"I think the Muslim Brotherhood [in Egypt] should govern by coalition that includes the people from secular parties and the Copts." That was the advice which Rached Ghannouchi, President of Tunisia's el-Nahda Party, offered his Egyptian Islamist counterparts during an interview with the editors of the Middle East Channel last Thursday. He warned pointedly against repeating the mistakes of Algeria when, as he put it, "the Islamists won 80 percent of the vote but they completely ignored the influential minority of secularists, of the army, of the business community. So they did a coup d'etat against the democratic process and Algeria is still suffering from that." Avoiding a replay of that catastrophe weighs heavily on Ghannouchi and his party.
Ghannouchi was in Washington at the invitation of Foreign Policy, after being named one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers. He took full advantage of the opportunity to visit the United States for the first time in twenty years, appearing at a wide range of think tanks including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and meeting with a range of U.S. government officials, journalists, and policy analysts. He had warm praise for the Obama administration as "supportive of the Arab Spring," and described the new willingness in the United States to talk about a more positive relationship between democracy and Islam, and between Americans and the Islamic world, as a very important new development. His reception in Washington is a sign of the times, as the United States struggles to adapt to the reality of Islamist electoral success and Islamist parties struggle to reassure those who fear their ascent while delivering on their own programs.
I last saw Ghannouchi in June, when I was in Tunisia researching an article about al-Nahda. I had asked Ghannouchi at that time what al-Nahda might do with an electoral victory, and he had assured me that they would seek a national unity government. It did just that. After al-Nahda scored a major victory in Tunisia's first post-Ben Ali election, it quickly formed a national unity government while ceding the post of president to the secular human rights campaigner Moncef Marzouki. Ghannouchi explained that his party "would opt for a coalition government even if al-Nahda achieves an absolute majority, because we don't want the people to perceive that they have moved from a single party dominant in the political life to another single party dominating the political life." Such reassurances have been meant to respond to the suspicions of Islamists and the political polarization endemic to post-Ben Ali Tunisia -- and seem thus far to have succeeded.
When I asked Ghannouchi what al-Nahda's top priority would be in government, he answered not with talk of shari'a [Islamic law] but with a "guarantee that dictatorship will not return to Tunisia." He dismissed fears that al-Nahda employed a "double discourse" (i.e. saying one thing in English and something else at home) as a relic of the Ben Ali era's propaganda. He acknowledged that al-Nahda was a large movement, with many distinct points of view, but insisted that "there are no people in al-Nahda who are takfiri [i.e. declaring opponents to be non-Muslims]; there is no one in al-Nahda that believes that violence is a means of change or to keep power; there is no one in al-Nahda that does not believe in equality between men and women; no one in al-Nahda believes that jihad is a way to impose Islam on the world."
But Ghannouchi clearly understands both the difficulty and the urgency of convincing Tunisian secularists and outside observers of those convictions. He told me that he expected the party to be judged by its performance. He insisted that al-Nahda's commitment to democracy had been strengthened by the Ben Ali experience, when thousands of its members were imprisoned or forced into exile. "The prosecution of al-Nahda movement could have led us to violence, and this is what Ben Ali wanted. But our experience in prison has deepened our belief in freedom and democracy, and Ben Ali failed to drag us into violence. And that's why he fell."
And what of the salafis with more extreme views? Ghannouchi laughed, "if Tunis becomes Salafi country, nothing can be guaranteed." Tunisians tended toward moderation in their Islamic beliefs, he emphasized, which shaped al-Nahda's approach. Turning serious, he went on to argue that salafis grew radical under torture and repression, and argued that in a more open environment al-Nahda would help convince them to adopt more moderate understandings of Islam. When I pushed him, he said bluntly that al-Nahda would actively resist any salafi efforts to push for a more Islamic constitution. His party will be judged by whether it lives up to such commitments.
An edited version of the interview follows:
ML: Last time we met, you were preparing for elections and you didn't know what would happen. Were you surprised by the results?
RG: I was not surprised by the results. All the polls that were conducted showed that al-Nahda was ahead. I was expecting the results to be slightly better for al-Nahda, but the electoral code did not allow a better result to happen.
ML:The Al-Nahda party in the Constituent Assembly now has formed a coalition. Could you describe your thinking, or the thinking of the party, in forming that coalition?
RG: We have declared since before the elections that we would opt for a coalition government, even if al-Nahda achieves an absolute majority, because we don't want the people to perceive that they have moved from a single party dominant in the political life to another single party dominating the political life.
[We did this] because the picture on the Tunisian scene is more beautiful and colorful with a coalition And also, frankly, because the next phase is a sensitive phase and there are big challenges, and it is an adventure for a single party to go it alone during this phase.
ML: How are you trying to reassure people who are afraid of al-Nahda?
RG: There is definitely a faction of people that are still not reassured with al-Nahda. But the results show that we succeeded with a good chunk of the population, from men and women, in showing that we are serious about our projects in establishing democracy and assuring development.
In any case, we are not aspiring to reach 99 percent. The people who do not trust us, it's normal, because for 22 years they have been subject to propaganda from Ben Ali which has discredited us, and made people fearful of us.
ML: What about the people who truly are scared, how do you reassure them?
RG: We will defend their right to be in the opposition. And we will prove to them by our deeds that their fears about double discourse -- about us saying [things] we will not do -- that this is just an old heritage from the Ben Ali era.
