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Tunisia’s Islamist Leader, Home After 21 Years in Exile

In an interview with La Stampa, Rachid Ghannouchi insists that he favors a lasting democracy and women playing a political role in Tunisia's future.


TUNIS - Until last month, Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder and leader of the Islamist al-Nahda Party -- the Tunisian equivalent of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood -- was just one of thousands of Tunisian immigrants living in London. Now, two weeks after president Zine El Abidine Bel Ali fled the country, Ghannouchi has returned to his homeland after two decades in exile.

An estimated 1,000 Tunisians welcomed the Islamist leader when he arrived at the airport last week, and his return is the topic of conversation across the country. Some worship him, others blame him for perpetrating terror attacks in the 1980s. He sat down with La Stampa in the family home in the El Menzah 6 neighborhood in northern Tunis.

Rashid Ghannouchi, what kind of Tunisia have you found, after 21 years in exile? I have found a happy people. A people proud of having chased away the dictator. A people experiencing freedom for the first time.

Are you happy about how your were received by your countrymen when you returned? Someone compared it to Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Tehran in 1979. But actually, there was not the same kind of huge crowd to welcome you as there was for Khomeini, true? I am not Khomeini. I am a Sunni, not a Shiite. Tunisia is much smaller than Iran. I have no ambition to become president, a minister, or a member of Parliament. Having said that, I am happy to have been welcomed by (so many) Tunisians. There were many young people. There were even several young women who did not wear the veil.

Al-Nahda has been a banned party for more than two decades. Now it is back and getting ready for the elections. Will you run? I am the party's president. Three days ago we applied to the Ministry of the Interior to be officially registered.

Tell us something about your Party's agenda. Al-Nahda recognizes the multi-party system, freedom of speech, and democratic elections.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood forbids women and Coptic Christians from becoming president of the party. Does al-Nahda follow similar guidelines? We do not agree on everything. For al-Nahda, a woman or a Copt can become president. The only condition is to win the election.

How do you envision a new, democratic Tunisia? Many of your fellow countrymen fear that al-Nahda will undermine the country's secular principles. Does your party want to see a Tunisia rooted in Islamic principles? Tunisia is not a secular country. Article One of the Constitution says that Tunisia is an Islamic country. There is no need to establish it, because it is already one.

Unofficial polls estimate that between eight and ten percent of the population supports you. Do you think those numbers are accurate? Your Facebook page reached 55,000 members in just a few days. Forecasting the electoral weight of a party that has never taken part in elections is impossible. It may garner 10%, 20%, or 30% of the votes.

What is your relationship with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood? We are in touch with groups and movements that follow a modern and political Islam, such as the Moroccan Justice and Development Party and the Turkish AKP (ruling party). We are very close to the Turks.

What Muslim country do you see as the best model for Tunisia--Turkey, Iran, or Indonesia? Turkey, of course. But also democratic Islamic countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

What is your response to people who do not trust your democratic pledges. who fear that al-Nahda will radicalize Tunisia? It is necessary to avoid Islamophobia. The West must appreciate the differences that exist between the various Islamic movements. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Osama Bin Laden are both Muslims, but they are not the same thing. We feel closer to the former, than to the latter. Thinking that everyone is the same is dangerous. And it misses the real point, which is that political Islam today is the main political trend in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria--everywhere. Be assured that there is no contradiction between Islam, democracy, and modernity.

What country will be next to follow in Tunisia's footsteps? Egypt will win in the end. Like in Tunisia, there the struggle has been driven by the people, not political parties. Then it will be Yemen. Then, maybe, Algeria.

Do you think that the Egyptian crisis will endanger peace with Israel? Not necessarily. Egypt's relationship with Israel may shift. But, I do not necessarily forecast a war.

There are people in Tunisia who blame you for the terrorist attacks that occurred in the 1980s. Was this a factor in your decision not to run for elected office? This is just propaganda from the old regime. Al-Nahda is peaceful. I will not run because there is a new generation in our movement that can do it. My goals are studying and teaching Islam with the International Union of Muslim Scholars.

What do you think about the transition government?It is illegitimate. It has been created without consulting with all groups.

How do you envision Tunisia two years from now? It will be a democratic and Islamic country.

Which means what? Women will be in power, a Copt may be president, and there will be freedom of speech.

So, what will be the difference between Tunisia and the UK, where you lived most recently? Islam's values come from sacred texts. Still, every law has to be approved by the parliament.

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Utter Pessimism, What Israelis And Palestinians Share In Common

Right now, according to a joint survey of Israelis and Palestinians, hopes for a peaceful solution of coexistence simply don't exist. The recent spate of violence is confirmation of the deepest kind of pessimism on both sides for any solution other than domination of the other.

An old Palestinian protester waves Palestinian flag while he confronts the Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the village of Beit Dajan near the West Bank city of Nablus.

A Palestinian protester confronts Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the West Bank village of Beit Dajan on Jan. 6.

Pierre Haski


PARIS — Just before the latest outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, a survey of public opinion among the two peoples provided a key to understanding the current situation unfolding before our eyes.

It was a joint study, entitled "Palestinian-Israeli Pulse", carried out by two research centers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, which for years have been regularly asking the same questions to both sides.

The result is disastrous: not only is the support for the two-state solution — Israel and Palestine side by side — at its lowest point in two decades, but there is now a significant share of opinion on both sides that favors a "non-democratic" solution, i.e., a single state controlled by either the Israelis or Palestinians.

This captures the absolute sense of pessimism commonly felt regarding the chances of the two-state option ever being realized, which currently appears to be our grim reality today. But the results are also an expression of the growing acceptance on both sides that it is inconceivable for either state to live without dominating the other — and therefore impossible to live in peace.

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