Furthermore, only the day before, on the eve of Ghannouchi’s return, hundreds of women worried about losing their hard-earned rights, rallied in Tunisia’s capital to express their fears of an Islamist resurgence to the interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who vowed a transition into democracy and economic revival.[ii]
(RIEAS Senior Analyst)
After twenty-two years of exile and within sixteen days since President Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Rashid Al-Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahdha movement returned to Tunisia on Sunday, January 30th.
Chanting verses from the Qur’an, over 1,000 supporters appeared in Tunisia’s international airport to greet him.
However, they were not the only ones waiting for him.
Though overshadowed by Al-Ghannouchi’s supporters, a group of 20 to 30 women concerned with the future of Tunisia’s civil society formed a counterprotest, holding signs that read "No to Terrorism" and "Welcome Free Tunisians."[i]
Indeed, it appears that Tunisian women know better than opinion-makers such as the New York Times, which had erroneously referred to Al-Ghannouchi as being a ‘progressive’[iii] –a mistake often made by well-meaning Western journalists with regards to non-violent Islamists.
For example, it was Al-Ghanouchi who declared Mongia Souahi, a theology professor, as being an unbeliever, a kafira, because she had argued in a scholarly work that the Qur’an does not require women to wear the hijab. As Hitchens mused, "This, as everyone knows, is the prelude to declaring her life to be forfeit as an apostate."[iv]
In this precarious period of transition, it was not surprising then, in the words of a university lecturer, Sabah Mahmoudi, that Tunisian women "want to send an important message to the Islamists, especially those from the Ennahdha movement -- that we are not ready to pull back on or abandon our rights."[v]
In fact, during an interview that took place a few days before his return, Al-Ghannouchi himself pointed out that:
“No one can pretend that this revolution has been led by Islamists or Communists or any other group for that matter. This is a popular revolution and all the trends in Tunisian political society are present on the scene. At the same time it is clear that the Islamists are the biggest political force in Tunisia. The former regime suppressed all groups and in this transitional period all the groups are concentrating on rebuilding themselves.”[vi]
With a predictable ‘rebuilding’ of Tunisia’s Islamist forces, therein lies the unsettled road that Tunisian civil society must navigate, preferably with adequate support from Western powers: how to avoid an Islamist hijacking? Or in the words of Daniel Pipes, 'a flawed implementation of democracy'? Walid Phares, author of The Confrontation: The Struggle For Freedom in The Middle East stresses:
“The race is on between a plethora of forces: The security networks of the old regime, the Army, the bureaucracy, the radical forces (Arabists, Marxists and Islamists) and the civil society's NGOs and syndicates. Various coalitions can emerge and multiple outside interests will be vying for a stake... I strongly suggest the free world pursue an immediate partnership with the forces promoting civil society in Tunisia, shepherd and protect them and help Tunisia’s population in its daily life. To do so, there needs be international monitoring and support of the bureaucracy and the Tunisian Army ensuring that the latter guarantees the security and well being of the civil society until it elects its own new representatives in few months.”[vii]
Thus far, the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ is not an Islamist revolution –though it has garnered the vocal support of Islamists in Egypt, Jordan, and of course, that of Ahmadinejad himself.[viii] At the same time, it is too early to describe it as a democratic revolution. Also, there is much that remains unknown regarding the immediate reasons and circumstances surrounding Ben Ali’s decision to flee. Currently, it appears to be a demographic revolution, a ‘revolt of the frustrated young against their corrupt elders.’[ix] More importantly, in terms of who could be the future power-brokers in the region,[if not already] the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ is a social-media led revolt as well,[x] which should in turn, lead to an examination of the ideological persuasions of the media outlets that have played the most influential role in galvanizing the revolt, such as the oft-Islamist Al Jazeera.
As such, it is crucial that this revolution is safeguarded from Islamists existing within and without Tunisia - who will surely exploit any turmoil to gain power, whether through cosmetic democratic elections or through violence and intimidation, or a combination of both. With the revival of Islamist terrorism in the region under the umbrella of the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, it is imperative that Western powers refrain from unwittingly midwifing an Islamist state by being able to correctly identify those who truly wish for a pluralist and democratic society, and those who wish to use the democratic process in order to acquire the ‘legitimate’ power to destroy democracy itself.
[i] Sihem Hassaini and Meris Lutz, ‘TUNISIA: Exiled Muslim Leader Arrives Home After 22 Years to Throngs of Supporters,’
The Los Angeles Times, January 30th, 2011.
[ii] Sofia Bouderbala and Kaouther Larbi ‘Tunisian Women Rally Ahead of Islamist Leader's Return,’ AFP, January 29, 2011. URL: http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20110129/wl_afp/tunisiapoliticsunrest
[iii] David D. Kirkpatrick, ‘In Tunisia, Clashes Continue as Power Shifts a Second Time,’ The New York Times. January 15, 2011. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/world/africa/16tunis.html?_r=1
[iv] Christopher Hitchens, ‘Tunisia Grows Up,’ Slate, January 17, 2011.
[v] Sofia Bouderbala and Kaouther Larbi ‘Tunisian Women Rally Ahead of Islamist Leader's Return,’ AFP, January 29, 2011. URL: http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20110129/wl_afp/tunisiapoliticsunrest
[vi]Mahan Abedin, ‘Tunisia: the Advent of Liberal Islamism – an Interview with Rashid Al-Ghannouchi,’ Religioscope, January 30, 2011. URL: http://religion.info/english/interviews/article_516.shtml
[vii] Walid Phares, ‘Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution v/s the Forces of Counter Democracy,’ January 20, 2011.
[viii] ‘The Tug of War for Tunisia,’ The Investigative Project on Terrorism, January 23, 2011.
[ix] Ann Applebaum, ‘Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution Might not Install a Democracy,’ The Washington Post, January 17, 2011.
[x] George Brock, ‘The Power of Networked, Social Media in Tunisia,’ January 14, 2011.