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The Smiling Islamist: Popular Politician Worries Secular Tunisians

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Free elections are set to take place for the first time next week in Tunisia, the country that set the Arab Spring in motion. The strongest party could turn out to be that of Rashid al-Ghannushi, an Islamist who returned to his country from exile in London, in a developement that worries many secular Tunisians.

The elderly gentleman with the chubby cheeks and gray beard will probably never be a great speaker, and yet his followers have once again gathered by the thousands. For months now, his aides have carted him from amphitheaters to sports halls, the masses loudly cheering his leaden speeches and stiff gestures as though he were the charismatic leader he most certainly is not.

Rashid al-Ghannushi, 70, is the leader of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party. Today he is speaking to people in Sidi Bouzid, the town which gave birth to the Tunisian uprising last December. Ghannushi praises the martyrs of the revolution, talks about Islam and freedom, and smiles a grandfatherly smile while his bodyguards stare grimly into the audience. It is Saturday, Oct. 1, the first day of official campaigning for the Tunisian election.

Ever since he returned from exile in London at the start of the year, Ghannushi has been the main political attraction in his homeland. Hearing him speak, it's hard to understand how this professorial sounding man moves so many people, why he commands so much respect, or stirs up so much hatred. But when the Tunisian people go to the polls in their first free election on October 23, nearly everything will center around him. On this day, the future of Tunisia and the soul of the country will be determined.

The country that became the first in the Arab world this year to shake off its dictator -- in this case the corrupt Zine El Abidine Ben Ali -- will also be the first to let its people elect their representatives for a constitutional assembly. For this reason, the outcome of the election will also be a message to the entire Arab world.

Moderate Islamist Party Message

Of course, Tunisia isn't really ready for free elections. Neither the state nor the media or the people themselves. The raw force of revolution can't possibly develop into civil awareness this quickly; a repressive state cannot become liberal overnight. And the press, prevented for so long from reporting on anything of substance, must also learn that wildly spreading rumors isn't journalism.

Nevertheless, no other Arab country has better prospects for a successful democratic process than Tunisia. In contrast to Egypt, the last remaining forces of the former regime do not seem particularly powerful. And in contrast to Libya, Tunisia has a well-educated and homogenous population.

Ghannushi's visit to Sidi Bouzid is deeply symbolic. It was there that a fruit vendor set himself on fire in protest ten months ago, thus sparking the flame of dissent across the country. Ghannushi has traveled to the place where it all began, the conservative interior of Tunisia, where social unrest developed into a popular revolution. His party hopes for an overwhelming victory in the area.

Some 6,000 have turned out to see him, a crowd the size of those he has often addressed in recent months. As he tours the interior in the days ahead, he will attend one mass rally after another, pushing the message he and his spokesmen have been repeating ever since his return: The Ennahda Party is a moderate political group comparable to Turkey's ruling moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) or Germany's center-right Christian Democrats. At this point, nobody can be certain whether this is true or not.

Radical Party Past

Ghannushi's political awakening began in Syria in the 1960s. He is close to the Muslim Brotherhood and has in the past praised the suicide bombers of the Palestinian Hamas organization. In 1991, radical members of his movement sprayed members of the ruling party with acid. In the 1980s, they planted bombs in hotels. According to Ghannushi's writings, Islamic democracy is unthinkable unless it is based on Shariah law.

Many of these details have long since past, and many who have spoken with him since the Arab Spring are told he is a moderate who doesn't want to impose his religious beliefs and advocates equal rights for women. One of his daughters is a lawyer, the other a journalist. Ghannushi likes to talk about Turkey's Islamists, to whom he feels a special kinship.

But his enemies accuse him of being two-faced, refusing to believe he could have changed so dramatically during his exile in London.

When Ghannushi's plane touched down in Tunis on January 30, two weeks after Ben Ali was deposed, some compared it to the return of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini to Tehran from his exile in 1979. The Tunisian authorities were so nervous about the event that they tried to prevent journalists from taking pictures of Ghannushi exiting the plane at the airport.

Thousands of his supporters had come to welcome him home, and in their euphoria they nearly crushed him as he tried to make his way through the terminal. In the midst of the huge crowd, the man who had been wrenched from the tranquility of his study in London looked anything but happy, his eyes wide open with fear. Ghannushi's return was a triumph for Tunisia's Islamist movement. Persecuted by the country's authorities for decades, they had never before been seen in such numbers.

Secular Tunisians Worried

Ghannushi was accompanied by dozens of exiled members of his party on the flight from London to the Tunisian capital. There was deep satisfaction in his face as he sat in his window seat, looking forward to his homecoming. In an interview he described himself as a democrat and someone who would never force women to wear a headscarf, giving an innocuous grandfatherly smile. That evening, Ghannushi received his followers at his brother's house in the Menzah VI district of Tunis, and the man they call "the Sheikh" was surrounded by his closest confidantes. They sensed that now everything was possible.

