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INTERVIEW-Tunisia Islamists say excluded, call for unity govt

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 3 Feb 2011 18:36 GMT
Author: (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2011. Click For Restrictions. http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp
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* Ghannouchi says old regime's political police still active

* Tunisia should change laws to enshrine democracy

* Ennahda believes in women's freedom, gender equality

By Lin Noueihed

TUNIS, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Tunisia's Islamists have been shut out of the interim government, Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi said, calling for a cabinet that brings together all parties and for the dismantling of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's police state.

Ghannouchi was met by thousands of supporters when he returned from exile on Sunday, indicating his Ennahda party would emerge as a major force in Tunisia after weeks of protests ousted Ben Ali on Jan. 14 and electrified the Arab world.

Banned for over 20 years, Ennahda (Arab for "Renaissance") applied this week for a license and will take part in Tunisia's first free elections, though Ghannouchi himself has pledged not to run for any office.

"No one invited us and no one consulted us over the make-up of this government... We don't know who made up this government, who chose these people, what their authority is, who they answer to," Ghannouchi told Reuters in an interview.

"We called for a government of national alliance comprised of opposition parties and civil society organisations such as the labour union, lawyers and rights groups, a government that... is not imposed like this."

Tunisia has had two changes of government since the revolt that toppled Ben Ali after 23 years of autocratic rule. The first line-up, announced days after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, retained many ministers from his former ruling party and failed to convince protesters calling for more sweeping change.

A new lineup announced on Jan. 27 removed most members of the former ruling RCD but retained the prime minister, who had served under Ben Ali. It includes two opposition politicians and excludes Ennahda and several secular opponents of Ben Ali.

Ghannouchi said Ben Ali's RCD was already "dead" but that his vast network of spies, police and internal security was still operating in Tunisia and working against the revolution.

He said dismantling this parallel state was a priority for Ennahda as was the complete revision of Tunisian law to enshrine democracy and prevent the rise of another strongman.

"There is another state that still exists, this is the state of political security and this must be dismantled; its machine of repression, its laws, its institutions and its culture must be dismantled to achieve a pluralist democracy," he said.

"We do not need a presidential system that concentrates power... We need a parliamentary system that spreads power widely, leaving the president as a symbolic head of state."

ISLAM AND FREEDOMS

A widely-respected Islamic scholar, Ghannouchi has long preached that Islam is compatible with modernity and multi-party democracy. He compares Ennahda with Turkey's moderate ruling AK Party, rather than Egypt's harder line Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet Ghannouchi's return from exile has alarmed some Tunisians who want to keep Islam separate from the state.

Ghannouchi said Ennahda believed in individual freedoms, in women's rights and their equality with men.

"There are countries that, in the name of Islam, force women to wear particular attire, and there are countries that, in the name of modernity like Tunisia, ban women from wearing particular attire. We are against either," Ghannouchi said.

"We are with a woman's freedom to decide her clothes, to decide her life partner and not be forced into anything."

Tunisia has for decades been a secular state. Independence leader Habib Bourguiba considered Islam a threat to the state and called the Muslim headcover, or hijab, an "odious rag".

Ben Ali suppressed Ennahda after it officially won over 15 percent of the 1989 vote, exiling and jailing its members. Analysts say Ennahda today might get up to 35-40 percent, close to what it may have actually won in the fraud-ridden 1989 vote.

Ghannouchi said it was too early to say how many followers Ennahda now had or what share of the vote it might win.

Veiled women were long denied access to education and jobs in the North African country and men who prayed too often at the mosque were regularly rounded up by the police.

By Ghannouchi's own estimate, some 30,000 Ennahda members were jailed over the years, and he called for all Tunisians who had been persecuted to be compensated.

Ennahda was not seeking to make Tunisia's constitution, which considers Tunisia an Arab and Muslim state, more Islamic but was seeking to make it more democratic, Ghannouchi said.

"The constitution is cut to fit the size of the dictator. All the powers are concentrated in the hands of the dictator who is accountable to no one. He is the head of the judiciary, the executive branch and controls everything," he said.

"This revolution must dismantle the dictatorial regime, starting with the constitution and including the laws that limit media, limit parties and groups and the elections."

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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