The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), Georgetown University’s Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding, and the Islamic Society of North America co-hosted a reception and banquet dinner in honor of the 2015 recipient of the International Crisis Group (ICG) Founders Award for Pioneers in Peacebuilding, Rached Ghannouchi. Roughly one hundred senior officials, congressmen, democracy advocates, and representatives of the Washington DC policy establishment met in late October 2015 at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel Ballroom to celebrate Tunisia’s political accomplishments and to learn more about its democratic path. Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, Founding President of CSID, opened the evening by congratulating Mr. Ghannouchi on the peacebuilding honor awarded in New York the prior evening.
Tunisia, he argued, has proven that democracy in the MENA region is possible, although not easy, when different parties are able to come together with the best interests of the country. Dr. Tamara Sonn, representing the CSID Board, mentioned that she had met Rached Ghannouchi at a USIP conference in Johannesburg in 1994; he had just escaped prison and was in exile in the UK. She mentioned that she still uses his comments from that conference on the compatibility of Islam and democracy in her classes at Georgetown, and now, 22 years later, the entire global community are congratulating Tunisia for its achievements en route to implementing that vision. She noted that the Arab Spring was the culmination of a lot of effort, but that there is still a long way to go.
Next John Desrocher, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Egypt and Maghreb Affairs at the U.S. State Department, opened by commenting that at his table veteran diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Tunisia Gordon Gray had just asked what did we think the odds were, just a few years ago, that Rached Ghannouchi and the Tunisian ambassador would be on the same stage? He applauded the Tunisian leadership and people, who were finally being recognized for their work, and even though there is still a lot of work to do. He offered his congratulations to Sheikh Ghannouchi on the ICG award, noting that he and Ennahdha have exemplified the democratic spirit. The award recognized that spirit, as did the Nobel Prize to the Quartet. Ambassador Fayçal Gouia concurred that Desrocher was correct that this was not something that could have happened before, but thanks to God, it is happening now. And not just himself the ambassador, but the Tunisian president is working with Sheikh Ghannouchi. Ennahdha’s contributions to Tunisia were recognized when they won the first election, he added. They are important pillars of our democracy, and we cannot imagine them being outside the system. Sheikh Ghannouchi has upheld the interest of the nation over that of his party. Last night in New York was such a proud moment, he said, because Sheikh Ghannouchi and President Essebsi are the most representative and important figures in the new Tunisian consensus. He concluded by noting that he is the a lucky ambassador because of he gets to preside over a record number of awards for Tunisia.
Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, Founding President of the Ennahdha Party opened by stating how happy he was to see so many friends from around the Arab world and from Tunisia. In 2013, he explained, the democratic transition had nearly collapsed, voices were raised to shut down the process and stop writing the constitution. The Ennahdha Party had to make the difficult decision to give up power. His colleagues had asked him how they could possibly give up authority that they had been legitimately elected to hold, and he replied, “We lost power, but won Tunisia.” As a result, the constitution was written and a second round of elections was held. Despite Tunisia’s huge progress, there are still many challenges. The first is the economy and creating growth. The Revolution was for freedom but also for jobs and economic opportunity. Tunisia is trying to modernize the economy and create opportunities. New legislation will include bank reforms and reforms to the public-private partnerships law. The second biggest challenge is security, he said. Terrorist groups have targeted Tunisia, wanting to extinguish the flame of freedom. Ennahdha has worked hard to protect security in Tunisia, while remembering that repressing freedom to promote security undermines both. He concluded by saying that Tunisia needs a mini-Marshall plan to support its progress, and as such he invited the entire audience to be ambassadors for Tunisia, asking them to please help Tunisia get out the message out that it needs support.
The speech was followed by a vibrant question and answer period. Safei Hamed from the Center for Egyptian American Relations asked about mixed cultural heritage, with some focusing on local heritage and others looking to European and Western culture. How can you change a mindset in less than a generation, he asked? Can you have reconciliation between these cultures or only uneasy coexistence? Ghannouchi answered that almost all of Tunisians are Muslim, aside from a small number of Jews living peacefully among them. Ninety-three percent approved the Constitution. Ennahdha tried to avoid polarization. There were, problems and disagreements, but they were not ideologized. Tunisians are united around the Constitution, which says that Tunisia is Muslim, not secular. Because there is no church or hierarchy in Islam, he explained, interpretation and ijtihad are open discussions. Parliament can translate Islamic bylaws without interference or control by religious authorities. Our problems, he added, are social, not ideological, and Tunisia tried to avoid the polarization between Islamists and secularists that has lasted more than fifty years in the Arab world. He said that Ennahdha will continue the trend of working together inclusively and not exclusively. Radwan Masmoudi added that it was there was an important but unreported process regarding the work in 2012-2013 to build consensus around the Constitution. It was very important that the minority agree to the constitution so they could defend the Constitution as their own. Now the constitution is for all Tunisians, not just a majority.
