Tuesday, January 18, 2011
We cannot bring out a democratic system out of this corrupt, dictatorial system. We have to put an end to the authoritarian system and start a new one. Basing this transition on Article 56 or 57 is a continuation of the old system. The constitution was a tyranny, the state was reduced to one man, who had in his hands the executive, judicial and legislative powers and was not accountable to anyone. How can such a constitution point towards building a democratic system, even as a starting point.
The first step of building a democratic system is to build a democratic constitution. For this we need a founding council for rebuilding the state, one in which political parties, the trade unions and the civil society join. This council will rebuild the democratic constitution and will be the basis for building the democratic system.
Now, the fact that Ghannouchi is speaking from exile is not irrelevant here. Most of the leadership of the An-Nahda party is exiled in London, following from a period of repression in the early 1990s. Indeed, there's an article in Foreign Policy almost gloating about the Tunisian revolution being "Islamist-free". So, there's a real question of just how much influence the Islamists can really have. At one time, they were a serious political force in Tunisia. In the 1989 general election, their candidates - standing as 'independents' - officially received 14% of the vote. According to Francois Burgat and William Dowell's study, (The Islamic Movement in North Africa, University of Texas Press, 1993), the real figure was plausibly closer to 30-32%. The regime rigged the elections, of course, so there would no way to know for sure. Subsequent repression, combined with a period of sustained economic growth that diminished the social base for the Islamists among the petite bourgeoisie and the rural poor, reduced the weight of An-Nahda as a serious opposition force so that today it's tempting to dismiss them. But is the revolution "Islamist-free"? Can it be?
Before going any further with this, it's worth saying something about who the Islamists in Tunisia are and how the came to prominence in the first place. The origins of Tunisia's Islamist movement are in the crisis of the Seventies. In that period, a movement among the intelligentsia toward reviving Islam as a basis for politics and culture, against the alienating Euro-secularism of the Bourguibist regime, found expression in a review called Al-Ma'rifa, and at the Zaytuna University. This coincided with a similar sense of dissatisfaction among the rural poor, where Islamic traditions were not as cheerfully downplayed as they were among the regime's elite.
The material background was that Israel's humiliation of Egypt and its allies in 1967 had raised serious questions about Arab nationalism, while economic crisis was de-legitimizing Bourguiba's corporatist progressivism. The state's turn toward economic liberalisation in the same period saw a sudden sharp increase in returns for private capital, while the incomes of the public sector salariat stagnated. For the Islamist intelligentsia, some of whom had been on the Left previously, all of this betokened not merely a material problem that they could struggle over - as the radical Left was doing at just that time. It was a profound spiritual crisis. Somehow the influx of cultural influences form the imperialist world, the economic crisis, the turn toward neoliberalism and its corrupting effects, the defeat of the Arab countries, the authoritarianism of the state, and their own diminished status were related to the decline of Islam in public life. As far as Tunisia went, the root and cause of the problem was that Bourguiba's state was built on an attempt to impose on a Muslim population a template of secular republican nationalism drawn from Europe. Indeed, the convulsions that had engulfed France in the late Sixties and early Seventies proved that its model could hardly be one worthy of emulation.
By the end of the Seventies, a coherent Islamist movement had emerged, the Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique (MTI) - the tendency which Ghannouchi co-founded. It did not seek to bring about an 'Islamic state', if such a thing could exist. This is not to say that such a goal might not come to the fore if the movement acquired a mass base, but it has not been a goal of the MTI, and its successor, the An-Nahda party, since its inception. Rather, it saw its remit as being to effect moral and social change. To accomplish this, it sought to ally with the nationalists and even integrate itself with the trade union movement - unlike the majority of Islamists groups who disapprove of trade unionism as a mode of organisation based on class struggle. This position seems to have been genuine and consistent argued, but it was also forced on the movement to some extent. While the MTI articulated a moral and spiritual argument about the sources of Tunisian decline, the 1978 general strike and riots over straightforward class issues marginalised the tendency somewhat, and compelled them to engage in such issues more forthrightly. Ghannouchi himself was insistent that it was "not enough to pray five times a day and fast ... Islam is activism ... it is on the side of the poor and the oppressed".
Aside from its dialogue with the poor and oppressed, the movement maintained a consistently pluralist approach to Tunisian politics. Nazih Ayubi's study, Political Islam, argues that unlike the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, the MTI did not "put itself in the position of the exclusive actor with the rights of moral tutelage over society at large", and that this approach enabled the tendency to accept a political pluralism that was inclusive not only of secularists but also of communists. The MTI collaborated with socialists in, for example, organising protests against US and Israeli aggression. The movement constantly assailed the lack of political liberty in Bourguiba's regime, and called for "the end of single-party politics and the acceptance of political pluralism and democracy". Later, Ghannouchi called for a mobilisation of civil society against the state:
"There is no place for dominating society in the name of any legitimacy - historic, religious, proletarian, or pseudo-democratic ... Bourguiba put forward the slogan of the state's prestige, but its real content was the monopoly of the party, of the capitalist interests within which power in the country was located, and the monopoly which Bourguiba exercised over this state. The time has come to raise the slogan of the prestige of society, of the citizen, and of the power which serves both."
