Tunisia at a Crossroads: Has the birthplace of the Arab Spring finally succumbed to tyranny?

by John L. Esposito

Distinguished Professor, Georgetown University

In this issue

Rachid Ghannouchi on Islam & Democracy
US Policy: The Biden Administration

Rachid Ghannouchi is one of the worlds leading Islamic thinkers and has been one of the most influential Tunisian politicians during country’s post-revolution transition period.

Since the late 1970s, I have written about the emergence of Islamic movements in Muslim politics and society in the Muslim world from North Africa to Southeast Asia. I have followed the history and development of Rachid Ghannouchi’s life and thinking for close to 40 years. I have also tried to track the remarkable development and transformation of Ennahda Party, from its opposition to and suppression by autocratic governments, to its totally unanticipated, overwhelming election, and Ghannouchi’s role as Speaker of the Parliament (and leader in parliament).

This history was initially captured in my books with John Voll, from Makers of Contemporary Islam and Islam and Democracy to Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring. Recently, we have all seen the extent to which Ennahda’s role has contributed to establishing democracy in Tunisia, and more recently, the return to dictatorship and authoritarian rule under Kais Saied.

Rached Ghannouchi is the co-founder and president of the Muslim Democratic Ennahda Party and the Speaker of the democratically elected parliament of Tunisia.


Rachid Ghannouchi on Islam & Democracy

Ghannouchi spent most of the 1980s in prison for his opposition to Tunisia’s dictatorship, and then another two decades in exile. During Ghannouchi’s years in exile in the UK, during which he had time to read widely, reflect, interact with activists and scholars like John Keane, his ideas evolved significantly regarding the nature of democracy, relationship of Islam to democracy, and the nature and possibilities for modern democracies in Muslim countries. Ghannouchi developed a belief, theory and agenda regarding how Islam and democracy were, and could be, compatible in modern Muslim states.

The opportunity and challenge of implementing his ideas occurred when the Arab Spring inaugurated a new era and he returned to Tunisia in in 2011. Ghannouchi helped draft the country’s democratic constitution and played a significant part in Tunisia’s government.

When Ennahda began to participate in Tunisian politics after the Arab Spring, its opponents predicted that, if elected and in power, it would put an end to democracy and impose Islam. In fact, the opposite occurred. Under Ghannouchi’s leadership, Ennahda was a participant in the drafting of Tunisia’s constitution. The constitution that emerged, and that Ghannouchi and Ennahda endorsed, neither imposed Islamic law nor mentioned it. Ghannouchi proved willing to negotiate and form coalitions with parties representing the full range of political opinions in Tunisia. All this represented a kind of experiment, testing whether Islamic democracy was possible. The answer was, and remains, yes.

International recognition of Ghannouchi’s role and significance were reflected in a series of awards. He was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. He was also awarded the Chatham House Prize in 2012 alongside Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki.

In January 2014, after the new Tunisian Constitution of 2014 was adopted by 93% of the members of the National Constituent Assembly, Ennahda peacefully handed power to a technocratic government led by Mehdi Jomaa. In recognition, in 2015, Ghannouchi, along with Tunisian President Béji Caïd Essebsi, received the International Crisis Group (ICG) Founders Award for Pioneers in Peacebuilding.

In 2018, Ghannouchi was selected as one of the 100 Most Influential Arabs in the World in Global Influence. Ghannouchi’s consensus-building approach and consistent calls for dialogue and unity across political, intellectual, religious and ideological lines are needed in Tunisia, as well as many countries in the Middle East.

Amnesty International has described Ghannouchi’s arrest as being part of a wide-ranging “politically motivated witch hunt”. The Tunisian authorities have arbitrarily arrested, detained, and prosecuted democratic political party leaders, civil society representatives, union members, judges and journalists, many of whom are facing the same charges of “conspiring against state security” for their defense of Tunisian democracy.

U.S. Congress members have raised the plight of Ghannouchi and others, and the UK should do more because Ghannouchi spent 20 years living and advocating for democracy, freedom and civic engagement. He was in the forefront challenging narrow and extremist voices within the Muslim community who promoted disengagement, such as declaring voting in the UK to be Haram (forbidden). His books and lectures have benefitted many Muslims in the UK and globally.


US Policy: The Biden Administration

After the Arab Spring more than a decade ago, the US funded civil society in Tunisia but also sought to draw the military closer, designating it a major non-NATO ally in 2015 despite the fact that the US Leahy Law bars American aid to foreign security forces that violate human rights. That policy has come under sharp criticism today. Ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Middle East Subcommittee condemned ‘blatant attacks’ by the Tunisian government on free speech and association. On April 19, 2023, the State Department commented on the arrests of political opponents in Tunisia:

“The arrests by the Tunisian government of political opponents and critics are fundamentally at odds with the principles Tunisians adopted in a constitution that explicitly guarantees freedom of opinion, thought, and expression. The arrest on Monday of former Speaker of Parliament Rached Ghannouchi, the closure of the Nahda party headquarters, and the banning of meetings held by certain opposition groups – and the Tunisian government’s implication that these actions are based on public statements – represent a troubling escalation by the Tunisian government against perceived opponents. The Tunisian government’s obligation to respect freedom of expression and other human rights is larger than any individual or political party, and is essential to a vibrant democracy and to the U.S.-Tunisia relationship.”[1]

The statement demonstrated concern, but given the history of US foreign policy in the MENA, it may be all talk and little action.

