Yesterday the interim Tunisian government indicated that it would legalize all banned political parties. Some reports certainly indicated that this would include the Al-Nahda (Renaissance) Party, the main Islamist party, suppressed after 1989. Meanwhile, Al-Nahda's leader in exile, Rachid Ghannouchi (unrelated to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi), living in exile in London, gave an interview to the Financial Times last Sunday indicating he intends to return to Tunisia soon, despite the fact that he is under a sentence (in absentia) of life imprisonment. (On the other hand, along with legalizing banned parties, the new government said it would free all political prisoners.)
As many have noted, despite Western stereotypical assumptions about the Arab/Islamic world, political Islamism played no detectable role in the Tunisian upheaval; nor would one expect it to in such a determinedly secular society, where Habib Bourguiba used to publicly eat during Ramadan. But Tunisia did have an Islamist movement, Al-Nahda, which showed some electoral strength during the brief liberalizing period after the fall of Bourguiba (when Ghannouchi actually met at least once with Ben Ali), and was subsequently (and ruthlessly) crushed. Ghannouchi left the country in 1989, and was later tried and sentenced to life in absentia.
So will Al-Nahda and its leader re-emerge onto the Tunisian political scene after two decades of suppression? As it happens, back in the early 1990s I published a few articles and a monograph on Al-Nahda, and was accused by the Islamists of being a flack for Ben Ali and by the Tunisian government of being too soft on Al-Nahda, because I wasn't a particular enthusiast for either. What happens next will be of interest. Tunisia's secular history and prominent role for women's rights makes it seem an improbable breeding ground for Islamism in the traditional form, but Al-Nahda has always marched to its own drummer, and Ghannouchi is these days comparing his party to Turkey's AKP, a democratic party in a highly secularized state. Although I've met members of Al-Nahda, I've never met Ghannouchi.
Ghannouchi's track record is controversial; some members of Al-Nahda did engage in political violence in the early 1990s, but the government crackdown on them went far beyond the few provocative acts some committed. And Ghannouchi has always claimed to be a disciple of non-violence. He is not himself a trained cleric (though neither were such Muslim Brotherhood thinkers as Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, who, like Ghannouchi, started as schoolteachers), and pursued a secular educational track, studied in Syria (a philosophy degree from Damascus University), flirted with Baathist-style socialism, and still insists he is an advocate for labor unions, worker's rights, and women's rights. In a country where the elites come from Tunis or from the Sahel (Bourguiba and Ben Ali), he comes from the deeper south, from the Gabes region. His Syrian period is particularly atypical of Islamists: he reportedly worked for a while as a correspondent for Radio Tirana in then-ultra-Stalinist Albania, studied European philosophers, and flirted with the Baath. He is, in other words, complicated.
In his British exile he has maintained this reputation as a rather progressive Islamist. He has been demonized for decades in many Western countries, in part due to accusations against him by the Ben Ali government. He has been in exile for over 20 years and will turn 70 in June of this year. He says he has no personal political ambitions.
Does Al-Nahda have a residual following in Tunisia, or is Ghannouchi a relic of a different era? I don't know. Probably few Tunisians do. If the new government means what it says about legalizing all parties, we may have a chance to find out.