Ghannouchi has also made an attempt to articulate a version of womens' rights consistent with Islamist beliefs, opposing this approach to the "obscure theories of Sayyid Qutb". However, his criticisms of the Personal Status Code, which includes various rights for women, point to the limits of any claim to gender egalitarianism on the part of the MTI. That stance allowed the movement to develop into a serious challenge to Bourguiba's regime, and it came to occupy a disproportionate amount of the ageing dictator's energies. Repression included arbitrary arrest and detention of MTI activists, but also a wider series of measures to curb expressions of religiosity. Insanely Ataturkist laws were passed banning civil servants from praying, excluding women who wore the 'veil' from universities and workplaces, rescinding the licenses of taxi drivers suspected of being Islamists, and so on.
Repression against the movement was one of the factors which won it sympathy on campuses, so that it overtook the left among students. Indeed, in this period the typical adherent of the Islamists was below the age of 30, and usually below the age of 25. Moreover, this student layer overlapped with the support from the rural poor, as the youths who supported the tendency typically came from the south and interior, away from coastal Sahel and Tunis. As the movement developed, it did pick up support in urban areas of Tunis, and among some of the professional types that the regime considered its core base.
Rashid Ghannouchi was himself to become a target of Bourguiba's drive to "eradicate the fundamentalist poison", as he ended up on trial for plotting with the connivance of the Iranian government to overthrow the Tunisian state. Linda Jones' profile of Ghannouchi for Middle East Report at this time noted that while the MTI was not the "fundamentalist" sock puppet that Bourguiba had demonsied, it had profited indirectly from Bourguiba's war on trade unions and the Left. Nonetheless, Ghannouchi was jailed and sentenced to a life of hard labour on evidence that was persuasive to no one, only to be released by the subsequent Ben Ali dictatorship in its early, liberalising days.
In 1989, the movement changed its name to Hizb an-Nahda (Renaissance Party), and contested the elections staged by Ben Ali as part of his promise of liberalisation. The elections, fixed though they were, did disclose a trend which is consistent with what was happening elsewhere at the time. As Fred Halliday explained, again in Middle East Report: "Despite their failure to win any seats in parliament, the Islamist 'independents' won around 17 percent of the vote, displacing the secular left, who won around 3 percent, as the main opposition. Given that around 1.2 million of those of voting age were not registered, and given the almost complete control which the ruling party has in the rural areas, the real Islamist strength is no doubt considerably greater than 17 percent: in the Tunis area, the figure was around 30 percent." However, the Islamists' support was broader than it was deep. As a movement, it was a relatively new arrival compared to its equivalents in North Africa and the Middle East, and its handling of religious and moral issues, though in one light relatively open and progressive, could also characterised as cautious and timid. A subsequent wave of repression in 1991 and 1992, centred on legal witch hunts for 'terrorism', decimated the Islamists' organisation and sent much of the leadership into exile.
This was followed by a series of economic transformations. Among these was the restructuring of class relations in the countryside. For example, following the advice of the World Bank, the government turned over state-owned agricultural cooperatives to large landowners. While this tended to concentrate wealth among the agrarian rich, it did unleash a wave of capital accumulation and growth that undercut support for the Islamists. The privatization of public services also reduced the scale of the public sector salariat, and profoundly altered the class structure in those newly private industries. The tax codes were restructured to give the bourgoisie a lift, and entice foreign direct investment with the promise of more repatriated lolly. This combination of reforms not only enhanced the power of the ruling class, but it also gave some middle class layers a sudden income boost while also producing sufficient growth to persuade some of those who lost from the process that they had a stake in preserving the neoliberal compact. In other words, the same combination of political repression and ensuing class restructuring, did for the Islamists as had done for the Left.
Contrary to what has sometimes been implied, the An-Nahda did not subsequently disappear as a movement. Its activists continued to be convenient scapegoats, continued to suffer repression and were to be the bearers of the 'Al Qaeda' stigma once the 'war on terror' was under way. But just as the secular left has been almost invisible in Tunisia for a generation, so the An-Nahda's influence has been much diminished, and practically subterranean since 1992-3. The current revolt is not hegemonised by parties of the Left or by the Islamists. At its heart is the trade union leadership, whose outlook is social democratic. But, like it or not, An-Nahda leaders have been returning to Tunisia to participate, and will in all likelihood gain some sort of audience. As they are less sectarian than some of the cretins in this country who denounce them as far right totalitarians, (and whom it is my vocation to wind up when they start woofing and foaming at the mouth), they will probably find willing allies as well. Just as they did when they were able last able to organise as a tendency in Tunisia. To describe the revolt as "Islamist-free", therefore, is almost to miss the point. The revolution, if it advances at all, is going to have to at minimum include a general amnesty toward political exiles, which means the An-Nahda will return. As Marc Lynch points out, it's hard to see what kind of genuine democracy could obtain without this step. And if the regime, entrenched as it has been since 1956, is to be defeated, then in all likelihood it will involve some configuration of the broad coalition that both Ghannouchis, pere et fille, are calling for.