Congressman Gregory Meeks, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Dean Phillips, ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, condemned “Tunisia’s recent arrests of political figures, forcible closures of political party offices, and bans on free assembly of certain political groups [as] blatant attacks on free speech and association.”[2]

President Biden has faced calls from members of the Democratic party to rein in the US-Tunisia military relationship. Senator Chris Murphy, who leads the Senate subcommittee on relations with the Middle East said that the US approach to Tunisia suggests that the ‘democracy toolkit’ is fundamentally broken. Murphy noted, “The Biden administration has, I think, made a bet on the Tunisian military … I would argue that we should make a bet on civil society instead.” He has commented that the Biden administration needed to urgently shift course and end its support for “brutal dictators”.

U.S. Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the Safeguarding Tunisian Democracy Act (June 15, 2023), legislation to foster Tunisia’s democratic institutions, limit funds until Tunisia restores checks and balances, and authorise the creation of a fund to support democratic reforms.[3]

On June 15, US Senators Durbin, Murphy, Welch, and Coons Introduced a Resolution Recognising Tunisia’s Leadership in The Arab Spring and calling out recent democratic backsliding.[4]

Finally, more than 150 academics in Europe and North America, including a number from the universities of Oxford, Harvard, Columbia and Georgetown have called for the release of Rached Ghannouchi and all political prisoners in Tunisia, amid what they described as a “fierce onslaught” against the sole democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring.



Under Ghannouchi’s leadership, Ennahda has become a democratic political party in its orientation following the model of Christian Democratic parties in Europe. In contrast, Kais Saied, with the help of the military, has brought back and imposed the one-party authoritarian state that existed prior to the Arab Spring.

Declaring a state of emergency, Saied has suppressed the democratically elected parliament, written and imposed a new constitution in which presidential power is at the expense of other branches of government, a constitution approved in a referendum, but boycotted by most of the opposition. Only 30% of Tunisians participated.

In contrast, Ghannouchi, responding to the growing threat to democracy in the country, has maintained that “imagining Tunisia without this or that side… Tunisia without Ennahda, Tunisia without political Islam, without the left, or any other component, is a project for civil war.” Ironically, the mention of the words “civil war” is the apparent ground for his arrest.

Remarkably, despite his arrest, Ghannouchi has refused to be discouraged about Tunisia’s democratic future. “I am optimistic about the future,” he said after a judge ordered him to be held pending trial, “Tunisia is free.”

The international community, democratic nations in particular, and all who believe in democracy, are challenged today to respond to the imprisonment of Ghannouchi, Tunisian MP Saied Ferjani who was unlawfully imprisoned, and other Tunisians, and to condemn Saied’s authoritarian government.

*Presentation by Professor John Esposito at a London conference, titled “Tunisia at a Crossroads: Has the birthplace of the Arab Spring finally succumbed to tyranny?” Conference held on 23 June 2023 at the Royal College of Pathologists, organised by The Cordoba Foundation. Full recording available below:

[1] https://www.state.gov/statement-on-arrests-of-political-opponents-in-tunisia/
[2] https://democrats-foreignaffairs.house.gov/2023/4/meeks-phillips-condemn-arrest-of-tunisia-s-opposition-leader-democratic-backsliding
[3] https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/06-15-23_tunisia_bill.pdf
[4] https://www.durbin.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/durbin-murphy-welch-coons-introduce-resolution-recognizing-tunisias-leadership-in-the-arab-spring-and-calling-out-recent-democratic-backsliding


John L. Esposito is a distinguished University Professor, a Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is a Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Esposito has served as consultant to the U.S. Department of State and other agencies, European and Asian governments and corporations, universities, and the media worldwide. He is a former President of the American Academy of Religion, the Middle East Studies Association of North America and of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, Vice Chair of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders, and member of the E. C. European Network of Experts on De-Radicalisation and Board of Directors of the C-1 World Dialogue.

Esposito is recipient of the American Academy of Religion’s Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion and of Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azzam Award for Outstanding Contributions in Islamic Studies and the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University Award for Outstanding Teaching. Editor-in-Chief of Oxford Islamic Studies Online and Series Editor of The Oxford Library of Islamic Studies, Esposito has served as Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World (6 vols.); The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (4 vols.), The Oxford History of Islam, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, and The Islamic World: Past and Present (3 vols.).

Esposito’s books and articles have been translated into 35 languages. His more than 45 books and monographs include: Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century; What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam; Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (with Dalia Mogahed); Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam; The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?; Islam and Politics; World Religions Today and Religion and Globalization (with D. Fasching & T. Lewis); Asian Islam in the 21st Century; Geography of Religion: Where God Lives, Where Pilgrims Walk (with S. Hitchcock); Islam: The Straight Path; Islam and Democracy; and Makers of Contemporary Islam (with J. Voll); Modernizing Islam (with F. Burgat); Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism or Reform?; Religion and Global Order (with M. Watson); Islam and Secularism in the Middle East (with A. Tamimi); Iran at the Crossroads (with R.K. Ramazani); Islam, Gender, and Social Change; Muslims on the Americanization Path?; Daughters of Abraham (with Y. Haddad); and Women in Muslim Family Law.

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