Al-Nahda to US: We Are What You Need

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Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Islamist movement al-Nahda, upon the arrival of the members of his movement at Tunis-Carthage airport in Tunis on February 11, 2011, after several years in exile. (Photo: AFP - Fethi Belaid)

By: Dima Charif

Published Saturday, September 3, 2011

Cables from the US embassy in Tunis obtained by WikiLeaks reveal that long before the outbreak of the revolution, the country’s al-Nahda party was keen to impress Washington with its moderation and suitability as a model of democratic change in the region.

According to some supporters of Tunisia’s Islamist al-Nahda party, it was at the behest of the Americans that their party was banned and persecuted by the regime of deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali. Washington, they maintain, never wanted to see them rise to a position of power, despite their moderate credentials and commitment to equality and democracy. But a collection of diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Tunis show that the embassy maintained a well-established and longstanding relationship with the party.

The cables make clear the Washington’s keen interest in the Tunisian Islamists and their political activities. Virtually every visitor to the embassy is quizzed by staffers about the Islamists: how active they are, their strength on the ground, and their true beliefs. In one cable dated 23 May 2005 discussing the situation in the country in the aftermath of that month’s local elections (05TUNIS1081), a member of the (formerly communist) Ettajdid party reports that al-Nahda remains active on the fringe of the legal opposition movement and targets mosque-going youth. US Ambassador at the time, William Hudson, who wrote the cable, comments that the secular opposition is aware of the Islamists’ appeal and has itself been reaching out to them, including former members of al-Nahda. The leader of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) Nejib Chebbi, admitted to the ambassador that he had recently met with al-Nahda officials outside of Tunisia. The then secretary-general of Ettajdid, Mohamed Harmel, confided that he would not rule out some sort of accommodation with Islamists in order to bolster his party's activities. Yet ironically, both Chebbi and Harmel cautioned the US against reaching out to Islamists – any Islamists, “in Iraq and elsewhere.” They were also “critical about Shia political gains in Iraq.” Also sounding the alarm against the Islamists was the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. In a meeting on 9 February 2006 with an embassy staffer (06TUNIS2564), the Association’s Alhem Belhaj and Hafidha Shkeir warned that an Islamist government in Tunisia would only "replace one dictatorship with another," and that this would be the case even with self-styled “moderate” Islamists.

In an earlier cable dated 29 November 2005 (05TUNIS2564) headlined "The Dichotomy of Islam in Tunisia," Hudson discusses the rise in religious observance in the country and the history of relations between the regime and Islamist groups. It appears from this document that the embassy was on good terms with former members of the banned al-Nahda and used them as informants. The ambassador quotes one ex-party member complaining to an embassy political officer that “politicized Muslim groups are all about political activism and alliances.” He goes on to say that “God and religion are irrelevant to these organizations,” and that they therefore “would not be any better than the current political leadership in Tunisia.” US interest in Islamic movments in Tunisia also stands out in a document dated 22 April 2006 (06TUNIS670) reporting a roundtable discussion held with a group of civil society activists, in which the conversation kept reverting to the Islamists and the strength of their following.

It appears from some of the documents that Ziad Doulati, one of al-Nahda’s founders and currently a member of its constituent assembly, was on friendly terms with the embassy and a regular visitor – and that he did his utmost to promote himself and his party as representatives of moderate Islam. The idea that this was the kind of Islam the US was looking for in the region was suggested by other former al-Nahda members too. In a cable dated August 18 2006 (06TUNIS2144) dealing with Tunisian reactions to the June 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, the embassy’s political counsellor reports a meeting with Doulati and journalist and civil society activist Salaheddine Jourchi, a former al-Nahda member who had a fallout with the party. Doulati and Jourchi told the embassy that the war in Lebanon and the US role in supporting Israel had “strengthened Hizballah and other extremist groups, and furthered the trend of young Tunisians relating more to the ideas of jihadist groups such as al-Qaida” than those of "non-violent and moderate" groups like al-Nahda.

