Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi on Islamic democracy

Qantara.de, a Germany-based publication promoting Western-Islamic dialogue, yesterday published an interview by Daniel Bax and Tsafrir Cohen (translated by Katy Derbyshire) with Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s mainstream Islamist party, Ennahda. That party, which initially led the country’s transition government after the December 2010 revolution, recently lost the first regular legislative and parliamentary elections, and it is now the largest opposition party in the Assembly.

Below are some excerpts from the interview that I found particularly interesting.

On the new constitution (background) and on Islamic democrats:

…we’re very proud of this constitution. We not only supported it; we also helped develop it. I don’t regard it as a secular constitution, but as one that unites Islam, democracy and modernity. We don’t see any conflict between moderate secularism and moderate Islam. There are Christian democratic parties in many European countries, such as Germany; elsewhere, there are democratic parties with Buddhist or Hindu backgrounds. Why should there not be Islamic democratic parties?

On the right to non-belief and secularism in an Islamic society:

…Islam guarantees freedom of religion and conscience, and that this applies in both directions: for adopting and rejecting the faith.

On the internal diversity and divisions of Islam (background):

There have always been different schools of thought throughout the history of Islam. But for 14 centuries of Islamic history, Islamic societies have always been pluralist and accepted people who followed other religions or none at all, and guaranteed this freedom and diversity. This acceptance of diversity is not something we had to import from the West either. When we look at Western countries, acceptance of diversity only evolved there after the Renaissance. Before that, there were religious wars that lasted for decades.

On universal rights:

Q: The French Revolution is regarded as the birth of enlightenment, democracy and human rights. What’s your position on these values?

Ghannouchi: The Tunisian constitution is founded on two pillars: the principles of Islam and the principles of modern society and human rights, which are a product of the Enlightenment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights [in 1948] was drawn up by people of many different cultural origins.

Q: There is also an “Islamic Declaration of Human Rights”, which was drawn up in 1990 by several Muslim states and which deviates from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a number of points, for instance on equal rights for women and men or rights for minorities. What do you think of it?

Ghannouchi: It represents an attempt to combine the principles of Islam with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But for me, there’s no contradiction between human rights and Islamic values. We accept that in our constitution, and that’s also part of the foundations of my thinking.

He also addressed the country’s severe terrorism recruitment problem, but he mainly attributed that to the decades of misery under repressive rule, which only began to end four years ago.


November 12, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 106


Topics: US elections, Tunisia elections, Burkina Faso coup. People: Nate, Bill. People: Bill, Nate. Produced: November 10th, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– US midterms: What happened? What’s next?
– What will the impact of the successful Tunisian elections be on the country itself and the region?
– Will Burkina Faso’s uprising lead to similar uprisings across sub-Saharan Africa?

Episode 106 (59 min)
AFD 106

Related links
Segment 1

Our 2014 Elections Coverage

Segment 2

The Economist: Tunisia’s presidential election: In the shade of Bourguiba
The Guardian: Tunisia election results: Nida Tunis wins most seats, sidelining Islamists
The Guardian: Tunisia is showing the Arab world how to nurture democracy | Soumaya Ghannoushi

Segment 3

Our Burkina Faso Coverage


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And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

Burkina Faso’s Printemps Noir: A Black Spring or a fizzle?

When protesters in Burkina Faso’s capital last Thursday burned the parliament to the ground and forced President Compaoré’s resignation the following day, some there and in other sub-Saharan African nations immediately dubbed the uprising the “Black Spring,” in comparison to the ethnically-labeled Arab Spring of North Africa and the Middle East. They were hoping that Black Africans would have their own moment to try to throw out dictators in a big wave.

Francophone (French-speaking) Twitter was flooded with the phrase “printemps noir” — literally “Black Springtime” — used alongside and in comparison to “printemps arabe,” the French term for the Arab Spring uprising that kicked off in Tunisia in December 2010. Tunisia, like Burkina Faso, was formerly part of the French colonial system, and Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali rose to power in November 1987 just weeks after Blaise Compaoré seized power in Burkina Faso, so the comparisons are natural.

Moreover, there are a number of other sub-Saharan African leaders (see map at bottom) who have been in office either nearly as long or significantly longer, who might be vulnerable to a domino effect like that seen in North Africa, while others with authoritarian leanings from the post-Cold War period who might be looking to extend their rule unconstitutionally or excessively. In the latter category, Rwanda, DR Congo, Republic of Congo, Chad, etc. In the former, Cameroon’s Paul Biya has been president since 1982 (and remains entrenched despite recent mounting spillover chaos from the Nigeria insurrection); in Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa’s two “1979 Presidents” (now the world’s longest-serving non-monarch leaders) has passed the 35 year mark and shows no sign of stopping; Uganda; Zimbabwe; etc.

In sum, Reuters reports:

[…] several “Big Men” rulers are approaching the end of their mandates amid concerns that they may try to cling to power by changing their countries’ laws.

Particularly in West Africa, some opposition supporters believe they can thwart such ambitions in the same way that Arabs in North Africa forced out the rulers of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

But how likely is that really? For one thing, it’s still not clear yet that Burkina Faso will successfully move from a military-led “transition” government currently in power toward democratic, civilian rule.

