The halting promise of democratic reform in the Arab world is facing new challenges—particularly in Tunisia. The North African country was among the earliest regional powers to help touch off what would become known as the Arab Spring of 2011, when it toppled the nasty dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power for nearly 25 years, in the movement known alternately as the Jasmine Revolution, or the Revolution of Dignity.
Now, unfortunately, the forces of despotism are once more choking off the democratic surge in Tunisia. Intimidation, arrests, imprisonment, beatings and executions are rife. The recent state police kidnapping and conviction of Rachid Ghannouchi, the country’s most influential spiritual leader and politician, is ominous confirmation of this ugly trend.
I first met Ghannouchi in the early 1990s, shortly after he came into exile in London, where he contributed to a public symposium I organized on the subject of power-sharing Islam. I was impressed by his calm thoughtfulness, incorruptible honesty and worldly curiosity. In those days, we spoke often about the political importance of accountability and humility. These virtues were close to his heart.
For Ghannouchi, a farmer’s son born in an oasis village near Hamma, on the edge of the vast Sahara desert, Islamic theology (aqidah) counsels against bossing, bullying and violence. Religion has no room for arrogance and compulsion, he argued in Public Liberties in the Islamic State (1993). In that book, he reasoned that God granted believers and nonbelievers alike rights to dignity, equality and a wide range of liberties, including freedom of the press, property ownership, and religion. On these points, Ghannouchi was no convert to Western liberalism. His reasoning was faith-based: According to Islam, he wrote, no government or political organization is authorized to decide things arbitrarily for its subjects. “There’s no room for churches or popes claiming to hold the keys to Heaven,” he often said. The right to interpret the scriptures is everybody’s right. That’s why he consistently rejected the dogma of French-style secularism: No state is entitled to privatize religious faith by enforcing the division between politics and religion. The secular French ideal of laïcité isn’t a precondition of democracy, he argued; rather, it’s the enemy of genuine democratic self-government.
Emboldened by his faith in democracy, Ghannouchi went on to do remarkable things. He led his political party Ennahda to victory in the 2019 Tunisian elections and became speaker of the Assembly. He was awarded the prestigious Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought and was ranked by Time magazine in 2012 as one of the top 100 most influential public figures in the world.
The groundwork for Ghannouchi’s new leadership role was laid by his triumphant 2011 return to Tunisia after more than two decades in exile. He was greeted at Carthage airport by thousands of citizens, some bearing olive branches and flowers, others climbing trees and electricity pylons to catch their first glimpse of him. “God is great!” he cried, arms raised high, before telling reporters that he wasn’t another Ayatollah Khomeini. “We accept democracy without any restrictions,” he said. “We honor the decision of the people whether they are for or against us.” He stood for a society based on fearless respect for “justice and equality,” he explained; his aim was to live in a country in which each and every woman enjoyed the God-given right to choose whether or not to wear the hijab.
These words frightened the counterrevolutionary political establishment, but Ghannouchi, trying hard to live by the articles of faith we’d spent many hours discussing, stood firm. Lies, fake news, death threats, bogus legal charges and political dirty tricks came his way. So did accusations that he’d stayed too long in politics. His critics urged him to step back from high office, to play the role of public defender of civil society, just as Poland’s Adam Michnik and South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu had successfully done.
Alas, that option is now foreclosed. Behind bars, falsely convicted of “declaring another Muslim to be an apostate (takfir)” and still facing much more serious charges of “conspiracy against state security,” my 81-year-old friend has now been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. For a frail man of his age, the sentence meted out by his despotic foes is especially harsh.
It’s also an act of symbolic violence, intended to intimidate the forces of dissent and reform in Tunisia. President Saied and his supporters will of course be relieved by the sidelining of their principal opponent. Ghannouchi’s imprisonment enables Tunisia’s hard-right President Kais Saied and his supporters to dismantle the foundations of Tunisia’s fledgling civil society in the name of a new political order. Their methods are straight out of the despots’ playbook: Shutter the elected parliament. Rewrite the Constitution. Turn the judiciary into a pawn of executive power. Ban opposition parties. Intimidate journalists. Arrest former government ministers, businesspeople, and trade unionists. Round up Black Tunisians, migrants and other minorities. Talk nonstop of “the people,” and urge them to support the new order.
The bad news for Saied is that despotic government will fail to attract investment, redistribute wealth, improve the life chances of citizens or renew their trust in government. The good news for his opponents is that the Jasmine Revolution isn’t over.
Some Tunisian citizens are no doubt doing what people do in tough times: bellyaching, keeping their heads down and getting on with their daily lives. But that’s an increasingly tall order in Saied’s Tunisia. Standards of living are falling; inflation rates and social suffering are increasing. The poor lack cooking oil, milk, sugar, and other necessities. Feelings of indignity are widespread. That’s why many people of the revolution are now observing a hadith passage much loved by Ghannouchi. When people face evil, he used to say, they must try to counter it by hand. If they fail, they should use their tongues—and then resist with their hearts.