Interview with Tunisia's Essebsi

Othman Fekry, Thursday 6 Nov 2014

Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisian presidential candidate and head of Nidaa Party, which made significant gains in recent parliamentary polls, talks to Ahram Hebdo about the elections results, his past, and outlook for the future

Beji Caid Essebsi, former Tunisian prime minister and leader of the Nida Touns (Call of Tunisia) secular party, speaks during a news conference in Tunis February 19, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

The secularist Nidaa Tounis Party, which combines former members of ousted president Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally, secular leftists, progressive liberals and Habib Bourguiba's Destourians, won 85 seats in the 217-seat parliament in Tunisia's elections 23 October.

Ennahda, led by Rached Ghannouchi, gained 69 seats in the elections. The Free Patriotic Union came third with 16 seats, with leftist coalition Popular Front coming fourth with one less seat.

Parliamentary elections are to be followed by presidential elections 23 November. After nearly four years of instability, Tunisia will finally have stable governing institutions for the next five years.

Ahram Hebdo met with El Sayed Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of Nidaa Party, in Tunisia.

Ahram Hebdo: Mr Beji Caid Essebsi, presidential candidate and former prime minister and head of the Nidaa Party, we would like to congratulate you first on winning 85 seats in the upcoming parliament. Did you expect this result?

Essebsi: Nidaa Party is dedicated to the democratic transition and we are hoping that the rest of the political forces can be as committed. Our party was formed in the post-revolution time; we formed the party to overcome the imbalance in the political scene after the revolution.

Tunisians today are more mature politically and the results this year prove that. We expected the results we got for over a year, as we were aspiring to follow the democratic approach.

However, this did not happen due to the political Islam stream that was in control at the time.

I would like to assure that democracy does not only revolve around elections. It is more importantly about creating a balanced environment for the devolution of power. Thankfully, we contributed strongly in the new Tunisian constitution, and we were able to prevent the imposition of Sharia — one of the greatest achievements since the revolution.

The national dialogue then took place and was successful under pressure. Protests and the role of women and young people were able to pressure Ennahda, which resigned when it failed to achieve the aspirations of the Tunisian people. After our success in the parliamentary elections we are planning to avoid the mistakes of the past.

After winning the parliamentary elections are you planning on allying with other political forces?

I don’t ally with anyone. I work according to reality and we took a decision before the elections that Nidaa will not rule Tunisia on its own, even if we had gotten the absolute majority of seats.

We have to work alongside those who are the closest to us, according to the results.

As seen before, Ennahda's domination of rule was the reason behind the protests against them.

Ennahda tried to eliminate the gains of Bourgeiba's project and tried to overshadow civil society in Tunisia. We will always be keen to keep Tunisia as a secular state, but this does not imply that we are against Islam. We accept the rest of the political forces who are different to us; we do not consider them as enemies, they are our competitors. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi called me and congratulated me on winning the legislative elections.

Nidaa Tounis is a national secular party that is open to all political forces who try to maintain the identity of the Tunisian revolution, after the failure of governments, including the governments of Ennahda caused by lack of experience and monopolising power, while Tunisia has seen a significant economic downturn due to that.

Let's talk about the presidential elections. Do you agree on having a president of a "wide consensus"?

This is suggested by Ennahda and I don’t agree on the term. It's an unconstitutional proposal. The president will be chosen only by the people and it cannot be a consensus between parties.

There are these claims that you belong to both regimes, Habib Bourguiba, and Ben Ali's regime. What is your response to that?

No one can deny that Bourguiba achieved a lot for Tunisia, after Tunisia's independence, Bourguiba's project was able to end illiteracy in Tunisia, as well as promoting women's rights, which was a main reason of the revolution's success. He also created a wide middle class.

Bourguiba also knew how to deal with political Islamic factions, and his first thought is to build a modern country but with its Arabic identity. But during Bourguiba's era his fault was that he was not democratic, and stayed in the power for almost 30 years, so I quit my position as foreign minister because I saw that change is a must.

Then I supported Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali because he had that project that promised to achieve all the political demands. After a year in Ben Ali's regime, I left the political scene for 20 years. But also many ministers under Ben Ali were loyal to their country; as well they served Tunisia as much as they could do.  

After the parliament starts its work, is Mahdy Gomaa, the current prime minister, going to resign? And who will be the next president of Nidaa Tunis Party? Are there any disputes inside the party?

Prime Minister Mahdy Gomaa will remain in his position according to the constitution until the legislative and presidential elections end. Then the coming president will choose the next prime minister. Regarding the Nidaa Tunis presidency, the general conference of Nidaa Tunis will choose that person, and the party has no disputes between its members.

How do you assess the Muslim Brotherhood's year in power in Egypt? And what are your thoughts on the events of 30 June 2013?

Former president Mohamed Morsi didn't act as a president for all in the country, and that's why the Egyptian people ousted him. On the other hand, I refuse those who call the June 30 Revolution a "coup." The Egyptian army took the people's side in both the January 25 Revolution and the June 30 Revolution, as they are defending the country's national security.

Are you optimistic for the future of Tunisia? Why did you run for the presidency and what is your presidential platform?

Tunisia will pass all difficulties that remain for Tunisians. Meanwhile, I'm running for the presidency because I have a national project that qualifyies me for the position. As well as I support the youth to be in the leading position. This position will not add to me that much, as the president — according to the new constitution — will have limited powers. That assures the end of the autocracy era.

How you see the current situation in Libya?

The situation in Libya is very difficult. We supported the revolution in Libya, but now the country is under the control of conflicting militias, and became the biggest weapons store in the region.

Tunisia cannot face that terrorism alone. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Mali must form a front to face that terrorism coming from Libya. Also, the last visit that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi made to Algeria was smart and rightly timed. With Egypt's leadership, we could fight terrorism and reject any foreign interference — including NATO — in Libya.

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