Rached Ghannouchi’s Arrest: the End of the Tunisian Exception

Twelve years after the Arab Springs, the curtain is closing on what has been the only Arab democracy: the so-called Tunisian exception. On May 15, 2023, a Tunisian court sentenced opposition Party leader Rached Ghannouchi to one year of prison. His Islamist-inspired Ennahda was the largest force in Tunisian Parliament before Kais Saied dissolved it in July 2021 and started to rule by decree. Ghannouchi’s arrest seems to be part of a crackdown on political dissent that has become more acute since early 2023, but started at least one year ago according to Andrew March, professor at Amherst University and author of Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus (Oxford, 2009) and The Caliphate of Man: The Invention of Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thought (Harvard, 2019).


Professor March, 13 years ago, sociologist Larry Diamond wrote “Why are there no Arab democracies?” One year later a season of hope was opening to correct that fact, and then there has been a democratic system at work in Tunisia for around a decade. What went wrong?


«One thing that went wrong is partly what went right. What went right with Tunisia from the beginning is that there was a very pluralist political outcome: no political Party had a majority, never mind a super majority. Therefore, all the Parties had to work together and nobody thought that any one Party had the potential to dominate the entire political system. Unlike Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood kept on winning the elections and the other political parties felt that they would have no impact within the political system and no democratic possibility of replacing it, in Tunisia all the Parties had to work together and they had to create a political system, solve crises, form governments through collaboration


That was very evident in the constitutional process, especially when the compromise was put at risk and a Commission for the consensus managed to keep the opposite sides of the Parliament together and to avoid a conflict that could have been violent and disruptive.


«Exactly. This happened at a number of points. Firstly, in the draft of the Constitution, which took three years, but was a very broad-based consensual matter. Then, after the crisis of 2014, with the formation of an agreement, the coalition between two political enemies: the Muslim Democratic Party Ennahda and the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Their two leaders Rached Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi, respectively, formed an agreement to avert political crisis. However, many parties without a dominant majority, and a democracy based on the élite consensus have led to consistent crises in forming governments. This, added to the economic crisis, unemployment, the COVID crisis and corruption, has made the Tunisian Parliament itself very unpopular.

While the agreement between Essebsi and Ghannouchi removed the possibility of either a coup or any attempt of exclusion/criminalization of Ennahda by the old regime – keeping everybody in the political system – after Essebsi died and this independent law professor, Kais Saied, was elected in 2019, something has changed. I think nobody could have anticipated that Saied would have had the ambitions to suspend Parliament and to take over the political system himself. People assumed Saied was going to be weak: he did not have a Party and was outside the system. What I mean is that part of what went wrong is structural, part of it is accidental based on the personality of this particular dictator.»


In April Ghannouchi has been arrested and he has recently been sentenced to one-year jail on charges of plotting against state security, after “inciting statements”. Do these allegations have any credibility? Was not reasonable what Gannouchi actually said in an opposition meeting: “Tunisia without Ennahda, without political Islam, without the Left or any other component is a project for civil war”, meaning that the arrest of a leader believing in democracy is going to help the radical Islam.


«It is all completely politically motivated. Before Ghannouchi, there is a long list of political prisoners in Tunisia who have been arrested, particularly over the past year: a number of members of his Party, Ennahda, but also many secular leaders, many leftist leaders, feminists. It is not just Ghannouchi and not just Islamists or Muslim Democrats. What is more, over the past year and a half, there had been hearings to question Ghannouchi on several issues. One was related to sending fighters to Syria during the civil war, one was a corruption case. All of which even the judges decided not to prosecute.

As you said, the immediate trigger was a speech Ghannouchi gave, where he said that Saied’s efforts to exclude the Left and the Islamists are efforts to cause a civil war. It is very ironic that they charged him of incitement to basically change the political system, when it is President Saied who unilaterally suspended the Parliament and amended the Constitution, undemocratically


Nowadays Ennahda is a moderate political Party though. As you brought up, they formed a coalition with Nidaa Tounes and ruled together in the past. Won’t Saied’s acts be instead seen as a message, that democracy, moderation and self-restraint do not work?


«Many Muslim people are saying this, referring both to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, and to a certain extent Erdogan in Turkey: ‘You told us that democracy is a path to some kind of democratic order, viable and good for us. But look now what has happened’. The message is that this democratic promise is essentially an empty one.»


