Opposition in Tunisia Finds Chance for Rebirth
By David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
January 20, 2011
TUNIS — Ali Larayedh was imprisoned and tortured for 14 years for his role as a leader of the outlawed Islamist movement here, then hounded for the past six years by the omnipresent Tunisian secret police.
But six days after the ouster of this country’s dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Mr. Larayedh now basks in a singular celebrity. He is one of the few remaining leaders of the only credible opposition movement in Tunisia’s history. And in the aftermath of Mr. Ben Ali’s flight, that movement’s potential reincarnation is perhaps the most significant variable in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary future — yearned for by legions of working-class and rural Tunisians, viewed with just as much apprehension by the cosmopolitan coastal elite.
In an interview in the lobby of the Africa Hotel here, Mr. Larayedh insisted that his party posed no threat to Tunisians or to tourists sipping French wine in their bikinis along the Mediterranean beaches. Years of contemplation in prison and exile had helped his party, known as Al-Nahda, or the Renaissance, to “enlarge our views to encompass Western values,” he said. The result, he said, is a uniquely liberal version of Islamist politics, though one that remains unapologetic about its past calls for violence against American interests in the region.
“We are still against the political agenda of American interference in Arabic countries,” he said. “America is still supporting some dictatorships in Arabian countries, for example Ben Ali.”
But on other matters, Mr. Larayedh struck a conciliatory note.
“We are Muslim, but we are not against modernism,” he said. And he cited his party’s strong embrace of women’s rights, even to the point of advocating a quota to ensure a minimum representation of women in Parliament, “until they get their voices.” He added, “We are not going to exclude women like some other extremists.”
His wardrobe hinted at his long absence from public life: a worn pinstripe suit, argyle socks and a tieless shirt buttoned to the top. But Mr. Larayedh, 55, strode through the lobby as purposefully as though his next appointment might be with the prime minister. And while no longer stalked by the secret police, he hid behind an armchair to escape a procession of journalists, human rights advocates and aspiring politicians eager to shake his hand and welcome him back to the political scene.
The Islamist party in Tunisia was founded in 1981 by Rachid Ghannouchi, now awaiting a return from exile in London. By 1989, it had won nearly 20 percent of a parliamentary election rigged by Mr. Ben Ali’s government, suggesting that its true level of support was probably much higher.
Some Western analysts fretted at the time that the party might pull Tunisia, a reliable North African ally, toward a hostile, radical Islam, especially during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, when Mr. Ghannouchi called for attacks on American interests in the region to avenge the invasion of a Muslim country.
About that time, beginning around 1990, President Ben Ali’s secret police began a campaign that systematically wiped out almost any trace of the group. He imprisoned and tortured many thousands of people — many of them, and their children, were in the streets last week driving Mr. Ben Ali from power — while sending many other Islamic leaders into exile. Men with long beards or women in Muslim veils said they feared job discrimination or police questioning because of the Ben Ali government’s vigilance about Islamist politics.
Asked about Mr. Ghannouchi’s call for violence, Mr. Larayedh said only that those were different times. But he said the party still opposed American interference in Arab countries. “That is why people all over the Arab world hate the American administration,” he added. “And we are against any foreign troops in Arabic countries, not just American troops; it seems like we are not independent countries.”
Mr. Larayedh was unable to take to the streets during the recent protests because of his heavy police guard, he said, and he was as surprised as anyone when Mr. Ben Ali suddenly fled. “None of us expected the Ben Ali government to go down as fast as an SMS message,” he said, alluding to the ubiquitous text messages that young protesters used to share images and coordinate plans.
Two days after Mr. Ben Ali left, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi (who is no relation to the party’s founder), the new leader of the interim government and previously Mr. Ben Ali’s right-hand man, called the general secretary of the dormant Islamist party to plea for support, Mr. Larayedh said. “The prime minister said, ‘It is a crucial time for the country, you just have to trust me, and there will be great changes,’ ” Mr. Larayedh said.
As part of those changes, the new government said Thursday that it was moving toward an amnesty that would allow the return of political exiles like Mr. Ghannouchi of Al-Nahda, convicted in absentia of crimes against Tunisia.
Mr. Larayedh, though, said he agreed with the throngs of demonstrators then swarming around the nearby headquarters of the old ruling party that its former members, including the prime minister, should leave the government so that Tunisia could make a fresh start.
His party’s only demands, he said, are a fair and open democratic process, an amnesty for political exiles and social programs to help the hard-pressed interior of the country.
He said his party was Muslim because it believed in leading by example and persuasion. But it also believed that a head scarf should be the choice of the woman, and that drinking alcohol need not be restricted by law. Asked for a comparison to another Muslim group — perhaps Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, or the pluralistic Islamist party governing Turkey — Mr. Larayedh said Al-Nahda was “more liberal” than all of them, even more liberal than the Islamist party in neighboring Morocco.
Martin Kramer, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who had long criticized Mr. Ghannouchi of Al-Nahda, argued that the party’s professions of pluralism could not be trusted. “Islamists become the more moderate and tolerant of pluralism the further away from power they are,” he said.
But Diederik Vandewalle, a Dartmouth professor who has studied Tunisia and Al-Nahda, said its founder had evidently grappled deeply with the question of meshing Islam and democracy. “It might not be radical enough for most Tunisians,” he said, citing the calls for a complete break with any trace of the old government.
Mr. Larayedh, though, said his party’s moderate approach reflected the pluralist, relatively Westernized Tunisian culture. And then he ran off to his next appointment in the hotel lobby, with a French journalist.