Posted by on June 06, 2013 in Blog

By: Raouia Briki

Summer 2013 Intern

Rashed GhanoushiA few days after the first draft of the Tunisian constitution was finished, Rashed Ghanoushi, co-founder and President of the Tunisian Islamist Party Al-Nahdha, visited the US to give several public and private speeches in collaboration with the Center of the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID). During a 20-minutes-address entitled “Tunisia’s Democratic Future” at the Brookings Institution on Friday, May 31st, Ghanoushi highlighted the challenges of the democratic transition in Tunisia. More than a deep analysis of the situation, the address was a reassuring message to the western public that the “Arab Spring” will not be transformed into a “fundamentalist winter”. The audience was diverse and included Radhouan Masmoudi, President of Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), Martin Indyk, Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at Brookings and a former ambassador to Israel, IMF representatives, Tunisian embassy representatives, representatives from US-based NGOs, US government employees, and journalists. The speech was followed by a Q&A led by Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. The address and the Q&A section were in English, a language that Ghanoushi did not seem to be entirely comfortable with, switching to Arabic every now and then as well as looking for translations for his words from the Arabic-speaking audience. In fact, the speech was the same one that Ghanoushi had delivered two days before for a different audience of scholars at CSID.

Like several other speeches abroad, Ghanoushi’s talk opened with highlighting the non- contradiction between Islam and democracy, saying that his party’s coalition with two other non-Islamist parties was made to show that Tunisia is for all: Islamists and non-Islamists.

Ghanoushi commented on the ongoing process of drafting the constitution. He emphasized the importance of the document and expressed his approval of the first draft, which will be presented to the national committee soon. Ghanoushi reassured his audience that Sharia law will not be included in the constitution, rhetoric that is not often heard in his speeches in Tunisia.

As for the challenges facing the country, Ghanoushi said that despite security and economic problems, the government succeeded in reducing unemployment by 2%, increasing growth by 2% and attracting six million tourists to visit Tunisia last year. However, these numbers contradict a harsh reality in Tunisia, according to recent studies. A study entitled “Youth, Employment and Economic Transition in Tunisia,” published by the Global Economy and Development at Brookings, found that Tunisia’s unemployment rate increased from 18.3% in 2011 to 19% in 2012.

Last summer’s tourist season saw touristic stay away out of security concerns and the hospitality sector suffered tremendous losses.

Ghanoushi pointed to the Salafis who represent a real threat to the country’s security especially after armed conflicts between the Tunisian army and extremists in the border area of mountain Chaambi. He put the blame for the Salafi emergence on the previous regime, describing the Salafis as “the fruit of the Ben Ali regime,” a statement that contradicts his previous, more supportive positions regarding Salafi groups. Although Ghanoushi mentioned that poverty, especially in central Tunisia, is a source of violence and extremism, his speech failed to mention any clear immediate economic solution that his party would follow to overcome the problem.

The reassuring rhetoric in the Islamist leader’s speech could be music to western ears, as it preaches universal values of democracy and the rule of the law, but is not heard the same way in Tunisia. Ghanoushi reassured his audience that the government cannot deal with the extremists’ problem in the same violent way Ben Ali did, hence ignoring the violence police have used against both far right (Salafis) and far left groups (Femen Feminist protesters). In an attempt to respond to a journalist’s question about the case of Amina (the Femen Feminist group activist), Ghanoushi smiled in confusion, saying that topless protesting is something strange to Tunisian society. In an attempt to make a joke, he referred to his last visit to New York City, “the craziest city in the world,” where he did not see anyone walking the streets topless. He also stated that Amina is psychologically not doing well and that he spoke to her doctor and she will be taken care of.

Although Mr. Ghanoushi’s speech is nothing new to the Tunisian community worldwide, it is always interesting to notice his shifting positions as his audience changes. So far, he has succeeded in saying different things to different people, but one wonders how long he can continue.  

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