Mohamed Al-Nasser, Tunisia's new parliament speaker, is also the deputy head of the secular Nidaa Tounes party, which won last October's elections. Although he avoided giving a direct answer concerning whether he is supporter of Habib Bourguiba, founder of the republic, Al-Nasser elaborated about his establishment of the student group of Bourguiba's Dostour party in 1954. He also spoke about working as a social affairs minister during the era of Bourguiba, along with his other political roles during the 1970s and 1980s.
Al-Nasser also has memories in Egypt, as he visited the country several times as a cabinet minister and head of a Geneva-based UN mission for human rights. He is the first politician to reach the parliament speaker position in Tunisia’s second republic, bringing with him a history of working on social and diplomatic issues and a close relationship with syndicates, especially the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT).
Ahram Online interviewed Al-Nasser at Tunisian parliament ahead of the finalisation of the country's presidential runoff elections, which resulted in the victory of Nidaa Tounes' leader Baji Caid Essebsi who ran against transitional president Moncef Marzouki. The announcement of the results coincided with protests against the outcome in southern Tunisia.
Ahram Online: Will the new president take oath before the parliament within days?
Mohamed Al-Nasser: It will take place this week, most likely on Tuesday or Wednesday. We couldn't specifically decide upon the date due to appeals filed before the administrative court against the results. We have to respect the judicial process. The president will take his oath before the parliament and Tunisian public figures – including heads of political parties and diplomats. After that, authority will turn from the transitional president to the newly-elected head of state in the presidential Carthage Palace. It is expected that heads of states and governments will attend an official, inauguration ceremony by mid-January.
AO: How do you perceive the role of the parliament in resolving tensions in the south that emerged after the end of the runoff round?
MA: Such tensions came as some people questioned the results at a time when all domestic and foreign observers said the elections were democratic and transparent. The tensions emerged initially because of some conditions that were not changed after the revolution. These conditions include high unemployment rates among youth – especially university graduates – shortages in services and a feeling of deprivation among people in some areas. As long as change continues to be lacking in these matters, anger will continue. On its side, the parliament called for calm. We witnessed a revolution and transition to democracy in good conditions. Tunisia is gradually moving towards building democratic state institutions that respect the rights and freedoms of the people. The next government should create future plans in order to solve the problems of the different Tunisian regions. Regarding the parliament, one of the advantages of its rules is that MPs are given breaks for few days to visit their constituencies and contact the people. This is a duty for all parliamentarians who should not only issue legislations and monitor the performance of the government and state institutions, but also assure that the civil society and syndicates are part of the equation. We will make sure that the parliament will be in constant contact with Tunisia's civil society.
AO: What are your thoughts on speculations that suggest that the opposition will have a weak performance amid an apparent agreement between strong parties, especially Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes?
MA: Let us speak about the opposition after the formation of the new government, as this is the point when we will know who will take part in the coalition and who will not.
AO: How will you manage the relationship between Nidaa Tounes (86 seats) and Ennahda (69 seats) as the two largest blocs inside parliament?
MA: I am head of the parliament as whole, and my role does not only involve handling this bilateral relationship. Nonetheless, dialogues will be continuously held with all parties and their representatives. My task remains the easiest though, which is to ease the process of consensus over issues we tackle and staying in contact with leaders of all parliamentary blocs.
AO: What are your expectations for the structure and nature of the new government?
MA: The leader of the winning party is not assigned with forming the government yet as we are still awaiting the official inauguration of the new president. Nevertheless, political talks over the new government have already started among all parties, and all of them are thinking about the new cabinet. The first task of the president will be assigning a political figure with this task, but whether Nidaa Tounes or Ennahda will take responsibility remains undecided so far. Having a new government in place is an easy matter, and plans are more crucial than individuals. In my view, what’s difficult and more important is putting a rescue plan based on national consensus to encounter the security, social and economic challenges facing Tunisia. We should save the country from crises on all fronts, give hope to the people, especially the youth, and give trust to investors and international financial organisations.
AO: What are the prioritised legislations for the parliament?
MA: We have draft laws that the constituent assembly did not manage to approve such the counter-terrorism draft law. The new constitution stipulates the establishment of new institutions to complete its implementation. Examples of these institutions are the Supreme Constitutional Court, the independent authority for human rights and freedoms, and the supreme authority for sustainable development and securing the rights of future generations. The new government and parliament will collaborate to decide upon legislative priorities.
AO: Is Nidaa Tounes willing to amend the new constitution in early 2015?
MA: This subject took more attention than necessary. The constitution is still new and we have not begun its implementation. Accordingly, there is no intention for revising it, and it is not possible.
AO: What is the parliament's role in helping Tunisia to avoid an Arab, authoritarian legacy with a democratic system that is currently under construction?
MA: Our government-supervising role is not less important than issuing legislations. We have the right to question, investigate and form investigation committees. We are capable of assigning blame and withdrawing confidence from the government.
AO: Nidaa Tounes enjoys parliamentary majority and the president is a member as well. Are there fears of political domination?
MA: We don't have an absolute majority inside parliament. The president does not enjoy full, executive power, as his authorisations involve only foreign and defence affairs and national security. We should not forget that our constitution protects freedoms and takes into consideration the separation of powers. Tyrannical rule will not return to Tunisia because of the people's political awareness.
AO: The boycotting of the last presidential elections by youth showed that something is moving in the wrong direction. What is parliament's vision regarding this dilemma?
MA: On one hand, investment and education policies should be revisited, especially in terms of training and preparing workers to join the labour market and encouraging investors to provide employment opportunities. State officials must also change their governing culture and act responsibly towards the coming generations. The idea of having a supreme authority for sustainable development and securing the rights of future generations emerged under such context.
AO: What is the future of Nidaa Tounes after Essebsi resigned from its leadership following his election as Tunisia's new president?
MA: The party has to face a new reality, which is the resignation of Essebsi after becoming the new president. We are now holding meeting to choose a new party leader in 2015. You have to keep in mind that the party has achieved a huge successes since its establishment two years ago, its founder [Essebsi] was a smart man with leadership qualities. He managed to meet the demands of large sects that favor moderation, modernisation and maintaining the Arab-Islamic identify as part of Bourguiba's legacy. One of the advantages of Nidaa Tounes is that its leaders – who come from dissimilar backgrounds and affiliations – succeeded in overcoming this matter. There is a collective, moderate force inside the party that seeks to respond to the ambitions of most Tunisians. Therefore, no fears surround the future of Nidaa Tounes.