ML: How can people be sure that al-Nahda as a whole, as a movement or as a party, will follow your thinking?
RG: Al-Nahda is a movement, it is not just a small party. It is not strange in al-Nahda that we have many currents and many thoughts, and that's why the president of al-Nahda has never achieved 99 percent -- but he's elected. So he reflects the opinion of the majority.
Al-Nahda is not a collection of many parties, it is just one party. There are common denominators that unite all members of al-Nahda: There is no one in al-Nahda who doubts about Islam There is no one in al-Nahda that believes in extremist views of Islam. There are no people in al-Nahda that are takfir people. There is no one in al-Nahda that is violence is a means of change or to keep power. Everyone in al-Nahda believes that democracy is the only way to reach power and to stay in power. There is no one in al-Nahda that does not believe in equality between men and women, and the rights of women. No one in al-Nahda believes that jihad is a way to impose Islam on the world. But we believe that jihad is self-control, is social and political struggle, and even military jihad is only a way to defend oneself in the case of aggression.
ML: What are the priorities of al-Nahda?
RG: We will guarantee that dictatorship will not come back to Tunis. We are for a parliamentary system which no longer gives us a person with concentrated powers. Our utmost priority is to guarantee freedoms: personal freedoms, social freedoms, and women's rights. We did not ask to add anything to the first article of the old Constitution, which says that Tunisia is an Arab and a Muslim country.And everyone seems to agree on this in Tunisia.
ML: How will you respond if salafi parties try to push for more Islam in the constitution?
RG: The law is always made by people, through their representatives, and the people are not asking for more than this today.
ML: So, if a Salafi member puts on the table...
RG (in English): If Tunis becomes Salafi country, nothing can be guaranteed. (laughing)
ML: So you would actively resist?
The salafis in Tunis are a very small minority, very small groups. We defend their right to exist, and to express themselves. We believe that in a free environment we can convince these people that their understanding of Islam is not a good understanding. We are not afraid or concerned. What we are keen on is the establishment of freedom in the country.
The Tunisian people are moderate in their Islamic beliefs, and these currents -- the salafists -- have been established in the absence of al-Nahda, and the absence of freedom. It started in Egypt, in the dark places of prisons of Abdul Nasser. And also in light of torture.
The prosecution of al-Nahda movement could have led us to violence, and this is what Ben Ali wanted. But our experience in prison has deepened our belief in freedom and democracy, and Ben Ali failed to drag us into violence. And that's why he fell.
ML: Were you able to maintain any organization under Ben Ali?
Our organization had been dismantled during Ben Ali term; the only thing is we kept a very small organization just to keep feeding our families.
ML How did you rebuild it so quickly?
RG: People unite around ideas so when the idea is there and the people that carry these ideas are there it's very easy to bring them back.
We did not start from nothing. We started from our histories through forty years now. There was not a single family in Tunisia that was spared from this. Every family had either a martyr, a prisoner, or somebody who was kicked out from their work. Al-Nahda is deep rooted in the Tunisian society. It's not just into individuals, it's into families. People have sympathy for those people who have been prosecuted in general.
ML: So tell me about Egypt. How is Egypt different from Tunisia? Have you personally had conversations with leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood?
RG: Many times we had conversations and dialogue. The Egyptian youth read my books with admiration.
But the Egyptian equation is much more complicated than the Tunisian equation. There are religious minorities and ethnic minorities in Egypt. There is a strong salafi movement. The role of the army is different in Egypt than it is in Tunisia.
ML: So what is your advice to the Muslim Brotherhood. Can they repeat what you did?
I think the Ikhwan should govern by coalition, a coalition that includes the people from secular parties although they are minorities, the Copt also, people close to the military. These minorities are small. But they are extremely influential. For them to succeed it's very important to bring all these people together into a coalition.
In the election process it's an honest competition and everybody should get their fair share. However, governing is another issue. The balance of power should represent the weight of the people not in terms of numbers but in terms of influence.
This is the mistake that happened in Algeria when the Islamists won 80% of the vote but they completely ignored the influential minority of secularists, of the army, of the business community. So they did a coup d'etat against the democratic process and Algeria is still suffering from that. This is why we always insisted on a national unity government.
The MB is a big movement, it's an entrenched movement and a responsible movement as well and I don't think they will embark on any foolish adventure.
ML: What about America? Do you think the United States is doing the right thing?
RG: I think America this time did the right choice. It supported the people instead of supporting the rulers.
I found in Washington a great optimism about the Arab Spring, especially in Tunisia. The official positions by President Obama, by Secretary of State Clinton and the ambassadors in the region in general are positive and are supportive of the Arab Spring. This is very rare that it happens. But I think it's a good thing and a very good start.
I'm very pleased when I come to Washington and people are starting to talk about harmony between democracy and Islam. This is a new thing and this pleased me a lot. This is a very very deep and important change in understanding the especially in the area of interrelationship between Islam and the west. This is very important at the level of political understandings.
ML: And Obama?
RG: President Obama has a different view about the future and the relation with the Muslim world. He's an intellectual. He has a vision. He has a world vision and vision toward history as well and the importance of Islam in the world. And his speeches in Istanbul and Cairo show his deep understanding and vision.
I'm really pleased and I think his policies toward the Arab Spring are good and positive, for the record.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.