Tunisia: ‘Ghannouchi for president’?

Rachid Ghannouchi has the national and international status to stand above the fray of narrow politics, writes Sadiki.

Deep down, Ghannouchi is not a "political animal", in the Greek sense; "politics for him is the art of managing public affairs" by maximising conditions of freedom and justice [EPA]

Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia stands out as a leading voice of reason in his bid to acculturate Muslims in Tunisia, primarily, into the art of making possible a paradigm of “wasatiyyah” (moderation) in matters concerning the shared space between religion and politics.

His iconicity in this field transcends narrow territorial politics, which some are seeking to embroil him in. There exists a limited number within the Nahda Party who are pressuring him into high office, however “Ghannouchi for president” or “Ghannouchi for prime minister” is inimical to the standing of a leading Muslim thinker and for Tunisian politics on the whole.

A phoenix of Islamism

In his new book Al-Dimuqratiyyah wa Huquq Al-Insan fi Al-Islam (Democracy and Human rights in Islam) recently released by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies following a two-day symposium in Doha, the Tunisian Islamist thinker shines out amongst his peers in unequivocally holding “freedom first” to be integral to Islam’s Godly-sanctioned good. Without it, organisation of public life would be antithetical to the key “maqsad” (Godly objective) of the ideal Islamic polity: management of public affairs through a comprehensive system of justice.

This has been the core thesis, Sheikh Ghannouchi, has sought to elaborate time and time again, using new insights and new sources, insisting on the inseparability of freedom and justice as political and religious ends in an ideal world.

The operative term here – and the key idea of “freedom first” (al-hurriyyah awwalan) – is bold and difficult to drive that message home without earning the wrath of newly rising forces that believe primacy should be to Islamic law, sharia first, as it were and not ‘freedom’.


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Ghannouchi does not shun Islamic law. Rather, he appreciates the standards of freedom and justice required to mediate, in the long run, the much-vaunted Islamic order.

The ideal cannot be prioritised or optimised when conditions of the Muslim nation is far from ideal: hunger, injustice, ignorance, internecine fighting, under-development, youth unemployment, exclusion of minorities and women, and absence of thorough interpretative corpus of laws and ideas for the big millennial questions of Islam to be put to bed once and for all.

This what Ghannouchi, in essence, furnishes those emerging forces of Islamism in the Arab Spring geography with: the interpretive vocation and an ethical tool-kit for knowing how to order the priorities of Muslim peoples in religious, political, social, economic and scholarly conditions that are not ideal.

Thinker vs politician

Ghannouchi is by default the most powerful man in Tunisia today. Modestly, he answers my question about his political ambitions during a tête à tête discussion in Doha last month: “Had I wanted high office, I would have grabbed power the day after Nahda won a majority of seats following the October 2011 elections.”  

Deep down, Ghannouchi is not a “political animal”, in the Greek sense. Politics for him is the art, as he states in his book, of managing public affairs by maximising conditions of freedom and justice. He can easily be out-classed (may be “out-foxed”) in politics – by Bin Ali when he first came to power with Sheikh Ghannouchi lending him, in good will, support. However, in intellect he is very sharp, lucid, widely-read, and eases his listeners into complex matters of jurisprudence and syncretic thought versed in the key medieval canonical works.

When London was his home, during close to 20 years of exile, I had an opportunity to ask many of the questions required to navigate the complex terrain of Islamist politics, first as doctoral student and later on, as a lecturer at the universities of Exeter and Westminster when we had annual meetings involving with Sheikh Ghannouchi in many a classroom or focused circles of learning in his local mosques, from which my students benefitted immensely.

Sometimes, the students who attended had preconceived ideas about the man and his politics. Very often they left the meeting not only enlightened, but also sympathetic to his cause, thought and political praxis, which avoided confrontation and violence even when Nahda’s members were persecuted and victimised violently by the Bin Ali regime.

One student dared to ask the question of whether Ghannouchi’s political end was to grab of power – it was the last meeting we had with Sheikh Ghannouchi, months before the Tunisian revolution erupted in December 2010. His reply was that reform in Tunisia and Muslim lands was ordained by Islam – but for the greater sake of avoiding civil strife, injustice and misrule.

To do nothing would be a moral failing, and not to say anything, which carried less risk in comparison with peaceful activism, would be even a bigger failing. They are two articles of the morality of activism preached by the Prophet of Islam. Had there been no misrule, he summed up, there would not have been any need to organise and mobilise to reassert the primacy of just rule in which freedom, consultation, legality and equality would serves as organising principles. 

