|Ghannouchi was welcomed by thousands of supporters on his return to Tunisia since his exile in 1989 [Reuters]|
Rachid Ghannouchi returned to his homeland on Sunday, after nearly 20 years in exile.
Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri sat down with the leader of Tunisia’s al-Nahda – a pro-democracy Islamist party which remains illegal, even in post-Ben Ali Tunisia – to discuss his party’s ambitions for the future.
Were you surprised by the welcome that you received, the thousands of people at the airport there to welcome you back to your homeland?
No, I was not surprised, I always had belief that the Tunisian people were faithful, and that [deposed president Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali’s attempt at distorting our image was not successful.
What were your feelings when you landed and arrived and saw your country for the first time in more than twenty years?
I felt great joy and pride in the Tunisian people, who succeeded through their peaceful, popular revolution to topple a dictator who was supported by external powers.
I was proud that I came back holding my head high, not having submitted to anyone but my creator and not having offer any compromises or anything to the toppled dictator.
How do you feel about the situation now, that your movement is not part of the interim coalition government? Do you feel that they are moving in the right direction towards election right now?
The situation is still vague. The dictator has been toppled, but the remains of the dictator are still there. Through the constitution which was tailor made for the dictator, through the parliament which was the fourth parliament which was made by the dictator, through the laws that restrict all freedoms, through the political police that are still harassing people, so the situation is still serious.
But do you feel that the government has made some concessions at least? There are only two junior ministers that are part of the old ruling party, and the prime minister himself has said that he will stand down when there is an election.
This government is still not stable, every time there is pressure that is exerted by the street protests it throws some members and replaces them with new members, so it is still unstable.
So what do you think this government needs to do to bring some stability back, and are you willing to contribute to that through your movement?
There must be a real national unity government that includes all political parties as well as civil society institutions, including the trade unions, the union of lawyers without excluding anyone. This government still has the same features of exclusion and containment of the revolution.
You have said that you are not going to run for president. Is that still the case, now that you have seen some of the support in this country?
The support that I have seen will not change my decision because my decision was not based on any fear of a lack of popularity. I always had trust in the Tunisian people, it’s for other reasons, that is, that Tunisians need a younger leadership and there are younger generations within al-Nahda who will be more appropriate.
How popular do you think your movement is now? It’s a long time since you were here, a long time since you took part in an election. Many things have happened to your movement, many of your members have been imprisoned. A new generation has grown up not really knowing about your movement … Do you think you stand a chance in the elections?
There were tens of thousands who came to the airport, mostly young women and men – some of the women not wearing head-scarves – all testify to the failure of the previous regime to destroy the memory of the Tunisian people who are faithful to the respected figures. I could give you any figure, but the only figure that could reveal the extent of the popularity of any party is the elections.
Let’s talk about the ideology of your party. Would you say that it’s similar to the AKP in Turkey?
Since you mention Turkey, most of my books and my articles have been translated to Turkish, and form part of the reference point for the AKP. The Turkish experience remains the closest to the Tunisian situation, culturally, politically and socially, Turkey is the closest case to Tunisia. So al-Nahda, if you were to compare it [with another movement], cannot be compared to the Taliban or Iran, the closest comparison would be to the AKP.
So if you party won, would you like to see Tunisia similar to how Turkey is right now?
There are similarities, but obviously each country has its specific conditions, we admire the Turkish case and those who are in charge of it are our close friends.
It’s very interesting that you said that some women who came to the airport had no head scarves. There have been women protesting, concerned about perhaps your movement and what it would mean for them, whether you would want women in this country to wear head scarves, to cover up their heads. Can you just explain what your feelings are on this issue?
We have continuously defended the right of women and men to choose their own lifestyle, and we are against the imposition of the headscarf in the name of Islam and we are against the banning of the headscarf in the name of secularism or modernity.
We have seen some people preaching on Avenue Habib Bourghuiba. In the name of your movement, could you just explain who these people are and what they’re preaching about?
I have not heard about them.
So you do not think that there’s a grassroots movement growing in Tunisia, trying to gain support for your movement? It’s nothing that you have, perhaps, instigated?
There are many that have grown up while we were absent, we have been forced to be absent from the scene for thirty years … and generations have grown up and been influenced by our thoughts. Many have, for example, set up Facebook groups in our name, but officially they are not members.
What are you doing now to gain support around Tunis for your party? What exactly is your movement doing to gain support amongst young people around the country?
Now that dictatorship has been toppled, there is great interest in al-Nahda and we are unable to encompass all the … who are interested in joining. We need our own media, our own channels, to educate new generations following the moderate, democratic Islam which we want to become mainstream, not just among our members, but among Tunisian society.
Let’s talk about the security situation. We have spoken to other opposition leaders who are concerned about their own safety, and that they feel unsafe as they did during Ben Ali. Can you just tell us how you feel since you are back? Do you feel safe? Do you feel secure?
Yes, security at the moment is out of control, to the point that each person feels at risk of any attack. But not from these people, we are amongst our people, and we do not feel that any attack will happen…I feel protected, in addition to divine protection, I feel the protection of the Tunisian people and by this revolution.
Let’s talk about Egypt. First of all, what is your message to the Egyptian people who are uprising against Hosni Mubarak. As a Tunisian, what is your message to them?
I am very proud of the Egyptian revolution. I am optimistic the Tunisian people have given a model for how, through a peaceful revolution, people can topple the strongest dictatorships.
The success of the Egyptian revolution would be a gift for the Tunisian people because it would protect their own revolution, so I hope the Egyptian revolution will not stop until it achieves its aims of toppling dictatorship and establishing a democratic transitional government.
Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood will play more role in the uprising?
It’s clear that the Muslim Brotherhood are present strongly in this revolution but it’s also clear that they did not raise any particular Muslim Brotherhood slogans and neither did any of the other opposition parties, and this is again a Tunisian lesson, that the revolution cannot be contained or exploited by any political party, that it’s a revolution of the people and should remain so. The Muslim Brotherhood has learnt this lesson and others have learnt it as well.
Do you feel like that’s how you have had to represent yourself in Tunisia coming back – it’s interesting to see you wearing Western suit, and when you came off the plane, you were wearing a Western suit as well. Do you feel that that has influenced you in the way you come back to Tunisia?
That has no relationship to this, I always dressed like this.
How close do you feel to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
Islam is the common point, and our moderate view of Islam. However, each country has its specific condition and independent decision-making processes.
People are extremely concerned about what the future holds. What is your message to them?
The people must protect their revolution if they value the important achievement of toppling the dictator. The blood of the martyrs is trusted in their hands, and not all their goals have been achieved. The street must remain mobilised, the genuine opposition and civil society institutions must coordinate to build a common vision, on which a national unity government will be formed to rebuild a political, democratic life in this country.