Ghannouchi’s warm welcome in Washington misses realities in Tunisia

Last month, Washington rolled out the red carpet for Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party. The “hero of Tunisian compromise and moderation” was ludicrously lionised as the living embodiment of the last real hope of the “Arab Spring”. It was unedifying and misguided, to say the least.

Ten years ago, the United States was so hysterical about Islamists, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, that it inexplicably denied Tariq Ramadan – a Swiss academic with vague Islamist sympathies – a visa to take a position at Notre Dame University. It was argued that since he was the grandson of the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan Al Banna, and the son of another, Said Ramadan, he was probably a terrorist.

Most Americans now recognise that labelling anyone with Islamist sympathies as a potentially dangerous persona non grata was a phobic and absurd overreaction. But instead of a reasonable re-evaluation, Washington has done a slapstick 180 degree pirouette.

In the past few years, those paranoid attitudes have been replaced by an equally dangerous overcorrection that is, bizarrely, constantly on the lookout for “the right Islamist” to fall in love with.

Washington seems totally unable to understand the Islamists for what they truly are and are not, lurching from an irrational extreme of unwarranted hostility to another of misplaced affection and awe.

From the beginning of the Arab Spring until now, much of Washington has assumed that Islamists are the real and “authentic” representatives of Muslim Arab political sentiments. This error has led to a fascination as ridiculous as the preceding catchall repulsion, with visiting Islamists gawked at in these public spectacles as if they were fabulous exotica, like some kind of rare Amazonian tree sloth.

Although many have been auditioned and dutifully read from the script, no one has fit the role better than Mr Ghannouchi. In his recent trip to Washington, Mr Ghannouchi got the part. He was, for no justifiable reason whatsoever, given not just the lion’s share of credit for Tunisia’s relative stability, but virtually all credit.

Mr Ghannouchi met senior administration officials William J Burns and Ben Rhodes, and several members of Congress and the Senate. He spoke at no less than 12 major institutions including the US Institute of Peace, the Wilson Center, the Carnegie Endowment, Georgetown University, the Center for the Study of Islam, Democracy and the National Council on US-Arab Relations and on the Charlie Rose television programme.

The whole time Mr Ghannouchi was either completely protected from any of the really difficult questions – such as, does the “freedom of conscience” clause in the new Tunisian constitution allow someone to be an atheist and publicly promote that perspective in his understanding of the new “democratic” Tunisia – or allowed to give impenetrably convoluted answers to simple yes or no questions about basic civil liberties.

Mr Ghannouchi naturally had an entourage of followers in tow, including Amel Azzouz, head of his party’s “Women’s Office”, to whom he typically deferred on gender issues. It’s a barometer of how reactionary he is that he seems to think it’s a non-sexist gesture to “defer” to his women followers to push his line on gender “complementarity” (never “equality”). It was grotesque and extremely crude tokenism, and sexist to the core, but it seemed to impress a lot of credulous Washingtonians that he would let a woman speak at all.

Ennahda did compromise in Tunisia, because it knew it had no choice. It was never the majority. It’s never going to be the majority. It knows this, it saw what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and it was intelligent enough to realise that the better part of valour was living to fight another day. There is nothing heroic or remarkable about this, except that other Islamists tend to be more extreme.

Two years ago Mr Ghannouchi was filmed begging Salafist leaders to stop their campaign of violence because it was undermining Ennahda’s efforts to take over the army and the police, without which “the secularists could come back”. That video tells you everything you need to know about the man and his ambitions.

The Salafists ignored him and intensified their campaign. This, combined with Ennahda’s own mismanagement of the economy and other failures, forced them to resign in favour of a technocratic government.

But before they went, they took care to stack key governorates and crucial administrative positions with their own supporters. While Mr Ghannouchi was being celebrated in Washington, new Tunisian interim prime minister Mehdi Jomaa has been busy cleaning up his mess by sacking his cronies and replacing them with genuinely independent governors and administrators.

Mr Ghannouchi got his unwarranted and ill-informed accolades in Washington for three things, none of which are actually creditable if properly understood.

First is the Tunisian people’s wisdom in not giving him the power he craves, and continues to seek. Second, he was crafty enough to understand that compromise was his only real option for future viability. Third, he is not a terrorist or thug, and prefers to fight it out within the emerging Tunisian system, rather than face his only real alternative: political oblivion.

This is the “hope of the Arab Spring”? The “Muslim Mandela”? Rarely has the bigotry of low expectations been quite so soft.