AP Interview: Tunisia politician warns about fraud

AP News
Posted: Oct 22, 2011 1:49 PM
AP Interview: Tunisia politician warns about fraud

The head of Tunisia's main Islamist party, the largest and best organized in the North African country, warned that any fraud in the first truly free elections could plunge the nation into chaos.

Rachid Ghannouchi of the Ennahda, or Renaissance, party told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday, the day before the voting, that while he was pleased with the electoral process thus far, 50 years of fraudulent elections is a difficult legacy to overcome.

On Sunday, Tunisians will take the next step in their revolution that overthrew a president of 23 years last January and will elect an assembly to write their new constitution.

The fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia, has allowed Tunisia's long banned Islamist movement, now legal, to come out of hiding and take front-runner status through a well organized network of committed activists everywhere in the country.

Tunisia's other political parties have made Ennahda the centerpiece of their campaigns, warning that the group harbors secret Taliban-style ambitions to take the country back to the Middle Ages and roll back some of the most progressive legislation for women in the Arab world.

In the midst of such acrimony, members of Ennahda have expressed worry that there could be tampering with election results, as happened in 1989, the only other time the party was allowed to run.

"We have no tradition or experience of free and fair elections, but we've had 50 years of electoral fraud and there are no guarantees we have gotten rid of this custom," he said in his spartan fifth floor office of the Ennahda headquarters.

"We caution against any fraud which would be a disaster for the country as a whole and lead to chaos," said Ghannouchi, who returned to the country in January to great fanfare after 20 years of exile in London. "The people would not accept or allow that to happen and we are part of the people."

He maintained, however, that so far the electoral process has gone well and he was been satisfied with it.

Ghannouchi has been one of the most innovative thinkers of political Islam and from his exile promoted the idea that a people could have an Islamic and Arab identity and still be totally compatible with democracy and Western political ideas.

In the September polls before the election campaign, Ennahda looked like it could take around 20 percent of the vote, but that was still while half the electorate was undecided.

Ghannouchi said his party wants to create a parliamentary system in the country to replace the half-century-old presidential one which he said was responsible for the disasters of dictatorship.

Their top priority, as well, would be "providing jobs to the unemployed, particularly the interior regions where the revolution began."

Tunisia's uprising erupted in the hardscrabble interior and was as much about a lack of jobs and 700,000 unemployed in a nation of 10 million, as about the corruption and repression of Ben Ali's regime.

Enough's Enough
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Ghannouchi was also careful to emphasize that the party has no intention of rolling back women's rights, which were enshrined in a progressive personal status code upon winning independence from France in 1956.

"We support all rights that have been gained by Tunisian women as expressed in the personal status code, the right to work, education, participation and all the rights enjoyed by men because we believe in equality," he said.

Ghannouchi added that they would also seek to put forward legislation mandating equal pay for women, greater maternity rights and better protection from harassment.

Accompanying the rise and rebuilding of Ennahda has been the emergence of Salafists, ultraconservative Muslims espousing Saudi-style Islam that would never have been tolerated in Tunisia before.

Salafists have publicly asserted themselves in recent months with demonstrations calling for greater piety and against perceived slights against the religion _ embodying all of secular Tunisians' fears over militant Islam.

In fact many prominent secularists have asserted that the two movements are ideological brothers working in tandem.

Ghannouchi criticized the Salafists' condemnation of democracy and maintained that their extreme stands are a reaction to the extremes of the Ben Ali presidency.

"We expect that democracy in Tunisia will absorb these young Tunisians who are victims of dictatorship, just the way Western democracies succeeded to involve and embrace the extreme right and left," he said.