For another, it’s distinctly possible that this is an outlier that won’t be replicated domino-style, as in North Africa and the Middle East. On the one hand, Burkina Faso isn’t all that similar to other countries that might appear to be primed for mass uprisings:

The poor, cotton-producing state south of the Sahara desert already had a tradition of street protest and military-supported social uprisings. Marxist military captain Thomas Sankara led a popular revolution in 1983 inspired by Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba in the late 1950s.
However, they face more firmly entrenched rulers and elites than did the protesters in Burkina Faso. Crucial to the success of Compaore’s overthrow was army sympathy with the disgruntled masses, following a 2011 military revolt over unpaid bonuses.
By contrast, presidents of wealthy oil-producing states, such as Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos or Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema [both 35 years in power], can use state resources to grease the wheels of political patronage and invest in the loyalty of their military hierarchies.

Plus, they have the added advantage of seeing this coming from farther off, in part by having watched the missteps and failed suppression of the Arab Spring uprisings in some countries — as well as the far more “successful” suppression or avoidance tactics employed by some of the rulers of potential Arab Spring countries, such as the Kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan.

On the other hand, sometimes these things have a habit of getting away from you and beating expectations:

But veteran leaders cannot underestimate their increasingly vocal young urban populations. Millions of youngsters are coming onto the labour market and if their hunger for jobs, equality and a greater political say is not met, this could be a demographic time bomb for those who are reluctant to go.

After all, most observers (me included, to be sure) didn’t expect the Tunisian revolution’s example to explode so quickly and strongly into Libya, Egypt, or Yemen — and result in the collapse of their strongmen.

A partial map of the years that Sub-Saharan African strongmen took office, in relation to Blaise Compaoré's 1987 coup in Burkina Faso. (Map labels by Arsenal For Democracy.)

A partial map of the years that Sub-Saharan African strongmen took office, in relation to Blaise Compaoré’s 1987 coup in Burkina Faso. (Map labels by Arsenal For Democracy.)

Tunisia’s paradox

Flag-of-TunisiaTunisia — by comparison to the rest of the Arab Spring revolutions in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, or Syria — is essentially still the gold standard by leaps and bounds. There’s a moderate government, a fairly liberal constitution, elections were held and are about to be held again, there hasn’t been a coup d’état, there’s no major insurgency, and there’s no civil war.

But on the ground, in non-comparative terms, the picture is a little darker. The irony of the situation in Tunisia, in sum, is that they’ve gotten just enough freedom to be able to recruit for extremism but not enough freedom (and jobs, etc.) to stop a lot of people from being so angry that they want to join extremist causes.

The economic prospects remain about as dire as they were when a popular uprising over joblessness in December 2010 set the rest of the chain in motion, and the new government still hasn’t really managed to rein in the old regime’s extremely abusive police force (whose actions toward one street vendor sparked that uprising in the first place). Resentment is still very high, but the exploitative recruiters from fanatical ideologies now have the ability to recruit more openly than they did under the previous system.

And so it is, as the New York Times reports this week, that Tunisia has become a major source of fighters (and administrators) for the so-called “Islamic State” in eastern Syria and western Iraq, even as most Tunisians disapprove of the extremists.

While religious zealotry is certainly involved, the bigger factor still appears to be a deep-seated anger at the fundamentally unequal economic system of Tunisia, at the cruel security forces maintaining street-level control of people’s lives despite the revolution, and at everyone in the West who helped prop up the regime for decades. They hope to establish an economically fairer, utopian settler state and make new lives for themselves there, and they won’t be dissuaded by inconvenient truths about the realities of ISIS, because their own realities at home are bleak too.

Here’s a snippet from the Times report:

Mourad, 28, who said he held a master’s degree in technology but could find work only in construction, called the Islamic State the only hope for “social justice,” because he said it would absorb the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies and redistribute their wealth. “It is the only way to give the people back their true rights, by giving the natural resources back to the people,” he said.
Imen Triki, a lawyer at a nonprofit that has represented more than 70 returning Tunisians, described the thinking of many young ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis: “If I am going to get arrested and beaten here anyway, I might as well go where I can have an impact.”
Indeed, in dozens of conversations with young Tunisians, almost no one, whether sympathizers or critics, believed the news reports of the Islamic State’s mass killings or beheadings. “It is made up,” echoed Amar Msalmi, 28, a taxi driver. “All of this is manufactured in the West.”

The ruling party, which is moderate Islamist, has pledged to take a harder line against extremist recruitment but argues that the problem will only really be solved by turning the economy around and making serious progress in improving the lives of average citizens.

With airstrike allies like Bahrain…

Retired U.S. General Jack Keane, notorious paid hype-man for war, was doing international interviews overnight bragging about the participation of five Arab, “Sunni-based” air forces in US-led “coalition” airstrikes in Syria against the Arab, “Sunni-based” ISIS organization:

“We have five Arab Muslim Sunni-based nations attacking a Sunni-based terrorist organisation and that is … something we have not seen in the past. That is really quite an accomplishment.”

