Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, was the last place where it failed. After a decade of freedom and democracy, in 2021 a new strongman, President Kais Saied, shut down the parliament and, soon after, began imposing an authoritarian constitution and arresting his critics. This week, the police finally came for Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s largest political party and the Arab world’s most influential thinker about the potential synthesis of liberal democracy and Islamic governance.
Born in 1941 to impoverished peasant farmers in remote southern Tunisia, Ghannouchi studied in Cairo, Damascus, and Paris; worked menial jobs in Europe; and returned to Tunis, in 1971. Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamist politics was on the rise across the region, as an alternative to the autocracies in power, and, in 1981, Ghannouchi co-founded a Tunisian Islamist movement. He was jailed and tortured for three years, and in 1987 he was arrested again, sentenced to death, and exiled to London. (Other Arab states would not take him.)
Ghannouchi’s examination of Britain’s liberal democracy through an Islamic lens set him apart from a generation of Arab intellectuals. Islamic scholars had long ago concluded that in the true “Abode of Islam” a Muslim must feel secure in his liberty, property, religion, and dignity, Ghannouchi wrote in his landmark treatise, “Public Freedoms in the Islamic State,” which he began writing in prison and published, in Arabic, in 1993. So why had he found that security only in the West? A true Islamic state, he concluded, must be founded on “freedom of conscience” for Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Quoting a revered twelfth-century scholar, Ghannouchi urged Islamists to learn from Western democracy—to benefit “from the best of human experiments regardless of their religious origins, since wisdom is Shari’a’s twin.”
He returned to Tunisia, in 2011, when a spontaneous wave of protests against police brutality drove its longtime ruler into exile and set the Arab Spring revolts in motion. Ghannouchi helped make the country’s political transition the most liberal in the region, and he did his best to salvage the prospects for democracy elsewhere. In the late spring of 2013—a decade ago—he flew to Egypt to offer advice to its first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood. The hopefulness of those months is now difficult to remember. Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya had all held credible elections and had started drafting new charters. Western experts cited Yemen as a model for the peaceful handover of power. Even in Syria most rebels still marched under the banner of democracy, rather than of extremist Islam; the uprising had not yet devolved into a sectarian civil war. But a sandstorm was blowing toward Tahrir Square, where two and a half years earlier an eighteen-day sit-in, inspired by Tunisia, had toppled President Hosni Mubarak and opened the way for Morsi. Now Morsi’s opponents were calling for protests to demand his resignation, and the head of the armed forces was sending mixed signals about his allegiance.
Ghannouchi had spent more than two decades thinking and writing about the same promises that Egypt’s Muslim Brothers had campaigned on—combining Islamic governance with democratic elections and individual freedoms. During his trip to Cairo, he told me a few months later, at his party’s headquarters in Tunis, he had tried to convince Morsi that, in order to achieve those goals, he should voluntarily forfeit some power. (Morsi advisers later confirmed the broad outlines of Ghannouchi’s account, which he told me on the condition that I keep it private at the time.) After revolutions like those in Egypt and Tunisia, a majority party should understand the anxious vulnerability of political or religious minorities, such as Egypt’s secular-minded liberals and Coptic Christians. They had been afforded at least some protections under the old authoritarian order, and those were now gone, with little reason yet to trust promises about the rule of law, checks and balances, and individual rights. Precisely because of the Brotherhood’s electoral success—Morsi had already won ratification of the new constitution—in the interest of democracy and to reassure the Party’s weaker rivals, it should bring in a unity government ahead of another election. Why remain the lightning rod for his opponents’ fears or resentments? “The democracy of consensus succeeds—not the democracy of the majority,” Ghannouchi told me.
Morsi rejected that advice, convinced that yielding power under threat of protests would be a capitulation to political extortion and set a dangerous precedent.. Had Morsi followed Ghannouchi’s advice, perhaps he could have defused the protests that filled the streets on June 30th, demanding his ouster, or at least won over more Egyptian liberals. We’ll never know: on July 3, 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—now President Sisi, possibly for life—ousted Morsi from power, ending Egypt’s thirty-month experiment with democracy and freedom.
More than a thousand Egyptian Islamists were killed in the streets for opposing the coup. Tens of thousands more were jailed. Those who were underground or in exile demanded retribution against the ostensibly liberal factions who initially supported Sisi’s takeover. But Ghannouchi still urged reconciliation. “The Egyptian ship needs to include all Egyptians and not throw some of them into the water,” he told me. “There should be no collective punishment. The cure for a failed democracy is more democracy.”
In the months after the Egyptian coup, one Arab Spring revolt after another foundered in despair and extremism—a reversal of 2011, when the Tahrir Square sit-in stirred democracy movements in capitals across the region. Tunisia was the exception to the dark turn after the coup, in part because Ghannouchi followed his own advice there the following year. The Islamist party that he co-founded and led, Ennahdha, meaning “the renaissance,” had won the dominant role in a transitional parliament. By late 2013, the assassinations of a pair of left-leaning, secular politicians had brought the political process and constitution-drafting to a halt; opponents suspected Islamist extremists of carrying out the killings, and blamed Ennahdha for failing to prevent them. Ghannouchi, who held no elected office at the time, defied many in his party to reach a power-sharing agreement with the main leader of the secular opposition. Ennahdha voluntarily handed power to a caretaker government to oversee new elections. Ghannouchi’s concession broke the logjam. Tunisia’s revolution celebrated a fourth anniversary—it was the only Arab Spring uprising that appeared to succeed—and the civil-society organizations that helped sponsor the talks between Ghannouchi and the opposition received a Nobel Peace Prize. “We are not angels. We would like to have power,” Ghannouchi said on a visit to Washington. “But we fervently believe that a democratic constitution is more important.”
His leadership made Ennahdha a unique example of what some called liberal Islamism. In fact, Ghannouchi helped persuade Ennahdha leaders to jettison the label “Islamist” and to begin describing themselves as Muslim democrats. (He published an essay in Foreign Affairs explaining the change.) His party, which led the drafting of the constitution, pushed through a charter with explicit protections for the rights of women and of religious minorities. When we spoke in 2014, he also noted that Tunisia’s was one of the few Arab constitutions that made no reference to Islamic law. He assured me that Tunisia guaranteed freedoms for mosques, churches, synagogues—and even “pubs.” He stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage but described sexuality as a strictly personal matter—a more liberal stance than that taken by almost any Arab government.