‘Ghannouchi for president’

It is not a fragment of Sheikh Ghannouchi’s political imagination. In one sense, the Tunisian Islamist leader surpasses territoriality. To go for president, if the presidential system is enshrined in the new constitution, would be costly for Ghannouchi and for Tunisia.

For Ghannouchi, a man whose interests are pan-Arab and pan-Islamic, the presidency would shorten his wider horizon. Tunisia is the prime focus of his current political interests. However, his own ethics are those of a reformer who cares as much for Turkey’s ascendency in the global arena, for Palestine’s penultimate goal of liberation, for Chechnya’s integrity and social peace, for the triumph of Syria’s revolution, and for greater Muslim integration and dialogue with non-Muslim nations and powers. He is a voice of reason and serves a leading role in the deliberations of the world’s forums of Muslim scholars. 


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Re-imagining Tunisia

As for Tunisia, Ghannouchi is embroiled in politics more than needed. The “Ghannouchi for president” idea (not by any means a campaign) is a line of action advocated by some actors within the Nahda Party for obvious reasons: they may have no staying power beyond Sheikh Ghannouchi’s tenure as president of the Islamist party.

Ghannouchi made a compromise to stand for the party’s presidency a role to which he was elected for two years in the Party’s historic ninth congress held during this summer for the first time in post-Bin Ali’s Tunisia. The man wants to serve nation and party but outside the straightjacket of partisan politics and narrow officialdom. 

Right now, with all of its flaws as illustrated by the case of Lebanon where power is pilloried, the troika pro forma suit progression along the path of transition given its “consociational” value at a time when party politics is still fragile and monopolistic tendencies are bound to fragment polity and yield political sclerosis.

Slicing the political cake more widely is a requisite of smooth transition and institution-building. The troika will be worth it if in 20 years Tunisians look back at this “division of labour” as part of the midwifery of their democracy. In raw political terms, additionally, without slices to hand out, Nahda will not be able to do bidding, bribing and placating of partners who are ideologically diametrically opposed to its Islamist dogma. This applies to the Republican Rally (current stakeholder through the presidency given to Moncef Marzouki) and Ettakatol Party (the other partner whose leader Mustafa bin Jafar is House Speaker).

Already the hint of Ghannouchi standing for high office unsettles Nahda’s partners, namely, Marzouki (although he is not the only presidential hopeful, other contenders may include Bin Jafar and Nejib Chebbi of the PDP), an advocate of a semi-presidential system that would give him a share of power should he win it in general elections after the constitution is framed and put to either popular referendum or voting by the Constituent Assembly. Sheikh Ghannouchi is an admirer of parliamentarian systems, especially Westminster government, and if he had his way, it would be his preferred political identity for Tunisia’s new republic.

A national moderator for Tunisia

The role left for Sheikh Ghannouchi to play after decades of struggle and sacrifice is serve as a national moderator, facilitating reconciliation, and trusting-building. These values are today crying for desperate attention as Tunisia’s polity is being torn apart by sharp polarisation.

Ghannouchi has the national and international status to stand above the fray of narrow politics. This past September’s Al Jazeera Centre for Studies’ symposium on the Arab Spring and Islamist movements was a rare occasion in which a number of giants of Islamism were gathered in one place. Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi, whose intervention I was assigned the onerous task of commenting on, was amongst the guest speakers invited to reflect on his experience in power.

How ironic. Ghannouchi and Turabi go back a long way. In the 1990s, Turabi was the star of a buoyant, bold and innovative brand of political Islam that was first to run the state. Ghannouchi admired Turabi: which Turabi? Turabi, the intellectual. Turabi, by any measure, was a genius: polyglot, constitutionalist legal cadre of the highest order, an intellect combining traditional Islamic schooling with modern Western juridical thought and a nack for original thinking.

“Turabi” I told Ghannouchi “was the reason why the great minds of Islamism should not become politicians.” He concurred: Sheikh Ghannouchi was amongst the very few far-sighted Islamist leaders who tried to persuade Turabi from state politics. The rest is history. Today the world remembers Turabi’s stint as a partner to the1989 coup leaders before he was made to pay a huge price for that mistake with personal freedom and disrepute to a brilliant mind. That brilliance was forgotten and all is remembered is Turabi the politician.

That is an injustice Ghannouchi will not allow historians to inflict on a character of high intellectual and ethical standing. He shares not the Machiavellian worldview of politics. His is cast in a framework of reform and innovation projected to implement the rules and laws based on a normative paradigm, primarily serving Godly justice and public utility that valourises morality and the sanctity of human rights and dignity.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).