The founder of Tunisia's Ennahda Party has told a London audience that democracy is in the Arab world to stay. "The Arab spring is not dead," said Shaikh Rached Ghannouchi on Thursday. "The Arab world has entered a new era of change and democracy is here to stay; it is only a matter of time." He made his comments while discussing at length the evolution of his party and the achievements of the 2011 uprising in Tunisia in an event at the London School of Economics sponsored by the Middle East Centre.
Ghannouchi's central message focused entirely on challenging the perception that Islam is incompatible with modernity and democratic ideals. He expressed pride in his party's achievements and said that, unlike Daesh and other extremist groups, Ennahda believes that democracy is not forbidden by the faith. "It is halal, lawful," the party's intellectual leader insisted.
However, he warned that Tunisia's democratic model is unique and could not be exported or used as a model for other countries. "Each nation state has to find its own model; the Tunisian prototype is for local consumption only," he joked.
Ennahda is part of the coalition government in Tunisia. It is, explained Ghannouchi, the most democratic party in Tunisia today. Formed in 1981 whilst he was in exile in Britain, the veteran politician admitted that the party faced many challenges. He suggested that the 2014 election, in which Ennahda lost control of the government, was a "victory for all Tunisians" because his party made the choice to weaken the polarisation that threatened to destroy the country's nascent democratic experiment.
Explaining that, over the years, his party has evolved from a social movement to a civil democratic party, he defended the decision of the party's 10th Congress last year to separate politics from religion. He believes that the change established Ennahda as a "real political party"' similar to Christian or Jewish democratic groups. "In the battle of ideas and models we have shown that Muslims can be democrats and that Islam is compatible with modernity and democracy."
However, Ghannouchi's overriding concern is that democracy will be threatened if social and economic progress is not achieved alongside political changes. "The key to building a healthy democracy is to make significant economic and social gains; democracy will decline if young people cannot find jobs or bread to eat." He told the LSE audience that banking reforms and changes in private law are keys to opening investment opportunities to establish Tunisia as a gateway to the Maghreb, North Africa and the rest of the continent.
The Ennahda leader appealed to the British government to change its travel advice so that the tourism industry in Tunisia might be revitalised. On 26 June last year, a mass shooting at a tourist resort near the city of Sousse resulted in 38 tourists being killed, 30 of whom were British. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Westminster has since advised citizens against all but essential travel to the North African country.
On the issue of governance, Ghannouchi said that his exile in Britain made him prefer a parliamentary system and he cited an Islamic civilisation like that of the Abbasid period as an example, as it was a system of decentralised power. "You cannot fight dictatorship without decentralising power," he said.
Shaikh Ghannouchi ended the evening on a note of optimism. He described Tunisia as a homogeneous nation with high levels of education that has succeeded in creating a democracy for several unique reasons, including the presence of an army which protected the ballot box and did not move to seize power. He also expressed his confidence that dictatorships in the Arab world could not survive indefinitely. Consensus, he said, was the key to Tunisia's democracy; it had avoided the real danger posed by a polarised nation. "Dictatorships are a temporary phenomenon in the region," he concluded. "The French revolution was 100 years in the making and the Arab world has entered a new era of change; it is only a matter of time."