Tunisia shaken by Islamist video

Tunisia shaken by Islamist video


Financia Times, 12 October 2012

A secret meeting between the head of Tunisia’s dominant Islamist party and a group of Salafists, or puritanical Muslims, has shaken the north African country’s political scene and raised questions about the strain of political Islam taking hold across the Arab world.

Video footage released on the internet shows Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Nahda party, which won Tunisia’s first free parliamentary elections, in a meeting earlier this year with a group of heavily bearded Salafists, assuring them they shared the same goals in fighting secular trends in Tunisia.

“We won something amazing in one year but there is still so much more we are aiming for, we haven’t reached out final goal yet, and what we have is not secured yet,” he is heard saying in the video, in which he is seated in what appears to be a parlour.

“People are still gathering, demonstrations are happening every day more and more and they are all gathering against Islam,” he said. “So we have to assure people, we have to give them speeches so they feel secure and they trust us, so we can maintain what we have and build on top of it. “

Since the uprising, Salafists have engaged in a low-level campaign of sometimes violent harassment against artists, activists and alcohol consumption.

Mr Ghannouchi’s comments and his light-hearted banter with leaders of Salafist groups have enraged the country’s secularists and liberals, who lost to Nahda in elections that followed the country’s revolution last year.

Banned by the former regime, the Nahda party under Mr Ghannouchi spent years in exile supposedly crafting a temperate brand of Islamic politics, making the video all the more shocking.

“Ghannouchi’s remarks solved the mystery of why things have deteriorated in the country and Salafi violence has spiralled,” Issam Chebbi, of the secular Republican Party, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Mr Ghannouchi has been silent since the video emerged. Nahda party officials have acknowledged the meeting, which they variously say took place in February, March or April of this year, but claim their leader’s comments were taken out of context.

They say Mr Ghannouchi was merely trying to convince the Salafists to drop their demand that Islamic jurisprudence be included prominently in the draft constitution being written up.

“We call on everyone to avoid the methods of espionage and misleading video montage used by the previous regime,” said a statement issued by Nahda.

The video has already sparked a backlash against Nahda and emboldened secular politicians. On Friday, the constituent assembly dropped a Nahda proposal to outlaw blasphemy in the county’s constitution as lawmakers prepared a possible vote of no-confidence in the government of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, a Nahda party leader.

Perhaps most damaging to Mr Ghannouchi in his quest to be seen as an elderly statesman somewhat above the political fray is his highly polarised view of Tunisian society and depiction of the secular forces arrayed against him as well as what appears to be co-ordination with the very groups damaging the country’s crucial tourism industry and international reputation.

“I truly believe that Tunisians want religion, however secularists are still very much in control even though they didn’t win the majority vote,” he is heard saying in the meeting.

“They still control the media, they control the economy and although we are the main rulers they still control most administrative posts. The unity between them is growing and so many things are in their hands, things like the army which isn’t guaranteed to aid us. The police force is also not guaranteed at this point.”