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Tunisia Arrests Its Most Prominent Opposition Leader

By David D. Kirkpatrick

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.

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