According to Reuters the five were:

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain were all involved, although their exact roles in the military action were unclear. Qatar played a supporting role in the airstrikes, the official said.

We’re all familiar with the record in Saudi Arabia and recent activities by Qatar and by the United Arab Emirates. But Bahrain stands out on that list as particularly problematic to be celebrating militarily, especially as an “Arab Muslim Sunni-based nation,” in the words of former General Keane.

For one thing, Bahrain actually has a repressive Sunni monarchy ruling over a Shia majority. During the Arab Spring in 2011, the government of that small Gulf state violently suppressed democratic protests in the capital, with the help of the armed forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (both of which, as noted above, also participated in the airstrikes in Syria on Tuesday).

For another thing, maybe nobody was paying attention to what was going on literally just 4 days ago in Bahrain:

Activists in Bahrain said thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets on Friday, rejecting a proposal made by the Gulf State’s monarchy on reforming the legislative, security and judicial sectors.

The rally was organised by the island’s opposition and came a day after Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa issued a statement detailing proposed reforms with the aim of accelerating “the resumption of dialogue” with opposition groups.

A national dialogue process has been stalled since January due to sharp differences of opinion over Bahrain’s three yearlong uprising and a failure to agree on a format and agenda for the talks.
Opposition leaders have criticised the crown prince for not consulting them on the initiative and said it does not go far enough to meet their demands – authorities have been previously accused of failing to follow through on promises of reform by activists and human rights groups.

Protesters on Friday rejected this offer en masse with banners showing their steadfastness in holding out for full democratic reform of the governance system.

Sounds like that “Arab Muslim Sunni-based” leadership is still not going over so well with the democratic activists who continue to mobilize, more than three years later, under threat of death.

Then again, those detail ares probably not what people like Keane care much about:

Left unsaid during his media appearances (and left unmentioned on his congressional witness disclosure form) are Keane’s other gigs: as special adviser to Academi, the contractor formerly known as Blackwater; as a board member to tank and aircraft manufacturer General Dynamics; a “venture partner” to SCP Partners, an investment firm that partners with defense contractors, including XVionics, an “operations management decision support system” company used in Air Force drone training; and as president of his own consulting firm, GSI LLC.

To portray Keane as simply a think tank leader and a former military official, as the media have done, obscures a fairly lucrative career in the contracting world. For the General Dynamics role alone, Keane has been paid a six-figure salary in cash and stock options since he joined the firm in 2004; last year, General Dynamics paid him $258,006.


Map of Bahrain (Credit: CIA World Factbook)

Map of Bahrain (Credit: CIA World Factbook)

Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf with a little over twice the area of the City of Las Vegas, is the permanent home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

US embassy staff moved out of Libya

In response to the growing chaos in the battle for control of Libya’s capital, the United States has moved its embassy staff in Tripoli out of the country, to neighboring Tunisia.

Staff, including marine guards providing security to the embassy, have been transferred to Tunisia “due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias,” [the U.S. government said]. Secretary of State John Kerry said there was a “real risk” to staff.
The US embassy in Tripoli was already operating on limited staffing. All remaining personnel were driven overland to Tunisia in the early hours of Saturday. The US military said it had “assisted in the relocation” of embassy staff, using F-16 and MV-22 Osprey aircraft. It said the five-hour operation was “conducted without incident”.

Turkey and the United Nations also pulled out their staffs.

libya-flagThe recent disorder in the capital centers on the airport (and which militia will control it), but the clash there is part of a wider struggle for power across the country.

That crisis is currently pitting Islamist politicians and their militias, who have been in power at least until recently, against an opposition coalition of anti-Islamist militias, anti-Islamist armed forces divisions, and General Khalifa Hifter. You can read our background report on the situation for more details.

Meanwhile in Libya…


The gains by ISIS in Iraq may be hogging the headlines, but let’s not forget about the situation in Libya. When we last left the story, in May, General Khalifa Hifter was attempting a second coup (again unsuccessfully) and rallying the anti-Islamist militias and secular-leaning non-loyal troops and aircraft to his side in Benghazi, the major eastern city. Benghazi is an ideal recruiting ground since many of the best organized militias started there at the beginning of the Arab Spring uprising against Gaddafi. He was having less success in the capital, Tripoli, in the West.

Since then, the internal fighting has continued to widen between the major blocs. Hifter was initially making more headway in his attacks on the Islamist militias in Benghazi and was rallying more forces to his cause. But loosely affiliated western forces under the Zintan Brigade had already held the main airport in Tripoli. Islamist militias struck back at the airport this weekend causing flight disruptions as well as consternation among outsiders (i.e. Westerners), who seem to vaguely prefer Zintan control of the facilities and runways — or perhaps just stability in who is controlling them.

There was also a national general election near the end of June, which although partially disputed and less than ideal is on track to be resolved relatively smoothly in the next couple weeks. The anti-Islamist bloc dominated the results this time, unlike last election, which means the side most sympathetic to Hifter’s position is expected to gain power, while the backers of the Islamist militia will be relegated to a minority. Could that position General Hifter for a “democratic”-coated rise to power in Libya?
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