Tunisian Islamists rejoice at return to political life

Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi (C, with red scarf) welcomed at Tunis Airport
Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

Thousands of Tunisians turned out on Sunday to welcome home an Islamist leader whose return from 22 years of exile indicated that his party would emerge as a major force in Tunisia after the ousting of its president.

The reception for Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, at Tunis airport was the biggest showing by the Islamists in two decades, during which thousands of them were jailed or exiled by President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali…

Up to 10,000 young men and veiled women packed the arrival hall and car park. Some climbed trees and electricity pylons to catch a glimpse of the 69-year-old Ghannouchi, who says he has no ambition to run for state office…

Tunisia has imposed a secular order since independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, the independence leader and long-time president, considered Islam a threat to the state. Ben Ali eased restrictions on the Islamists when he seized power in 1987, before cracking down on them two years later.

The protests which dislodged Ben Ali and electrified the Arab world have largely dried up in the last few days following the announcement on Thursday of a new interim government purged of most of the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime. The security forces have tried to restore order to the capital, where confrontations between shopkeepers and protesters have indicated dwindling support for demonstrators on the part of Tunisians who want life to return to normal.

Ennahda activists wearing white baseball caps tried to marshal the crowds. Asked how they had managed to organize so quickly, one activist said: “Our activities were stopped, but you can’t disperse an ideology…”

“We don’t want an Islamic state, we want a democratic state,” said Mohammed Habasi, an Ennahda supporter who said he had been jailed four times since 1991 for “belonging to a banned group.”

“We suffered the most from a lack of democracy,” he said.

The Ugly American – well-known to most in the 3rd World and completely absent from the understanding of the American electorate – is distinguished by abdicating responsibility in the fight for democracy throughout the world. We prate about being the leaders of the Free World. We pat ourselves on the back for fighting for human rights. But, as much as commerce, quiet obedience is the quid pro quo for money and arms to maintain post-colonial liberation autocrats, kings and dictators. As we did in Iran, we are better known for suppressing democracy than supporting popular elections.

The role of Islamists in any of the lands filled with turmoil this month depends more than anything upon their history of resistance to colonial rule. Americans know nothing of these battles and rely on Talking Heads to mis-educate them. American politicians may know better – but, will not dispute populist tales of Islamist plots for that would require explanations of decades of opposition to freedom from colonial Europe.