Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of Tunisia’s Islamist party, appealed this week for U.S. political and economic support as his country struggles to complete its historic transition. Tunisia, the lone success story out of the Arab uprisings, could serve as an example for Iraq, Syria, Egypt and others, he said.

Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, Amb. William B. Taylor, Robin Wright
Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, Amb. William B. Taylor, Robin Wright

Ghannouchi, founder and president of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, said his country’s success is also vital in proving that moderate Islam can co-exist with democracy -- and countering claims about links between Islam and terrorism. Democracy, he said, can actually be another way to fight terrorism.

“We cannot fight terrorism without spreading democracy in the world,” Ghannouchi told reporters at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Sept. 29, prior to a public discussion of Islam, democracy and extremism. He noted that his party relinquished power during political tensions last year to forestall a spiral into violence, as has happened in other Arab countries. The political implosion in neighboring Libya since the overthrow of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi has particularly had a rippling impact on tiny Tunisia.

Ghannouchi said the flawed transitions elsewhere—including the military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, the disintegration of Syrian protests into civil war, and the exclusion of Sunnis in predominantly Shiite Iraq--contributed to the rise of the “Islamic State” militant group.

“There are many failed experiences in the region,” said Ghannouchi, who had also spoken at USIP in February. But he cautioned against writing off the prospect of democratic values in the Middle East and North Africa. “We think democratic Islam can be an alternative to terrorism.”

Ghannouchi cited Tunisia’s new constitution, adopted by parliament earlier this year, as proof that Islam and democracy are compatible. It has been hailed as one of the most progressive in the Arab world. The constitution marks “the first time in the Arab world that [human] rights have been accepted and the place of women has been strengthened,” he said. Among 62 women in parliament, two-thirds are Islamists.

One of those women, Amel Azzouz, a lawmaker and member of Ennahda’s political bureau, accompanied Ghannouchi during his Washington meetings. She noted that Tunisia’s 2011 revolution began at least partly over the high rate of unemployment. Economic assistance would indicate the U.S. is interested in “investing in democracy,” she said.

Tunisia was the first country during the “Arab Spring” to oust its autocratic leader, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ghannouchi’s moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won the largest share in multi-party elections later that year and led Tunisia’s first democratic government in a three-party coalition. But the assassinations of two leading opposition figures last year prompted renewed protests and accusations that Ennahda tolerated violent extremism.

In 2013, the party gave up power in favor of a caretaker government until elections this year. Now, Ennahda is one of several parties in Tunisia that will be contesting parliamentary elections on Oct. 26. But it has said it won’t field a candidate in the presidential election in November to avoid appearing to control all branches of government.

“Domination is very dangerous,” Ghannouchi told reporters. In a nascent democracy, too much success for any one group can lead to political polarization. The integrity of the democratic process was more important than short-term benefits and would ensure that Ennahda could survive to potentially win another day. “So we controlled ourselves,” he said.

Still, he wouldn’t say whether Ennahda would back a candidate in the second round of the presidential election. “Sometimes being kingmaker is not less important than being king.”

The broader region of the Middle East and North Africa now stands at a crossroads, Ghannouchi told the audience in the public event, between “democracy, development and progress” on the one hand and “the spread of chaos, terrorism, civil wars and sectarianism” on the other.

“The question now is why did the map of the Middle East change so fast from a promising democratic movement to hot spots of conflict and tensions?” he said. “Is the cause of that the rise of Islamists to power, and their failure to govern and to build stable, democratic systems?”

To the contrary, he said. “Democracy is possible in the Middle East as long as its [required] conditions are present,” Ghannouchi said. “There is no Arab exception. There is no contradiction between Islam and democracy, and dictatorship is not necessarily a destiny.”

Related Publications

The Current Situation in Tunisia

The Current Situation in Tunisia

Monday, October 12, 2020

As the Arab Spring’s birthplace and its sole fledgling democracy, Tunisia represents an encouraging yet incomplete victory against authoritarian rule and violent extremism. Tunisia’s progress since the revolution in 2011 makes it an important democratic partner in a volatile region. However, a persistent economic crisis, political disaffection, and the inherent difficulties of a major political and social transition continue to threaten the country’s stability. Elections in late 2019 swept in a new mosaic of smaller political movements reflecting the public’s deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and the stalled transition. This broad array of new parties has struggled to form a cohesive government capable of overcoming complex partisanship.

Type: Fact Sheet

Tunisia’s Transition Hits a Rough Patch Following COVID Lockdown

Tunisia’s Transition Hits a Rough Patch Following COVID Lockdown

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

By: Leo Siebert

Since uprisings swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, Tunisia has long been regarded as the lone democratic success story. But nearly 10 years later, volatile party politics and authoritarian legacies continue to plague the transition. The October 2019 election cycle, marked by low voter turnout, demonstrated Tunisians deep disenchantment with the political class for its failure to address the grievances that sparked the ouster of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. After the elections, a government was not formed until February 2020. But months later, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh resigned over allegations of conflicts of interest. In recent weeks, the political landscape has shifted rapidly. USIP’s Leo Siebert examines the political wrangling and Tunisia’s post-election political struggles.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

Preventing Conflict During the Pandemic in Southern Tunisia

Preventing Conflict During the Pandemic in Southern Tunisia

Thursday, July 16, 2020

By: Rima Daoud; Sabrine Laribi

Despite being sworn in mere weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Tunisia, the new government’s initial response to the crisis was deemed prompt and efficient by most. But an incomplete decentralization process created tension between local authorities and citizens, as varying interpretations of the virus containment measures caused confusion and panic—with significant implications for communities, businesses, and the most vulnerable. This was particularly true in the country’s southern region, where systemic marginalization has created conditions for social unrest and potential destabilization.

Type: Blog

Global Health

Tunisia’s Citizens and Security Forces Come Together to Combat Coronavirus

Tunisia’s Citizens and Security Forces Come Together to Combat Coronavirus

Thursday, April 23, 2020

By: Adam Gallagher

As COVID-19 began to sweep the globe, the Tunisian government implemented strict measures to stem the spread of the virus, knowing the country’s underprepared health system would be overwhelmed by a widespread outbreak. Beginning on March 17, authorities enforced a 12-hour curfew. Days later, 400 were arrested for breaking that curfew. “Anyone who breaks the security rules will be treated as a criminal because failing to respect rules within the context of the pandemic is a crime,” said Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi. Many Tunisians have bristled at what they see as an overly securitized response.

Type: Blog

Democracy & Governance; Global Health; Youth

View All Publications