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'Secret' video stirs Islamist fears in Tunisia

A video leaked this week of a conversation between Tunisian ruling Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi (pictured) and a group of Salafists has exposed the divide and lack of comprehension between Tunisia’s Islamists and secularists.


As the “cradle of the Arab Spring,” Tunisia enjoys a symbolic status across the region, with the ideological debates gripping this tiny North African nation widely viewed as a harbinger of more salubrious or ominous things to come.

So, when a secret video of a tête-à-tête between the leader of Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party and radical Salafists surfaced on the Internet earlier this week, it sparked a storm across the region.

Screen-grab of the video of Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi’s conversation with Salafist youth leaders
Screen-grab of the video of Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi’s conversation with Salafist youth leaders

The nearly eight-minute video showed Ennahda party’s intellectual leader Rached Ghannouchi engaged in a rambling lecture on Islamist strategies with a captive audience of select Salafist youths. (Click here for the video clip in Arabic.)

Over a cup of tea, the 71-year-old scholar-politician advised his Salafist interlocutors to consider a more measured approach to an Islamisation process.

"I tell our young Salafists to be patient... Why hurry? Take your time, to consolidate what you have gained," said Ghannouchi before advising them to "create television channels, radio stations, schools and universities."

The septuagenarian politician - who was rated one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People this year - also warned of a resurgence of the old regime among Tunisia’s security establishment.

"The army and the police are not safe and the RCD supporters are coming back,” said Ghannouchi referring to ousted Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's dissolved Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD) party.

A viral video and an alarmed press

Within hours, the video went viral on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter as well as the blogosphere. Not to be outdone, Tunisia’s major dailies minutely examined the text of the incendiary address. The Arabic daily, “Le Maghreb” warned that the “video scandal” displayed “the real agenda of Rached Ghannouchi’s Salafist project”.

On Thursday, opposition parliamentarians held an emergency meeting to discuss the latest Ghannouchi video

Responding to the scandal, Ennahda officials maintained that the conversation, which occurred in February, was taken out of context. But the explanation has failed to assuage the fears of Ennahda’s critics across the region.

Tunisia was not just the first Arab country to oust a longstanding dictator. It was also the first post-Arab uprising nation to deliver an Islamist poll victory – when Ennahda won a majority in the October 2011 constitutional assembly elections.

Ennahda officials have repeatedly defended the party’s moderate Islamist credentials. Proof, they claim, lies in the governing coalition the party formed with two secular parties following the October 2011 polls.

‘Double discourse’ meets ‘near-total ignorance’

But that was a year ago, and as Tunisians prepare for general elections - scheduled for March 2013 - Ennahda’s opponents are suspicious of the party’s intentions.

Critics have long warned that Ennahda employs a “double discourse” – sending one message to a secular audience while engaging in a hardline discourse with their Islamist base.

In a country polarized between secularists and Islamists, the latest Ghannouchi video appeared to reinforce deep-seated fears among some segments of Tunisian society that the so-called line between Tunisia’s moderate and extremist Islamists is an artificial one and that the terms “Ennahda” and “Salafists” are interchangeable.

It’s an opinion Monica Marks - a doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University’s St Antony's College who has been studying Tunisia’s Salafists – disparages.

“The accusation of interchangeability is a conspiracy theory that demonstrates near-total ignorance of who Tunisia’s young Salafis are, and what Ennahda stands for vis-a-vis Salafi goals,” said Marks in an emailed response to FRANCE 24. “All political parties couch and package their message differently in order to appeal to different audiences   this is nothing new: it’s why we tend to think of politicians as silver-tongued liars. Ennahda wants to rope in the right-wing vote, and is very afraid of losing the mantle of Islamic purity.”

Ennahda’s patronising tone with young Salafists

Opinion polls have shown that Ennahda’s popularity has plummeted by more than 30% amid rising unemployment and the party’s perceived failure to deliver on its electoral promises. Last month’s attack on the US embassy in Tunis by angry mobs protesting an anti-Islam film has done little to rejuvenate Tunisia’s vital tourism sector or to allay foreign investors’ fears.

The growing popularity of a new secular party, Nidaa Tounes, led by veteran politician and former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi has also seen Ennahda struggling to secure its conservative base.

Experts familiar with Tunisia’s Salafists maintain that far from being interchangeable, Ennahda and young Salafists sometimes have a rocky relationship.

“The Salafi young people whom I’ve been interviewing are picking up on a kind of paternalizing Ennahda discourse,” said Marks. “Ennahda constantly refers to them as ‘our children’ and says things to the effect of how young Salafis need to be re-educated in ‘good school’ of Ennahda activism and moderate Tunisian Islam.”

It’s a tone that Marks finds replete in the latest video of Ghannouchi’s discourse with a group of young Salafists.

“Ennahda has repeatedly attempted to address the Salafis in inclusive, almost pacifying terms, stressing that they are part of the fabric of Tunisian society, and entreating them to consider a more patient, gradualist approach to Islamizing reforms,” said Marks. “Ghannouchi’s language in that video is very much in this vein and I don’t find it surprising in the slightest. I’m surprised that the video has been so controversial.”

Scoring political points

Like Marks, Salem al-Abyad, a political scientist at the University of Tunis El Manar, also maintains the latest video is hardly surprising.

“It’s not astonishing because right now, there is an electoral battle raging in Tunisia,” said al-Abyad in an interview with FRANCE 24’s Arabic section. “The fact that this video was leaked is really part of the larger game that different political parties are playing to try to discredit each other and to score political points against each other.”

Proof of the political score-settling, according to al-Abyad, lies in the timing of the latest video leak. While the Ghannouchi conversation occurred in February, the video only came to light earlier this week.

If the aim of the video leak was to discredit Ennahda, al-Abyad believes the Islamist party’s opponents could well have inched closer to the goalpost.

“This discourse could cause a loss of confidence in Ennahda’s democratic intentions and could bolster the claim that Ennahda has a double discourse which could affect Tunisia’s democratic transition," said al-Abyad.

"This is a party in power that should represent all Tunisians. Ennahda has always tried to portray the country as split between Islamists and secularists. But in fact there is a wide diversity of political inclinations in Tunisia. As a governing party, Ennahda should refrain from conducting charm offensives with the Salafists and stop denying the existence of a diverse society.”

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