But many secular Tunisians were worried and wondering whether his rise would be the price of the revolution.

Tunisia is the most liberal country in the Arab world. Equal rights for women are enshrined in the current constitution, and women enjoy greater social, professional and sexual freedoms than their counterparts in any other Islamic country. Alcohol is available throughout the country and the bare-breasted Western tourists on Tunisia's beaches are somewhat leniently tolerated.

The man who instilled this worldly attitude was Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba. After the retreat of French colonial forces in 1956, Bourguiba created a state based on French ideas. Bourguiba was not a religious man, and he called on his people to fight the country's underdevelopment instead of obeying the strictures of Ramadan. He even allowed himself to be filmed drinking orange juice in broad daylight -- in breach of the obligation to fast from dawn to dusk during the Islamic holy month.

Tunisia has been shaped by a Francophile and often French-educated elite living in its coastal regions. All educated people speak French, and among them it's fashionable to drop entire French sentences into Arab conversations. Economic ties with France make up almost a third of the country's economic output. "We Tunisians are Arabs who would like to be Europeans," says journalist Mongi Khadraoui from the al-Chourouk daily newspaper.

Old Ideological Battle

It is this elite that Rashid Al-Ghannushi despises, and it is their values he has vowed to fight. Secular President Bourguiba was Ghannushi's nemesis. Bourguiba had Ghannushi sent to jail for 11 years, sentenced to hard labor and finally given the death penalty for his Islamist activities. Whatever his specific political aims for the future may be, the cultural battle he is waging is decades old. It is also a battle against the legacy of colonialism and for a return to the country's Arab Islamic roots.

This June Ghannushi went on a campaign trip to Bizerte in the north of the country accompanied by his son Moadh, who grew up in London. Moadh sums it up as follows: "The French created an elite in this country that wants to emulate their former colonial masters, that feels uncomfortable with its Arab identity and passes this insecurity on to the people." By contrast, he adds, Ennahda wants to create a modern state based on Tunisian culture that is closer to the common people.

On this day Ghannushi sat under a parasol at a Bizerte ampitheater while some 8,000 people waited to hear him speak. Meanwhile a young woman -- in a hijab as strict as any to be seen on a Gulf TV soap opera -- passionately lamented the plight of the Palestinian people, her voice cracking dramatically. Only then did Ghannushi come to the microphone. "I greet women; the pillar of the family," he said. "It is they who propped up our movement." And he added, "The hijab is a basic principle of Islam, but we greet all revolutionary women. In Tunisia we have people who pray and those who do not. I hope the latter will do so tomorrow."

During this particular trip to Bizerte the fact that many Tunisians are not devout Muslims proved unavoidable for Ghannushi. On a day he met with a group of businessmen he hoped to convince of his party's socially-oriented capitalism, the regulars at the hotel bar had already started drinking early in the morning. The image of the drunk men staggering past the Islamists seemed absurd.

Does he intend to ban alcohol? Would he continue to allow beach tourists into the country? Ghannushi says the Tunisians themselves should be asked what they want. After all, he adds, there are other kinds of tourism than vacations by the sea. And he smiles his Sphinx-like smile again.

Economy May Dominate Election

Ennahda will undoubtedly make a strong showing in the elections. Some polls suggest Ghannushi's party will garner 20 to 30 percent of the vote, making it the largest party in parliament. But the reliability of these polls is questionable.

Ennahda is the best organized political party, with hundreds of local and youth groups that have been active for months, and what seem to be large financial reserves -- though their unclear origin has been the topic of heated debate. Although the Islamists played only a minor role in the revolution, their politicians are seen as credible because many of them were persecuted and/or tortured in the past.

But even if Ennahda won the election, a coalition of secular parties could dominate the new constitutional assembly. Polls put two liberal parties close behind the Islamists, including the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), headed by Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, a member of the secular elite who is possibly Ghannushi's greatest political rival.

In spite of all the fuss over the cultural battle being waged between Tunisia's Islamists and secularists, the election will be strongly influenced by another topic entirely -- the economy. The dire social problems that led to the revolution have dramatically worsened this year. Growth has plunged from an average annual rate of 4.5 percent to around 0.3 percent, tourism revenues are down 40 percent, and the country's high unemployment level continues to rise.

The greatest danger now is that the Tunisian people will feel cheated of the fruits of their revolution and take to the streets once more. Ghannushi has promised voters that if his party wins, Tunisia could experience an economic boom like that in Turkey, his shining example. After all, that country too is governed by Islamists.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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