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Tunisia's Democratic Transition Benefits The World, Party Leader Says


And that small story points to a major issue. Tunisia is westernized, diverse and close to Europe. It is also majority Muslim with Islamist movements and historic ties to the Middle East. It is a case study for how to balance those contrasting currents.


And a big part of the responsibility in finding that balance falls on a man named Rached Ghannouchi, who I met when he was visiting Washington, D.C. He is co-founder of the Ennahda Movement, which he describes as a moderate Muslim party.

RACHED GHANNOUCHI: We believe that democracy and Islam are compatible, we believe that Islam and human rights are compatible, and we refuse any use of violence in politics. We are against any sort of extremism.

GREENE: And Ennahda made a dramatic gesture in hopes of reassuring fellow citizens. Ghannouchi's party voluntarily resigned from the coalition government it was leading. The party gave up power it had won through an election.

GHANNOUCHI: We drove from the government to guarantee that democracy continue in our country. At the time when my colleagues protest how you will drove from government, we have been elected in free and fair election. How we withdraw from government? I said, we lose the power, but we gain Tunisia. We save Tunisia through consensus, through compromise, through concessions to avoid a civil war.

GREENE: When you're party came to power, there were some people who were afraid, thinking that the party was more committed to religious conservatism, fundamentalism, than you publicly talk about. Did they have any reason to be afraid?

GHANNOUCHI: Well, there is a campaign against our movement. The other parties try to mix us with the terrorism and extremism, and they convince some people. So we lose part of our popularity in 2014 elections.

GREENE: You look at countries like Iraq and Syria right now, and it doesn't seem like we're anywhere close to overcoming violence and having democracy flourish. I mean, how long is this going to be?

GHANNOUCHI: It takes time. Democracy in Europe takes more than 100 year after the rule of French Revolution and after the American Revolution to get its democracy, so you have to except to sacrifice. But it's matter of time that Arab world will gain its democracy as the rest of the world.

GREENE: You know, you mention 100 years. I mean, this means that you will not see a stable region in your lifetime.

GHANNOUCHI: I think we don't need 100 years (laughter). We need five, 10 years, 20 years. We have to accept the price because the result is very important.

GREENE: You were away from your country for more than 20 years in exile. Are you worried about a day when you might have to be driven away again?

GHANNOUCHI: I would like to die in my country.

GREENE: Do you think that will happen, you'll be able to?

GHANNOUCHI: I think so.

GREENE: Thank you for talking to us. We really appreciate it.

GHANNOUCHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.