January 10, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 783

On Tunisian Al-Nahda Party Leader Rached Ghannouchi's Conflicting Statements in the U.S.

January 10, 2012 | By Y. Yehoshua*
North Africa, Tunisia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 783


Lately, there has been an exchange of accusations between Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Tunisian Al-Nahda party, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy over statements made by Ghannouchi at a Washington Institute seminar on November 30, 2011. Ghannouchi attended the seminar during his first visit to the U.S. after years in which he resided in Britain but was barred from entering the U.S. On the day after the seminar, the American magazine The Weekly Standard reported on some of his remarks at this event. According to the report, Ghannouchi predicted that 2012 would see revolutions in the Arab monarchies, and said that the Tunisian constitution must not preclude normalization with Israel. Furthermore, he said that the U.S. is not "the Great Satan" and that its position on the Arab revolutions is very positive.

Ghannouchi Denies Making Statements

Ghannouchi's statements, in particular his prediction regarding revolutions in the monarchies, sparked criticism in the Arab media, especially in the Saudi press. Ghannouchi, for his part, defended himself in several media interviews. He said that his statements at the seminar had not been for publication, and furthermore, that the particular statements attributed to him in the press had been invented by the Washington Institute which, he said, is known for its "Zionist" bias. He told the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "I attended the seminar, and we agreed that [my] remarks there would not be published. When [the institute] publicized them, we protested about it, and they apologized. But they distorted the content [of my statements] in order to harm our international relations." He added: "We will consult with lawyers on this matter. We generally sue papers that harm us, invent things, and attribute to us statements we never made. Dozens such [papers] were charged [with slander] and forced to pay damages... Those journalists [who published the remarks] should have confirmed them instead of reporting them [directly] from Zionist sources that are known to be biased, especially when it comes to [publications] that harm inter-Arab and inter-Muslim relations. The Zionists do not like it when inter-Muslim relations are good."

Ghannouchi denied predicting a revolution in Saudi Arabia next year, saying: "We want only good things for the [Saudi] kingdom, and our policy rejects interfering in the affairs of other countries." [1] On another occasion, he told the daily: "We aspire to good relations with all the countries of the region, especially with the Gulf, which is the second circle of our Arab relations after the Arab Maghreb. That is why the [political] platform of the Al-Nahda party specifies that we advocate removing visa requirements for Gulf [citizens] visiting our region. Saudi Arabia is the chief of the Gulf countries, and a gateway for anyone desiring good relations with the Gulf. We want only good things for the kingdom. After all, it is the direction to which [we] Muslims pray."[2]

Ghannouchi said that his statements at the seminar were posted on his Facebook page.[3] However, a search of the page yielded no results.

Washington Institute Publishes Audio Recording of Ghannouchi's Remarks

In response to Ghannouchi's denials and accusations, on December 20, 2011 the Washington Institute published an audio recording including part of his remarks at the seminar, in order to refute his claim that they had been misrepresented. In the recording, Ghannouchi is clearly heard saying that the coming year will see revolutions in the monarchies, unless their leaders enact reforms. He says: "Today, the Arab world is witnessing revolutions, some of which have [already] succeeded and some of which are about to succeed. The [Arab] republics have almost completed [this process], and next year it will be the turn of the monarchies. The revolutions have confronted the rulers with a difficult choice. [The rulers] must understand that times have changed, and that [their] method of ruling – namely, holding on to capital and to power indefinitely – is obsolete and that these things must be restored to the people. If they fail to understand this, and do not take meaningful steps toward restoring the power to the people, they [should not expect] the wave of revolutions to spare them just because they are kings. The young people in Saudi Arabia do not feel they have fewer rights than those in Tunisia or Syria."[4]

The audio recording was accompanied by the following message from the Washington Institute:

"On November 30, 2011, Mr. Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's an-Nahda movement, visited the offices of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy to address a seminar of the Institute's senior research staff and several select, invited guests. This was an on-the-record session, with a tape recorder sitting in the middle of the table; at no point did either the Institute or Mr. Ghannouchi indicate that this was an 'off-the-record' event.

"The original audiotape of the discussion can be heard below. This recording covers approximately the first 45 minutes of the event, including Mr. Ghannouchi's opening remarks as well as exchanges with the participants concerning his views on such topics as relations with the United States and prospects for future political change in Arab monarchies, including Saudi Arabia.

"No audio exists for the final 25 minutes of the event, when the tape ran out and was not replaced. During this part of the seminar, Mr. Ghannouchi stated that an-Nahda opposes the inclusion of a prohibition on normalization with Israel in the Tunisian constitution, which he said was not the proper vehicle for addressing the issue. Most of the final portion of the event concerned Mr. Ghannouchi's response to a question about how to prioritize when democratic norms and Quranic law conflict. The question offered as an example the issue of conversion from Islam, which is protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but which most Muslim jurisprudents say is forbidden by Islamic law. On this issue, Mr. Ghannouchi stated that he does not believe conversion from Islam is forbidden by Islamic law, a view he said is not yet accepted by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, his superior in the International Association of Muslim Scholars.

"In the spirit of openness and accountability, The Washington Institute releases this recording to clarify questions surrounding the substance of Mr. Ghannouchi's remarks during his visit.

