc. But we hope that we can be a sort of model for the rest of the region with this unprecedented coalition between secularists and Islamists in government, in civil society, in the establishment of the democratic institutions in Tunisia. This is the only way for our society to have not only mechanisms of democracy like elections, but also to establish democratic society that embraces diversity.
KP & RT: Now with the new constitution what are the biggest challenges ahead of Tunisia?
YG: For us the priority now is holding elections that we hope will be organized in six months. A few months ago there was much more uncertainty about a time frame and what was going to happen. Now we are in a much better situation, where we have established not only the constitution but also the electoral commission that will look after organization of the elections. It is an independent body, unlike in the past where it was under the Interior Ministry. So hopefully these elections will not be contested and will be pluralistic, open, and fair. We also have a new electoral law being discussed. Once that is adopted then hopefully the electoral commission will announce a date and in six months after that time elections can be held. So that is the main priority for us. I mean for us not as a party but for Tunisia. And that is why Ennahda had made many concessions simply to reach this important step—the adoption of the constitution and then moving forward toward these new elections. They are very important because after the first elections, which had more focus on writing of the constitution, these will be very important for consolidating the achievements we have made. We always heard in past stereotypes that democracy cannot flourish in the Arab World, and that Islamists would only have one set of elections to reach power. So we need a tradition of successes, elections, alternations of power, and different parties being part of the government. We have just established this tradition that was absent in our country. Free elections are very important and they will end the phase of temporariness. Everything we have had so far in Tunisia is temporary, the assembly, the prime minster, the presidency etc. But after these elections we will have more permanency in the key institutions of democracy in Tunisia.
KP & RT: Any other important challenges and priorities ahead aside from the organization of elections?
YG: There are many other related challenges. Mainly the security and socio-economic conditions mentioned earlier that are important in themselves but also for the elections; if we have any security conditions worsen or the eruption of social unrest then that could possibly delay the elections. So for this government the priority is holding elections and creating a positive atmosphere. So as I have said earlier the challenges are huge—especially economic—and they will be there for some time because of what is happening around Tunisia and in the region. But things have been gradually improving and we hope this trend continues.
[This text was produced within a project “Islamism and Pluralism: The Islamist Movements in Egypt and Tunisia after the Arab Spring” financed by the National Science Centre (Poland) - Decision No. NCN-KR-0011/288/2/2012]