FaithWorld

Interview -Tunisian Islamists say they’re excluded, call for unity govt.

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(Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis February 3, 2011/Louafi Larbi )

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. Banned for over 20 years, his Ennahda (Arab for “Renaissance”) party 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.

Islamists emerge as powerful force in the new Tunisia

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(Supporters welcome home Rachid Ghannouchi at the airport in Tunis January 30, 2011. The sign reads: "No fear of Islam"/Louafi Larbi)

They are at pains to assure Tunisians this is no Islamic revolution. They do not seek the presidency. They will run alongside other groups in the democracy that replaces Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali’s police state.

Tunisia’s main Islamist group may not have played any role in the revolution that toppled Ben Ali after 23 years, but any doubt that Ennahda would emerge as one of the largest players was dispelled with the return of its leader Rachid Ghannouchi.

Factbox: Who is Tunisia’s Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi?

Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Tunisia’s main Islamist Ennahda movement returns on Sunday to the country from which he was exiled 22 years ago.

Below are some facts on Ghannouchi and his party Ennahda. Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi (C) welcomed on arrival in Tunis January 30, 2011/Louafi Larbi

Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi (C) welcomed on arrival in Tunis January 30, 2011/Louafi Larbi

* Ghannouchi is a respected Muslim scholar who went into exile in London in 1989. Now 69, Ghannouchi is widely considered to be a moderate who believes that Islam and democracy are compatible.

Tunisian Islamists show strength at chief’s return

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(Photo: Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi (C, with red scarf) is welcomed by supporters upon his arrival in Tunis January 30, 2011/Louafi Larbi)

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.

Analysis: What role for the Islamists in the new Tunisia?

tunisia flag (Photo: Shadows of protesters on the Tunisian flag, in Tunis January 15, 2011/Zohra Bensemra)

For years they were jailed or exiled. They were excluded from elections, banned from politics, and played no visible role in Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. But in the brave new world of multi-party politics, moderate Islamists could attract more followers than their secular rivals like to admit.

And the downfall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s police state may leave Tunisia open to infiltration by extremists from neighboring Algeria, where war between authorities and Islamists has killed 200,000 people in the last two decades.

“The Islamist movement was the most oppressed of all the opposition movements under Ben Ali. Its followers are also much greater in number than those of the secular opposition,” said Salah Jourchi, a Tunisian expert on Islamic movements. “Its effect could be large.”

Tunisian Muslims worship freely after revolution

tunis mosqueFor 23 years, Tunisians prayed in fear. They limited their visits to the mosque. They talked to no one. Women could not wear the veil on the street and men could not wear long beards for fear of arrest. On Friday, for the first time since the overthrow of secular ex-president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians attended their weekly sermon without fear that this public expression of piety would cost them their jobs or their freedom.

“We couldn’t pray freely before,” Abdel Kouki, 57, said outside the Quds mosque in the Tunisian capital as hundreds of men, most in suits or jeans, streamed into the small mosque. (Photo: Kasbah Mosque in Tunis, 28 July 2009/Rais67)

Some spilled out onto its courtyard, where they knelt on straw mats. Women, their heads covered, crept in through a side entrance to their gallery to pray.

Tunisia revolt makes Islamist threat ring hollow

rcd (Photo: Tunisian protester with political demands on a banner that reads

“No to a government born of corruption” “Ben Ali is in Saudi Arabia and the government is the same (hasn’t changed)” in Arabic and “RCD, clear out!” in French. The RCD is the party of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.  In Tunis January 18, 2011/Zohra Bensemra)

The absence of Islamist slogans from Tunisia’s pro-democracy revolt punches a hole in the argument of many Arab autocrats that they are the bulwark stopping religious radicals sweeping to power.

Ousted strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali spent much of his 23-year rule crushing Islamist opposition groups who opposed his government’s brand of strict secularism: after Sept. 11 2001, he was an enthusiastic backer of Washington’s “war on terror”.

But the evidence of the past week is that the protest slogans that rang out before his fall demanded not an imposition of Islamic sharia law but fair elections and free speech.

Tunisian Islamist leader says he’ll return from exile

tunis (Photo: Protesters in Tunis January 14, 2011/Zohra Bensemra)

The leader of a banned Tunisian Islamist movement has said he would return in the next few days from exile in London after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who ran the country for 23 years, was forced out.

Tunisian authorities outlawed the Ennahda, or Renaissance, movement in the early 1990s after accusing it of a violent plot to overthrow secular rule. But the movement said it is non-violent and the victim of government repression.

“I am going to go back very soon,” Rached Ghannouchi told Reuters in an telephone interview at the weekend. “I haven’t decided when yet, but possibly in the days to come.”