Analysis

Tunisia Could Be on Verge of New Revolution: Separating Religion and Politics

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of country's leading Islamic party, talks of a 'Muslim democracy' instead of theocracy, and shows that Arab Spring need not necessarily bring extremist movements to power.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda party, speaking during his party's general assembly in Tunis, May 20, 2016.
Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

Five and a half years after raising the flag of revolution that ignited the Middle East, another revolutionary act in Tunisia is already shaking up the region's Islamic movements.

Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the North African country's main Islamic political party Ennahda, has announced his intention to separate the religious movement entirely from its political wing. Instead, he will establish a party that engages in politics like any other civilian, secular and democratic party, while transferring activities like religious preaching, nurturing the religious education system, sermons and theological publications to organizations unconnected to the political side.

If he achieves all these things, it will be the first time a religious-political movement affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood undergoes such a historic upheaval.

To understand the implications of this, it's necessary to imagine what would happen if Israel's Council of Torah Sages announced that there would no longer be any connection between the political activity of ultra-Orthodox political parties and religious activities within yeshivas, etc. The Haredi parties would cease to represent only the ultra-Orthodox sector and would become parties concerned with the entire population, to the point where they would no longer be able to use religion as a basis for their demands.

Is this a unique political vision, or the end of days? Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, the influential media personality who used to run the Al-Arabiya news channel, believes “Ghannouchi is a fox like all other political foxes who wears two hats – one for impressing the public outside his country, and the other the hat of a conservative to preserve his public at home.”

But even Rashed had to give the 74-year-old Ghannouchi credit where it's due. Not only does the analyst respect the Tunisian leader as an important and profound Islamic intellectual; he also praises his surprising political conduct after the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia that expelled dictator/President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

In the elections held after that revolution, Ennahda won 37 percent of the votes and enjoyed sufficient support to establish a government. However, Ghannouchi preferred to build a coalition with two secular parties – the Congress Party (headed by a human rights activist) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties. Although this coalition cost him a number of ministerial portfolios and led to a huge wave of rage against him by activists in his own movement, Ghannouchi refused to buckle.

And that wasn't the end of the surprises he prepared for the Tunisian public. During discussions over the formulation of the constitution that the “new” Tunisia was to adopt, Ghannouchi agreed to a series of extensive concessions in the religious-political arena. Instead of a purely parliamentary regime, which he wished to institute – and which would have given him a great deal of political power – he agreed to a compromise whereby the regime would be presidential-parliamentary, whereby the president would have more authority.

He agreed that Tunisia would be defined as a civil state and not religious state, dropped the definition of atheism as a crime and, in effect, adopted the civil character of the state as it had developed since President Habib Bourguiba’s rise to power in 1957.

Ghannouchi disproved fears that the Arab Spring would bring extremist religious movements to power that would transform the “revolutionary state” into a radical theocracy. He proved that the model of the state established by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the revolution there – where the lust for power and hasty implementation of Islamic ideology ultimately led to that group's political demise – was not a plague that would infect all neighboring states.

Extraordinary decision

In August 2013 – about a month after the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had been deposed and army general Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s regime took power – huge demonstrations raged in Tunisia, demanding the dissolution of parliament in order to remove the Ennahda movement from the political sphere. Ghannouchi took an extraordinary decision at that time, one that showed the difference between his political conduct and that of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After prolonged negotiations with his coalition partners, he agreed to establish a government of technocrats. This political wisdom has not been at the disposal of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which still fails to understand that the struggle for the legitimacy of its regime is a lost cause. It's indisputable that Ghannouchi’s political conduct after July 2013 was influenced by the events in Egypt, but the message he is currently proposing – if he is indeed serious – goes way further than any political manipulation.

His message comes out strongly against the ideology Egyptian-Islamist theoretician Sayyid Qutb dictated to the Muslim Brotherhood and most other radical movements. This was the extremist ideology that made Qutb the "intellectual-spiritual godfather" of those movements, whether they took the path of jihad or confined themselves to preaching.

On the question of democracy, Qutb was clear. He ruled that “Democracy and human rights are only appearances. This is because behind them are the wealth and the wealthy individuals who can purchase a person’s opinion and direct him to the choices they desire. Wealth is the owner of the media that directs opinion. Therefore, in the age of globalization, a Muslim doesn't have the possibility to choose between the desirable and the undesirable – since the undesirable, too, is marketed to him as desirable and worthy. The freedom of expression and choice in the name of which Western democracy speaks is nothing but the freedom to commit heresy, the freedom to worship idols, to destroy the foundations of the faith before all those who open the doors in that imported democracy.” The word of God is the final arbiter, ruled Qutb.

No to caliphate

Ghannouchi is now talking about a “Muslim democracy,” not a theocracy. The Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida recently reported that Ghannouchi sent a message to a conference held by the Global Muslim Brotherhood in Istanbul last month. He reportedly declared, among other things: “It wasn’t medical or other reasons that kept me from attending the conference. The reason is that with every passing day, I feel the separation between you and I is coming closer. I am a Tunisian Muslim and I believe that nationalism is important and fundamental. I will not allow anyone to deny me my Tunisian nationalism, and will not permit any attack on Tunisia even if it comes from those engaged in the unifying mission” – meaning those who demand the establishment of a single Muslim state under the rule of a caliphate.

“I do not want Tunisia to turn into nearby Libya or distant Iraq," he continued. "I say to you outright that your way is mistaken and has led to troubles in the entire region. I am now a soldier in the service of the defense of my homeland, Tunisia, and I will not allow terror, no matter what its title, to harm my homeland because the fall of my homeland is my fall.”

However, Ghannouchi has denied sending this message or speaking about separation from the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, at the party conference last week at which he was chosen as leader of the movement for another term, he made clear that “we are astounded by those who want to distance religion from national life” i.e., politics. Yet Sobhi al-Atiq, a senior member of Ennahda, said explicitly in an online interview: “Ennahda has no organizational connection or affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Ennahda is a unique phenomenon. The preaching will be done by other organizations, while Ennahda will continue to be a political party.”

Naturally, the contradiction between the interview Ghannouchi granted French daily Le Monde – in which he spoke about the new political principles that will guide his movement and about “Muslim democracy” – and the speech he made at his party’s conference arouses questions. Indeed, he has already been subjected to criticism for merely trying to market his party and himself to the West, while in fact he has not changed his ideology.

However, this is not what some of the Muslim Brotherhood's top people in Egypt believe. They are still mired in deep crisis following the battle the Egyptian regime is waging against them, after it defined their group as a terror organization. The younger generation in the Egyptian movement is demanding not only elections to the movement’s institutions, but also an accounting for the way the movement has been run and the mistakes made during its brief time in power.

It's doubtful that Ghannouchi will be able to convince the leaders of the Global Muslim Brotherhood to adopt his ideas, or market them to neighboring countries. But at least Tunisia could offer the Islamic movements and parties a different, unique and reconciled model for the integration of religion into democracy.