Exiled 'demon' bemoans his fate: Charles Richards discovered that the permanently outcast leader of Tunisia's Islamic party was keen to denounce a 'bankrupt regime' that condemned him

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The Independent Online
THE physical surroundings of the drab pebble-dash end-of-terrace house in drizzly Harlesden, north-west London, round the corner from the McVitie's warehouse, only reinforced the sense of exile from the bright white- painted villas of sunny Tunis. And exile is the fate Rachid Ghannouchi must endure, for the time being at least.

The leader of Tunisia's An- Nahda ('Renaissance') party was condemned in absentia on 30 August to life imprisonment for being behind an Islamic extremist plot to overthrow the government, a charge An-Nahda denied.

A man aged 50, whose followers addressed him with the honorific title 'Sheikh', he was dismissive of the Tunisian authorities' demonisation of him as one of a triad of leaders of a supposed Islamic International. And he was scathing about the intent of the meeting just concluded in Tunis of Arab League interior ministers to co-ordinate ways of confronting the Islamic fundamentalist current. There was absolutely no currency in the policy adopted in Egypt and Algeria to try and drive a wedge between extremists invoking Islam and the broader Islamist current, he said.

'These are bankrupt regimes. In Tunisia, they are fighting Islam itself. They are behaving

as if it is an extremist and backward force. The reality of Tunis is that they are not only against Islam but against freedom and democracy.'

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have expressed increasing concern at the abuse of freedoms in Tunisia.

'They portray us as dangerous usuliyya (fundamentalists) . . . whenever there is a credible political opposition it is described as being a tool of outsiders.'

The softly spoken Mr Ghannouchi is no stranger to the whip hand of the authorities. Since 1979 he has hardly passed a year without being arrested or imprisoned. In 1987 he was condemned to death, but was saved from execution by the fall of President Habib Bourguiba.

An-Nahda, the heir to an Islamic revivalist movement founded in 1981, is widely regarded as the most progressive, modernist Islamic movement in North Africa. But the Tunisian authorities, under their authoritarian president, Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali, have made every attempt to discredit the movement and link it with a series of violent attacks in the country over the past two years.

They dismiss An-Nahda's declared commitment to pluralism and representative government as mere window-dressing.

The Tunisian authorities have accused An-Nahda of hiding behind the shield of democracy in order to dupe the gullible West. In reply to this charge, Mr Ghannouchi accused the Tunisian authorities of being the betrayers of democratic values and human rights.

There are those Islamic traditionalists who hold that Islam and democracy are incompatible. They argue that rule by the people is an usurpation of God's authority and sovereignty. Furthermore, Islamic law (Sharia) provides a legal and moral system so complete as to render human legislation redundant.

Mr Ghannouchi is not among them. 'Democracy is like Islam, it relies on ijma (consensus). No regime has legitimacy unless it enjoys the will of the people. Elections are not one-off but a continuous process. We reject dictatorship. We will confront it.

'In Islam dicatorship is haram, forbidden. It is a serious crime. The Koran talked about the Pharaoh as a symbol of dictatorship. For us Muslims, who are against the Pharaoh, we have the right to choose our own means. For ourselves we have chosen our own way, the peaceful way. We did not choose violence as a means of confronting the Pharaoh.'

(Photograph omitted)