"Robert Satloff

"Executive Director
"The Washington Institute for Near East Policy"[5]

The publication of the tape did not put an end to attacks on the institute by Ghannouchi and his associates. Sayyid Al-Firjani, a member of the Al-Nahda Party's political and communications bureau, said that "[some] parties [at the Washington Institute] are known for their pro-Israel bias and attempt to create friction among the Arabs." Mundhir Al-'Ayadi, who accompanied Ghannouchi on his visit to the institute, said that it had "acted negligently and failed to honor the ethical code [that should guide] its activity." He added: "I was there. They lied from the beginning. Various parties demanded that they publish the audiotape, and they did so even though they had promised that the statements would be off the record."[6]

Saudi Columnist: Ghannouchi Will Not Fool Us with His Denials

Ghannouchi's remarks about the Arab monarchies evoked rage in these countries, and especially in Saudi Arabia, whose press published several articles on the affair.[7] Columnist Suleiman Al-Dosari wrote in Al-Iqtisadiyya that he did not believe Ghannouchi's contradiction-ridden denials: "How I hoped [to find] that Rached Ghannouchi... was telling the truth when he denied the statements that have recently been [attributed to him] by the Washington Institute, in which he referred to the Arab kingdoms and predicted an imminent revolution in Saudi Arabia. In an interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Ghannouchi categorically denied having said this, and claimed that his remarks had been distorted with the aim of harming the relations with Saudi Arabia and with [other] Arab states. But was Ghannouchi telling the truth?

"[Falling into the trap of] 'implicating yourself with your own words,' Ghannouchi contradicted himself several times as he tried to deny these statements. He claimed they were fabricated, but [then] he also admitted that the American [Washington] Institute had agreed that his statements would not be off the record. [He said]: 'When they published [the statements], we protested about it, and they apologized, but they distorted the content.' So one moment [Ghannouchi] claims that that the statements were fabricated, and the next moment [he claims] that they were inaccurate, and at a third [point he claims] that they were distorted. Any reader can see the great difference between these three explanations Ghannouchi gives.

"The greatest contradiction came when he was asked what legal steps he [plans to] take against the institute, which he claims invented dangerous statements that harmed the relations between the two countries. Ghannouchi said only, '[I] will consult with lawyers on this matter.' Note the future tense. This means that, though a [whole] week had passed since the publication of these statements that 'harmed the relations between the countries,' Ghannouchi had not progressed beyond the stage of consultation. In fact, he was still waiting to [begin consultations].

"The funniest thing is that Ghannouchi criticized [various] papers for quoting his statements publicized by 'Zionist elements known for their biased position' – meaning the [Washington] Institute [that hosted] the seminar he attended. Ghannouchi's position is puzzling, because, if he knew this institute's opinions to be 'Zionist,' why did he accept the invitation and attend [the seminar] in the first place? Moreover, why did he make an agreement that his statements would not be published? And now he claims that [the institute's] conduct was natural, because 'the Zionists do not like it when inter-Muslim relations are good.'

"Ghannouchi will not fool us with these attempts to throw dust in our eyes. His anti-Gulf positions have been known for years, and therefore these statements of his [about the Arab kingdoms] do not surprise [us]. If he really wants to put these unsavory remarks behind him, he must prove his claims against the American institute at an American court of law, or, at the very least, he must produce a recording of his statements at the conference. But I hardly think this will happen. If his statements were not meant for publication, then they clearly included points that he could not [afford to] make public...

"The trouble with Ghannouchi and his gang is that they still believe they can practice political taqiyya[8] [by] expressing positions and then changing their tune the minute they encounter an [angry] response. Their contradictory claims are thus a useful tool in uncovering the deceptive nature of their slogans, which they state out loud and then contradict in secret. That is what Ghannouchi and his ilk are like."[9]

Ghannouchi's Conflicting Remarks on Palestine

Ghannouchi's remarks at the seminar touched only briefly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Asked about his position on this issue, he said: "The relations between the Palestinians and the Israelis are complicated. So far, no solution has been found, not with Arafat, not with Abu Mazen and not with Hamas, even though everybody accepts [the principle of] the two-state solution. The day the Palestinians and Israelis reach a solution, they will present it to those who are not Palestinians. But currently, the problem in Palestine is [just] between the two interested parties. My energy and interest are focused on Tunisia. I have a model that I want to [implement] successfully. Others are concerned with Palestine."[10]

However, at a reception honoring Hamas Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya upon his arrival in Tunisia on January 5, 2012, Ghannouchi took a very different line, saying: "The Palestinians problem is not the problem of a [specific] people but a problem of the [entire] nation, and Tunisia is part of that nation."[11]

*Y. Yehoshua as Director of Research at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 17, 2011.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 23, 2011.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 17, 2011.

[4], December 20, 2011.

[5], December 20, 2011.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 6, 2012.

[7] See for example a December 18, 2011 article by Hasna Al-Quna'ir and a December 13, 2011 article by 'Aql Al-'Aql in the London daily Al-Hayat.

[8] Taqiyya is a Shi'ite religious principle according to which a believer may conceal his true beliefs when facing a threat of persecution.

[9] Al-Iqtisadiyya (Saudi Arabia), December 19, 2011.

[10], December 20, 2011.

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