A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 21, 2011

Rachid Ghannouchi and Al-Nahda: Will They Return?

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.


David Mack said...

Contrary to Tunisian Government claims during the past decade, while in exile, Rachid Ghannouchi spoke out against the Al Qaeda attacks of September 2001. I can't remember his exact words and don't have the source at hand, but an Islamist friend brought his statement to my attention after I published an article in 2005 in which I had fallen into the trap of relying upon the Tunisian government line on this point.

the dour goat said...

"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. "

Just as an aside (I realise this isn't the main point), how representative do you think Bourguiba was of Tunisian society? How many other people were out there drinking orange juice with him?

David Mack said...

My time in Tunisia was 1979-1982, when Bourguiba was no longer exercising much leadership. But the secular system he had built was in firm control of the government, universities and most other official institutions, even if the weak Islamist party of the day (at-Tayar al-Islami or "Islamic Current") had a minority following. Socially and culturally, I found Tunisia to be a very divided society. Perhaps I was more aware of this having come from officially secular Iraq and speaking Arabic. In Tunis and the Sahel, you felt you were in a southern Mediterranean environment. I had to speak French in order to do my work. In Sfax or the cities of the interior, greater Islamic piety (and use of Arabic) seemed to be the rule. With a few exceptions, even in Tunis, the Ramadan fast was observed in public even by Tunisian smokers. There was no mosque anywhere close to the U.S. Embassy, located in one of the more Frenchified parts of Tunis. When some of our Tunisian employees asked if they could have a room for prayers so they would not feel a religious obligation to absent themselves from the embassy premises for a long midday break, I thought it was a good idea and agreed. We later heard that there were people in the Tunisian Government who resented a gesture that I thought was both culturally sensitive and sound employee management. Evidently, the Tunisian Government did not make similar provisions. Our employees, however, expressed appreciation, save for one senior and very secular Tunisian who thought we were setting a bad example!

Michael Collins Dunn said...

My first visit to Tunis was 1988, so I was never there during the Bourguiba years. I doubt if all that many Tunisians publicly emulated Boueguiba during Ramadan, but certainly on a lot of issues, including public consumption of alcohol, Tunisians have fewer inhibitions than in many countries. (I don't think I've ever been there during Ramadan.)

While I don't know all parts of the country, of places I've been, Kairouan clearly had the most traditional, religious, and Arab feel to it. More so even than the area around Zeitouna in the Tunis Medina. I believe Kairouan was also a Nahda stronghold.