Ali Ramadan Abuzaakouk, an elected member of Libyan Parliament, asked, “Two questions-as a pioneer on thinking about Islam and Democracy, how do you see the Arab Spring? Is it dead? Second, as a friend and neighbor, I have not yet seen Tunisia take a greater role in Libya, getting them to come to their senses. Will you help?” Ghannouchi answered that the future of the Arab Spring will be good, insha’allah. He hopes that Tunisia will be an example to usher other countries into a new era. But like the American and French revolutions, we still may see decades pass before other dictators fall. Those in the Arab world have tasted freedom and seen that their rulers are very weak and the people are very strong. Some places have turned out worse, like Egypt, but it is only on the surface. New blood and a new spirit has risen, youth will not accept the regime media and sham elections. Some countries may take five years, or ten, or twenty. The situation is complicated and the price will be high, but it is only a matter of time. The rulers cannot keep change down forever. As for the Libyan people, he said, they are very “difficult.” He said that Ennahdha and Tunisians are against a direct intervention in Libya. The Libyan people and leaders must have the will to compromise; no one can help them achieve that. Ambassador Fayçal Gouiaa added that Tunisian support for Libya is not only about hosting meetings. After the revolution 1.5 million Libyans came to Tunisia, and Tunisians hosted them not in camps but in their homes. There are still hundreds of thousands there. Unofficial conversations still happen in Tunisia all the time. Tunisians have done quite a lot for their Libyan brothers.
A question followed from the head of the Moroccan American Forum, “Is it time for the Maghreb to increase relations with the United States, which is more important for education and the economy? This would also give us a chance to get out from under the influence of France and Europe.” John Desrocher answered that it is not a zero-sum game, but of course the U.S. would like to improve oitsrelations with Tunisia, and the U.S.-Tunisia relationship will only grow stronger. Ambassador Fayçal Gouiaa added that the U.S. also coordinates with other countries interested in Tunisia, and the G7 has had meetings on coordinating Tunisia assistance. Habib Latiri, a former senior World Health Organization official pictured left, thanked Ghannouchi for “helping the current government and cooperating.” He asked, “We know you are a man of religion and have written many books on the subject. And now you are also a politician. Which do you prefer?” Radwan Masmoudi quipped, “Can’t you do both?” Ghannouchi concluded, referring to Masmoudi, “He replied.”
Manal Omar of the U.S. Institute of Peace asked, “What has been women’s role in the transition and how have Islamic extremist threats to women affected things? A member of Ghannouchi’s delegation, Sayida Ounissi, MP in the Tunisian parliament, answered that the Tunisian revolution has been a chance for Arab and Muslim women to prove that they have not only a family role but a role in bringing change to the country. In the revolution and the dictatorship that preceded it women have shown they can be on the front lines of the struggle. Tunisia has equality and parity in the constitution, which encourages parties to put forward women. Women are pushing trade unions like the UGTT to include more women as well. The situation is good, but we still must bring up the new generation to expect better. An exiled member of the Egyptian parliament asked, “I am in exile; many of my colleagues are in prison. More than 90% of Egyptians have boycotted the current elections.You have swayed young people toward dialogue and away from violence. One theory says dictatorship is best for stability, another says democracy. I know where you stand, but why? How can Egypt confront dictatorship?” Ghannouchi commented that the Arab Spring will continue. Egypt is the center of the Arab world, so insha’allah they will succeed. He added that Egypt needs passion, and they are a passionate people. They need to keep going and to keep youth from violence. Joseph Montville, a founding boardmember of CSID, thanked Radwan Masmoudi, and suggested that he be recognized for the excellent work he have been doing in Tunisia, and the important role he played in the transition. Radwan Masmoudi thanked Mr. Montville and went on to thank the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) for organizing the latest letter signed by 114 American experts and policymakers urging Congress to support Tunisia, adding that we need to show Tunisians and the entire region the benefits of democracy.