Tunisia’s new premier faces Islamist test

Hamadi Jebali,the Arab Spring's first elected leader, copes with radical Islamist rhetoric from his Ennahda Party.

By DAVID ROSENBERG/THE MEDIA LINE
November 22, 2011 11:59
Moncef Marzouki (L) sp

Moncef Marzouki (L) and Hamadi Jbel (R) 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)

All eyes will be on Tunisia’s Hamadi Jebali, who is poised to become the Arab Spring’s first democratically elected Islamist leader this week.

Heading an interim government with two secular movements, the secretary-general of the Islamic Ennahda Party will shepherd along the process of writing the first constitution of the Arab Spring. But, most of all, Jebali will be the one responsible for showing Tunisians and the Arab world that Islamists can respect democratic institutions and human rights.

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He is off to a rocky start. Last week, Jebali set off alarm bells about Ennahda’s commitment to the country’s infant democracy and civil society by implying he sought a return of the Muslim caliphate.

“People are a bit scared of what could happen next.and there will probably be more moments like that,” Allan Bradley, former editor-in-chief of the news website Tunisia Live, told The Media Line. But, he said, the most likely scenario is Ennahda pursuing a somewhat more Islamic agenda than it campaigned on. “I don’t think it’s likely they’ll go off the deep end. The hyperbolic fears of sharia state are unfounded.”

Tunisia is the first Arab Spring country to put an Islamist into the top job and the way things looks right now it won’t be the last. In Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood party is expected to lead the first of several votes for a new parliament and president and in Libya Muslims groups have emerged as the strongest and best organized of the country’s rebel factions.

This has raised concerns among secularists, many of whom feel they led the revolutions to topple autocrats only to see power slip away through the democratic process into the hands of Islamic groups that have the backing of wide swathes of the population and the organization to net them. In Tunisia, which staged the first Arab Spring elections last month, Ennahda won 89 seats for the 217-member Constituent Assembly.

Jebali and Ennahda won’t be ruling alone. In a deal struck by the three main parties to be officially unveiled on Monday, Jebali will take the prime minister’s post while Moncef Marzouki of the left-wing nationalist Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) will become president, and Mustapha Ben-Jaafar, of the leftist liberal Ettakatol, will be named president of the Constituent Assembly.

Throughout the campaign Ennahda and its chairman, Rachid Ghannouchi, went out of their way to project a moderate image, such as running a female candidate who does wear the veil favored by Islamists.

But that carefully cultivated image was undercut last week when Jebali declared at a rally near his hometown of Sousse, “My brothers, you are at a historic moment in a new cycle of civilization, God willing. We are in a sixth caliphate, God willing.” With a lawmaker from the Palestinian Islamic movement, Hamas, standing at his side he also vowed that “the liberation of Tunisia will, God willing, bring about the liberation of Jerusalem.”

The caliphate is the traditional Islamic system of government that existed from the time of Mohammad until the end of the Ottoman Empire 90 years ago, and many extremist Islamic groups seek to revive it. Hamas is regarded by many as an old-line Islamic movement little interested in democracy and ready to use violence to achieve its goals.

Abedeltif Lmeki, an Ennahda official, tried to recast the remarks to mean that his boss was highlighting the caliphate values of justice and fairness. Nevertheless, they caused a stir among the Tunisia’s secular elite and prompted Ettakatol to briefly suspend coalition talks. “We thought we were going to build a second republic with our partner - not a sixth caliphate,” said Khemais Ksila, a senior Ettakatol official.

If that wasn’t enough, days earlier, Souad Abderrahim – the unveiled female Ennahda candidate – raised alarms during an interview with France’s Radio Monte Carlo when she said that “single mothers are a disgrace to Tunisian society” and that “they do not have the right to exist.”

Malika Zeghal, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Thought and Life at Harvard University, downplayed the importance of the caliphate remarks, saying it was part of a developing debate on the role Islam and acceptable political terminology in the new Tunisia.

“The Islamic public figures who will govern Tunisia will now be forced to define their political language with more clarity, in particular in the ways this language relates to Islam and to the future political reforms,” Zeghal wrote in his blog On Islam & Politics. “If the mention of the caliphate was simply the consequence of a moment of carelessness, he needs to clarify his position.”

Jebali is an engineer by profession, not a cleric. He entered the Islamic political scene in the early 1980s, shortly after Ennahda – then called Islamic Tendency – was formed, inspired by the Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Although the party was harassed in its early years, it was only formally banned in 1991. Jebali, who was by then editor of the party newspaper Al-Fajr, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, of which 11 were spent in solitary confinement. He emerged as spokesman after Ennahda was legalized last March, two months after Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from office.

Now age 63, Jebali favors Western suits, speaks fluent French and maintains a neatly trimmed beard. But he also has the mark on his forehead that a pious Muslim develops from frequent prayer. His record is mixed.

On the one hand, he was recorded in a video filmed in Washington last March, describing Israel as a democratic state. While views on Israeli governance aren’t part of the Islamic agenda, it was a rare departure from the usually strident anti-Israel line of Islamic leaders across the Arab world.

On the other hand, Jebali failed to disavow Abderrahim’s remarks on single mothers, issuing a neutral statement to the effect that all women will be protected in the new Tunisia. In the days before elections October 23, he waffled on questions concerning a ban on selling alcohol and interfering with the right of people not to fast during the month of Ramadan.

“We do not have the right to interfere in people’s personal affairs, but everybody must respect the consensus and the national identity,” he told Radio Monte Carlo.

Bradley said Tunisia’s direction is a bottom-up process whereby parties like Ennahda respond to the view of voters rather than trying to impose their stands from above. “Asking what Ennahda will do is missing the point,” he said. “It’s more important to ask what the people are going to stand behind.”


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