When Rached Ghannouchi met Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali - before Mr Ghannouchi wisely exiled himself to London as an enemy of the dictatorship - a very odd thing happened.
“He didn’t look me in the eye,” Mr Ghannouchi said. “He didn’t speak that much. But when I was with him, they brought coffee for both of us.
“I was talking and he was silent and listening, then he surprised me. He switched the coffee cups round. He gave me the coffee that he had, and took the coffee that I had, saying: ‘Did you have some doubt about the coffee?’ But this never crossed my mind! So I switched the coffees back again and took the one I was originally given.”
Odd indeed. It must have been the first time in history that a dictator thought his guest feared being poisoned. And at this very moment in our conversation, a lady entered Mr Ghannouchi’s office with cups of coffee. Don’t switch the cups, I warned him. The point was not lost. But Mr Ghannouchi is not a naturally humorous man and he spends a lot of his time these days trying to persuade his antagonists that – as founder and leader of the country’s largest party, Ennahda – his doesn’t want an Islamist state in Tunisia.
Only 24 hours earlier, a Tunisian law professor, Jamil Sayah, had written a long and thunderous article in La Presse de Tunis suggesting that the difference between Mr Ghannouchi and the majority of Tunisians was that “the head of Ennahda wants to Islamicise modernity while Tunisians want to modernise Islam”. I don’t think Mr Ghannouchi had read the article – like most reports in Tunisian newspapers, it was at least 2,000 words long – but he went for the bait.
“He (Sayah) is the one who wants this,” he said. “I don’t believe Tunisians want to change Islam but they want to be modern while being Muslims. Islam is a modern religion, We don’t need any surgery on Islam to make it modern. From the beginning, Islam was a pluralistic religion. From the beginning, Islam believed in freedom of religion and conscience, in the legitimacy of the state in a contract between the citizens and the state.”
So what about the mysterious video – it was the last question on my list but was not set as a trap – that surfaced early this year and showed the slightly rotund figure of Mr Ghannouchi greeting Salafist leaders and caused an avalanche of condemnation to fall about Mr Ghannouchi’s head?
The video, originally made last March and released on YouTube – then re-edited in order to represent Ennahda as a threat to secular Tunisia – has gone the rounds of the country. And Mr Ghannouchi’s explanation shows him to be as ruthless as he is apparently pragmatic.
“The context during which this meeting took place was the big debate in Tunisia around sharia, whether to include sharia as a source in the constitution or not,” he said.
“The Salafists had organised big demonstrations to demand the inclusion of sharia, and at the same time the secular elites felt threatened by these calls.”
Tunisia was dangerously divided. Even within Ennahda, there were divisions and its 71-year-old leader – who returned after 20 years in British exile to participate in his country’s revolution – said that he had to react “forcefully” and immediately began a large number of meetings with the Salafis. “I had to convince them,” he said, “that the way people understood sharia wasn’t very clear – that the term ‘sharia’ had been linked to many applications that went wrong in Afghanistan and in some other places.
“I was afraid that sharia was being preached about as anti-women’s rights, anti-human rights, anti-equality and anti-freedom. I was trying to convince them [the Salafis] that constitutions are based not on what divides people but what unites them. So if there’s a lack of clarity on the issue of sharia, if there is a division around it, then it shouldn’t be let out. I was trying to convince them that the revolution had provided them with freedom. They used to be in prison, but now they have freedom to operate in society and through community organisations, in the mosques and by setting up charities and associations.”
Then comes the calculated bit. “We also tried to convince them that the situation was very fragile and if they pushed things to the limit, things could collapse. I reminded them that the Islamists in Algeria [the Islamic Salvation Front] got 80 per cent of the votes – but that they lost everything because they didn’t read the balance of power correctly. There was a bloodbath, Maybe the ones who lost the election in Algeria had only 20 per cent [of the vote] but they held all the centres of power in the country.”
In fact, the second round of Algeria’s elections were cancelled by the military after the Islamists won the first, provoking a civil war – throughout most of the 1990s – of almost unsurpassed ferocity and torture, leaving 250,000 Algerians dead. Quite a warning, then, for the Salafists of Tunisia. And perhaps for Tunisia itself.
“I was trying to make them understand and aware that they should not underestimate those who stood against them, even if they be few in number. Because when they [the Salafis] go out in demonstrations in large numbers, they think there is nothing more powerful than them. They forget there are other kinds of power in the country. The political equation in the country is not just based on numbers but on other factors as well – so in contrast to the warning about me that people tried to present in the video, there was nothing against democracy or the commitment to human rights, equality of the sexes and so on.”
But then there was the little matter of the assault on the US embassy and the American school in Tunis on 14 September, at which many demonstrators appeared to be in the standard Salafi costume of beards, long white gowns and sandals. Four Tunisians were killed, 70 wounded and 140 arrested. “There are two groups accused of perpetrating what happened,” Mr Ghannouchi said. “There were violent Salafi groups and groups of criminals. There is footage of people looting the contents of the US school and the embassy, including the canteen that sells alcohol in the embassy, and many of the attackers helped themselves to the alcohol. I don’t think these were Salafis. Some people want to beat us with a Salafist stick; they want us to crack down on them, to fight back.…”
Mr Ghannouchi insisted that the Salafis are not flocking to Ennahda’s banner. “It’s not Islamic enough for them,” he said, although there are many in Tunisia who would disagree with this. He added that there are now a number of Islamic parties as well as his own. Then came an unexpected aside from a man who is often portrayed – the French press are good at this – as a dangerous Islamist only waiting for the moment to turn his country into an Islamic republic.
“We understand democracy not just as a tool of government but also of education. I was in Paris in ’68 and these were revolutionary times. But one of its leaders, Cohn-Bendit is now in the European parliament.… There were examples of so-called extremists in Europe, the Red Army and Action Directe and through democracy they were able to be tamed and re-educated. So why can’t we imagine that we also can tame our violent actors. Through democracy, they will be slowly part of this democracy, rather than destroying it. I always tell some of our friends in Europe that through democracy they were able to tame the beasts – so why don’t you give us time to do the same with ours?
“This doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be firm with them. We must be firm with those who break the law…but some of our opponents, they want us to adopt the same methods as Ben Ali, opening prison camps, arresting thousands of people and using torture and kangaroo courts just because they belong to this group. We say that the law looks at people as individuals, not just as groups. If a driver doesn’t stop at a red light, he should not be asked what his ideology is, but told he has broken the law.”
Mr Ghannouchi’s historical argument is a bit flawed but he does recall being in London on that infamous 7 July. “I was in the UK during the attacks when more than 50 people were killed on the same day. I was impressed by the police – that there were no mass arrests, even though there was a lot of pressure on them to do so – yes, some people were arrested and when their guilt was proven they went to jail. And if nothing was found against them, they were released.”
The Ennahda leader doesn’t think the Arab revolutions will ever move into reverse – though he did talk in a rather gloomy fashion about those would like to have a counter-revolution in Tunisia – and, after calling Syria “a tragedy”, reminded me pointedly that Europeans didn’t acquire their own freedoms overnight.
“There were revolutions in Europe and people made sacrifices so that they could be free,” he said. “In Europe, a number of kings lost their heads didn’t they?” Too true.