Tunisia’s dominant Islamist movement, which voluntarily ceded political power to a caretaker government last month, is intent on demonstrating “co-existence” between Islamists and secularists and “the compatibility of Islam” with democracy, human rights and consensus politics, the movement’s leader said at an informal meeting with specialists at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on February 24.

Tunisia’s Ghannouchi Points to Country’s Democratic Advances, New Constitution

“We are learning how to live together,” Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, said of Islamists and secularists. “We can all live together and solve our problems through dialogue.”

Ghannouchi is a leading thinker on political Islam who spent 22 years in exile until Tunisia’s authoritarian regime collapsed in the face of widening protests in late 2010 and early 2011. Tunisia’s was the first government in the wave of Arab Spring uprisings to be toppled. Ghannouchi remains a key figure in Tunisia’s political transition, which is widely seen as the most advanced and peaceful of any Arab Spring country. Ennahda, which means “Renaissance” in Arabic, prevailed in 2011 elections to lead Tunisia’s first post-uprising government, and it remains the largest party in its National Constituent Assembly.

The Assembly overwhelmingly approved a new Constitution late last month that enshrines democratic freedoms and makes broad references to the country’s Islamic identity. The political compromise over the Constitution followed months of tough bargaining between Ennahda and secular parties that are in the parliamentary minority. Secularists pressured the government for concessions following the assassination of two leading opposition politicians, renewed popular protests and a rise in terrorist attacks that have been linked to Salafist extremists.

Ennahda had been accused by oppositionists of not responding strongly enough to the threat from violent militants and of failing to manage an economy suffering from heavy unemployment and low growth. The resulting political stalemate played out in negotiations over a constitution whose eventual passage won global praise as landmark gain for Arab democracy.

That achievement has looked all the more remarkable in light of setbacks and difficulties in the other Arab Spring countries of North Africa—Egypt’s military coup and authoritarian trend and Libya’s struggle to establish democratic state authority in the face of security challenges.

Ghannouchi said the resignation of the Ennahda-led government and its replacement with a non-partisan, technocratic one that will serve until elections later this year showed that “we practice these convictions”—commitments to democracy, human rights, liberty and gender equality. He described Ennahda’s move as essential to win a broad consensus among Tunisians for a new constitution. “We are not angels. We would like to have power, but we believe having a democratic constitution for Tunisians is more important,” he said.

Ennahda’s view of politics, he said, is that it is not “a zero-sum game” that leaves losers with nothing. Tunisia’s approach reduces or avoids the risks of violence and civil war and, in turn, a return of dictatorship, he said.

“It is good for the Arab world because it proved that democracy is possible in this area. This experience…can remain the main direction of the Arab world,” remarked Ghannouchi, adding later, “We need to promote or develop this Tunisian example.”

Ghannouchi said that the mainstream of his country’s Islamists oppose violence and work within the law, and that “this Salafi trend has no future in Tunisia.” A Salafist fundamentalist group called Ansar al-Sharia was banned after it was linked to numerous terrorist attacks within Tunisia. It has reportedly received weapons and training from supporters operating inside of neighboring Libya.

Proponents of such militancy, Ghannouchi said, “interpret Islam the wrong way.” He added, “We have to reinterpret Islam and save Islam from these people.” Terrorism can be countered by spreading justice, democracy and development, said Ghannouchi. “We have to invest in democracy to fight against terrorism.”

USIP’s William Taylor, vice president for the Middle East and Africa, said the Institute is interested in examining the Tunisian “national dialogue” that fostered the constitutional compromise. The dialogue brought together Ennahda and opposition parties in talks brokered by civil society representatives. Tunisia’s experience might offer lessons that can be used to advance democratic transitions elsewhere, according to Taylor.

The Institute last year began providing training to Tunisian community leaders in conflict management and facilitating dialogue, efforts that included the participation of Iraqis who received similar USIP training in the past decade. Future USIP work in Tunisia is expected to focus on building programs that support the development and reform of the country’s civil society and government institutions involved in the democratic transition.

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