The Majalla recently posted this article on the return of Islamist and leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party Racheed Ghannouchi to Tunis and asked me for my comments, published here. Here is a more extended version of my thoughts:
Gannouchi’s return, and the thousands of people who greeted him at Tunis airport, is significant for the immediate future of Tunisia in numerous ways. Firstly, his very return is a clear indication from the new regime – if we can yet call it such – that things are to be done differently than prior to the Revolution. Gannouchi was condemned in absentia by Ben Ali’s regime to lifetime imprisonment, a sentence that officially has still not been lifted. Allowing him to return unmolested is an indication that the new interim government seeks to satisfy demonstrators’ demands of a break from the political intolerance of the previous regime.
The second observation is that, whilst Gannouchi’s return has sparked joy amongst his supporters, it has also mobilized secularists. Small groups were at Tunis airport to demonstrate against Ennahda, and a march by secular women against Gannouchi was organized on Saturday. Whilst it is still early days in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, these secular versus Islamist battle lines might form the key political divisions in the months to come. Remember that Tunisia’s founding father Habib Bourgiba modeled his state on Attaturk’s secular reforms in post-Ottoman Turkey. Were a more Islamic leaning to gain popular support, it would not be totally surprising for a similar ‘Kemalist’ secular party to emerge in defence of these values.
That said, the final significant point about Gannouchi’s return is his reconciling and moderate tone. He was quick to dismiss comparisons with Ayatollah Khomeini and expressed keenness to emulate the democratic and pluralist AK Party in Turkey rather than autocratic Islamists such as Hamas. Moreover he stated a desire to cooperate with all opposition groups including secularists. He said his Ennahda party would not field a candidate in any forthcoming presidential election, allowing a consensus figure to be Tunisia’s first elected leader, but would contest seats in parliament. It must be recalled that Gannouchi and his party played little part in the street-led revolution that allowed for his return and he cannot lay much claim to it. His spirit of cooperation and moderation is therefore unsurprising as he is currently in no position to make grand claims about plans for power even if he wished to.