A day to inspire all Tunisians – whether Islamic or secular

Tunisia is days away from its first elections for a national constituent assembly. Despite delays and obstructions, Tunisians anticipate 23 October with immense hope – a date that is the culmination of their revolution, of the struggle of generations of women and men of diverse political and intellectual persuasions against despotism and for freedom, equality and dignity.

These elections are not only critical for Tunisia, but for the wider region and beyond. They present an opportunity to bury once and for all theories of the so-called «Arab exception» and prove that democracy can emerge and flourish .

In these elections, Ennahda is – according to several opinion polls – set to win a considerable share of the vote. Our popularity is partly due to the sympathy felt by many Tunisians towards Ennahda’s suffering and sacrifices over three decades under successive dictatorships. However, this sympathy and Ennahda’s record in the struggle for freedom and democracy are no longer sufficient. In this phase of our country’s history, immense challenges call for specific and effective programmes. This is why our party has taken many months to elaborate an ambitious yet realistic political, economic and social programme, developed by a taskforce of 180 experts. A look at this detailed manifesto will give any reader a clear idea of Ennahdha’s vision for Tunisia. Tunisia needs a new political system, a decisive break with the past.

We have long advocated democracy within the mainstream trend of political Islam, which we feel is the best system that protects against injustice and authoritarianism. In addition, it provides institutions and mechanisms to guarantee personal and public liberties, most importantly the peaceful transfer of power through the mechanism of elections, respect of the popular will, protection of the rights of women, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, press and media freedom and protection of minority rights. All these are in no way contradictory with Islam, but reflect the Islamic principles of consultation, justice and accountability as we understand them.

Campaigns of misinformation against Ennahda have not ended with the dictator’s departure. Charges of theocratic tendencies continue to be levelled at us. However, we believe in a civic state, based on equality between all citizens, regardless of faith, gender or race. We believe that the right to political and social association and organisation should be guaranteed for every citizen. We believe in the independence of civil society from the state, within a free and fair democratic system based on the principle of protecting personal and public liberties and guaranteeing a balance between the state and society. This is precisely what Tunisia needs, after decades of widespread political and social repression.

God says in the Qur’an that «There is no compulsion in religion»; therefore we believe that neither the state nor any social actor has the right to interfere in society in order to impose a certain lifestyle, belief or idea. These should be matters of free personal choice.

Our manifesto and election campaign stress once again that we call for protecting the rights of women and promoting their public and political participation, on the basis of citizenship and equality. Our support for the quota system requiring parties to field equal numbers of women and men, and the many party lists headed by women are examples of that commitment. Women play an important role at all levels of our party, holding key leadership positions and contributing equally to all of our policy debates – as one would expect in any democratic party.

An equally urgent need for Tunisia is a comprehensive development plan to deal with its deep economic crisis and persistent socioeconomic injustices.

We hope that the elections will allow the formation of a credible and stable government, which we believe to be vital for economic prosperity. The economic system we outline encourages private entrepreneurship and initiative, and provides incentives for investment – all within the context of transparency and social justice. We seek to make our country a thriving and attractive economic centre for domestic and foreign investment, benefiting from our geographical location, our rich culture and our skilled and dedicated workforce. We hope that through our economic plans, the country’s growth will reach 8% by 2016, and cut unemployment to 8.5% through the creation of 590,000 jobs. We believe that priority in this phase must be given to the deprived hinterland regions that have, since independence, suffered marginalisation and deprivation, in order to reduce regional inequalities. At the same time, facilities and infrastructure must be improved in all regions, as part of a united and mutually supportive Tunisia.

We have elaborated a detailed vision for Tunisia, under our motto of «freedom, justice, development». However, regardless of the election results, we believe the country needs to be ruled by a broad-based national unity government. Tunisia cannot face the main challenges: the democratic transition as well as its economic and security issues, without broad-based consensus. We have always believed in the importance of forging alliances with all political actors on the basis of common interests and the struggle for democracy. We do not believe in the inevitability of ideological polarisation or the so-called religious-secular clash, but rather in our country’s need for a real national partnership between its diverse intellectual and political components. No one party can single-handedly provide solutions for the problems accumulated over decades. We hope that Tunisia will provide an inspiring example of Islamic-secular co-operation for the greater national interest.

We are committed to strengthening our partnership with our neighbours in Europe and we are keen to achieve advanced partner status with the EU. This will be within the framework of complementary economic relations based on the balance of interests between the south and north of the Mediterranean, long connected by shared geography, and cultural and intellectual exchange and interests. We also plan to strengthen our relationship with our neighbours in north Africa by working to re-activate the union of the Maghreb countries, achieving a free trade area that will be to the benefit of all countries involved. We also wish to see stronger relationships built with our partners from North and South America and China.

The implementation of this ambitious plan should be for the benefit of those who have offered us, and the whole region, this historic opportunity – at the forefront of whom are young Tunisians whose courage and defiance of dictatorship have brought hope and motivation to the region and amazed the world. This is why I announced that I would not be standing for any political posts in these or any future elections, as I would like to see the younger generation play a leading role in shaping the future of our country. I remain, nevertheless, honoured to be part of this historic process and this opportunity of which generations of Tunisian women and men have dreamed, and for which they have long struggled and sacrificed.

Finally I would like to emphasise that for us in Ennahda, the most important issue is not winning the forthcoming elections but rather a successful transition towards democracy so that we can make a clear break with the past. We believe that this success is not only of crucial importance to our country, but also to both shores of the Mediterranean – because the consequences of failure will be disastrous for all.

By Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party in Tunisia.

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