On August 15, a meeting was held between a group of moderate Tunisian Islamists and the embassy’s political and economic counsellors and political officer. In a cable dated August 21, (06TUNIS2155) deputy chief of mission David Ballard provides details of the gathering, which was arranged at the Tunisians’ request by Radwan Masmoudi, a Tunisian-American who heads the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. Also at the meeting were Doulati, Jourchi, and Saida Akremi, secretary-general of the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners. The cable makes clear that the “moderate Islamists” – the quotation marks are the embassy’s and appear to indicate its reservations about the label – wanted to meet embassy representatives in order to "reopen a dialogue" on areas of common interests. It then transpires that this “dialogue,” and the relationship between the two sides, date back to the 1980s. The “dialogue” was halted when the government launched its crackdown against the party, banned it and imprisoned its leaders. But prior to that, it had included meetings with visiting members of the US Congress.

At the meeting, Islamists argued that Tunisia could serve as a model for democratic reform in the Middle East. Douelati is quoted as saying that “the fact that Tunisia, unlike other Arab countries, is ‘ninety percent secular,’ is an ‘encouraging factor’ with respect to the prospects for the development of genuine democracy.” (His American interlocutors appear skeptical. Ballard comments on the irony of such a statement “coming from an Islamist.” He also dismisses Douelati’s claim that prior to its banning al-Nahda won 60 percent of the national vote at the 1989 elections. The Tunisians tried to persuade the diplomats that dealing with them would serve Washington’s interest in re-establishing trust and credibility in the Middle East, and that the US "needs" a successful model of democracy in the region. Doulati, who appeared particularly eager to establish a co-operative relationship with Washington, stressed that his country rather than Iraq was the most suitable place to establish such a model. He described this as providing an “alternative to Bin Ladenism.”

Perhaps as a way of gaining tacit recognition by the world’s leading imperial power, the group also requested some favors from the embassy. In particular, they urged it to send a representative to visit Hamadi Jebeli, an al-Nahda leader also described as a “moderate Islamist” who was being prevented from travelling outside the province of Sousse. They also requested that moderate Islamists be included on the embassy’s guest-lists and in the visits it arranges periodically to the US. Ballard comments that the embassy was pleased that the group “took the initiative to reach out to us,” but that it does not share their optimism about near-term prospects for change. It is also “mindful of the obvious political motivations” behind their approach to the embassy, given Doulatli’s claim that al-Nahda had the support of 60 percent of Tunisians.

Some of the favors requested by the party were duly delivered. According to one cable, an embassy staffer was sent on a two-hour visit to Jebeli at his home in Sousse on 31 August 2006 (06TUNIS2298). The diplomat was struck by the fact that unlike his other civil society and opposition contacts, Jebali did not complain about US actions or policy in Lebanon, Israel or Iraq. He affirmed that the exiled Rached Ghannouchi remained al-Nahda’s leader and that the party in Tunisia and its branches in Europe were one and the same. As is the norm when Islamist movements address the Americans, he stressed that al-Nahda sought a gradual re-entry into Tunisian politics and did not want an Islamic state. Also typically, Jebali criticized other Islamic parties where "everyone believes they have the divine truth, and no one accepts criticism." When the envoy remarked that he sounded like a secularist, Jebali replied that he separated his practice of religion from public life, adding that most moderate Islamists think that way and reject violence. (The American diplomat reminded him of hotel bombings attributed to the party in the 1980s. The envoy also seemed sceptical of Jebali’s claim to have been prevented from working and subjected to harassment by the authorities, pointing to his well-furnished house and the costly hospitality he provided his guest). Jebali also discussed the rise of radical Islamism and extremist views among Tunisian youth, which he attributed to a combination of state repression and the suppression of al-Nahda’s moderate and tolerant views.

Not all former al-Nahda activists who remained loyal to the party’s line after it was banned considered themselves ‘friends’ of the US embassy in Tunis. But there can be no doubt that some of its most important figures and spokesmen were engaged in 'dialogue' with the Americans on its behalf for several years. They craved its recognition, and may have been hoping for a variant of the Iraq experience to be repeated. A popular revolt broke out instead, and al-Nahda may be yet again convincing the US to back their bid for power, for they are the “moderates” – Washington’s favorite variety of Muslims.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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