How has Tunisian economic situation influenced all this?


«It had the biggest influence; it is nothing new. The democratic transitions in Eastern Europe after 1989 or 1991 were often followed by long periods of economic misery. Very often movements protest authoritarian regimes because of their economic frustration, and they want replacing the regime, getting rid of corrupt rulers and bringing about democracy, not just as a means of acquiring political rights but of improving their material conditions. And democracy is not inherently a guarantor of economic growth or economic stability.

It is an important thing to remember that a lot of the support for Saied was not just opposition to Ghannouchi and Ennahda, but it was against politics per se, against the entire parliament, the entire political system, the entire idea of a democratic political system. What does democracy do for us? Political parties are corrupt, they’re self-interested, they not motivated by the interest of the nation. Whereas one man, if he is if he has enough integrity and honesty, could represent the desires of the people. This is a very, very common response to democracy.»


What should the United States, but also the European Union have done to help the Tunisian democracy?


«I think that the US and the EU should have been staunchly opposed to Saied’s coup and engaged in enormous pressure on him to restore the Parliament. Problem is, first of all, that the historically closest country to Tunisia, France, has this complete blind spot about anything related to even moderate Islam coming close to government. Thus, the French were the first to give Saied legitimacy. While the Americans either do not think that they have enough interests there or are not committed to the idea of democracy in the Arab countries.»


However, from the European perspective Tunisia has become more and more strategic, for example for migration…


«The Europeans see countries like Tunisia, Libya or Turkey, as choke points for migration to Europe. Meaning that they do not care about democracy per se, if Saied for example is willing to offer them greater cooperation with preventing migration to Europe. As you also know, he has engaged in horrible racist rhetoric about subsaharan migrants though, mentioning some sort of replacement of the Arab population. He has indulged in some of the same racist rhetoric that you see from politicians in the US and in Europe.

Despite that, I am afraid that the interest of European countries in restoring what was a democracy with very mixed record is not going to be such a strong motivating factor that European prime ministers who are answerable to their own people, who are very sensitive to the issue of migration, are going to care about the restoration of the Tunisian parliament more than their own interests.»


We could say that after having had in Tunisia an example of the application of the strategy of compromise or consensus at a very risky moment between 2013 and 2014, the leading people that hade been working for that are now disappearing from the stage. Do you see any possible virtuous dynamics within the country that can stop this collapse?


«It’s very difficult to see because Saied is a very stubborn, insistent, reckless person who has alienated many of his close advisers and supporters. He does not rely on a coalition, let’s say, the trade unions or certain kinds of secular élites that he is ruling through a kind of behind-the-scene bargaining or coalition making. Despite that, there has not seemed to be any drive on the part of those who are perhaps supportive of the coup at the beginning to replace him or to undo it. Thus, I do not see any cracks in his willingness to keep on going with where he is going.

Many people are also very vocally supportive of him, but his referenda were very poorly turned out: 8 to 10 percent for his constitutional referendum and his sham election to a sham parliament. It is not clear how much positive support he has and at the same time is not clear how much support there is for rallying to restore the previous parliament or the previous constitution. I am not aware of what cracks could lead to some kind of compromise transition back to democracy.

Moreover, he seems to be getting more successful at bullying and intimidating judges to do his work, like in detaining Ghannouchi and the dozens of other political prisoners. I do not see a kind of weakness or tipping point at the moment that gives a lot of optimism.»


What will the future of Ennahda be?


«Ennahda is practically criminalized right now. It cannot operate. If the Saied regime were to fall, then they would reemerge as the best organized, most determined political party. But right now, it is very, very dormant and has not responded to this through a show of force, even like what happened in Egypt with the sit in after the coup, rather, in other places. So Ennahda is taking a very, very passive approach. And I don’t know whether the hope is that at some point Saeed will fall and it is just biding its time or trying to avoid provoking the regime or giving the regime an excuse to engage in more comprehensive crackdown. But Ennahda is practically underground at the moment.»


Cover photo: Supporters of Ennahdha Movement support its leader Rached Ghannouchi in front of the Anti-Terrorism Judicial Pole at Charguia in Tunis, Tunisia on February 21, 2023 (credits: Yassine Mahjoub/NurPhoto via AFP.)



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