Speaking to the Weekly in an interview following his victory in the first round of Tunisia’s first free-and-fair presidential elections, veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi conveyed a desire to restore calm, mend fences and reach consensus with his political adversaries.
This was not the first time he had spoken to the Weekly. The first time was in late October 2011 in the government headquarters in the Kasbah quarter of the capital Tunis. He had just been appointed prime minister following the Constituent Assembly elections in which the Islamist Ennahda Party had won the majority.
Essebsi today is much the same as Essebsi was three years ago, though politics in Tunisia is fickle, and things can change from one moment to the next. Essebsi sounded confident and conciliatory, but would he have sounded the same before entering the emergency national dialogue that had been convened earlier to defuse a potentially explosive crisis?
Your statements about people who had voted for your electoral rival Moncef Marzouki triggered demonstrations in southern Tunisia. What is your opinion on what happened?
The demonstrations were fabricated. I said nothing that could have aroused such anger. But there were interpretations by our competitors – note I do not say enemies. I believe that the matter is over now. Everyone has understood that there was no intention [to cause offence]. During the national dialogue session [convened two hours before the interview took place], we agreed to restore calm and put the incident behind us. All the parties agreed to that.
Do you have a problem with the people of southern Tunisia who live in the interior instead of the coastal areas? Perhaps the results of the legislative and presidential elections suggest that you and your party, Nidaa Tounes, have a problem there?
We have no problem with the people of the south. But there are parties that have a greater presence there than elsewhere in the country. Also because our party is only two years old, our support base is not complete. Hopefully this situation will improve in the future. Still, not everyone voted against us in the south. I will also say that we will devote greater attention to the southern areas in the second round of the presidential elections in order to overcome this weak point. We are a people that are still influenced by regional chauvinisms, and my competitor [Marzouki], the head of the Ennahda Movement [Rached al-Ghannouchi], and many other leaders of the Movement are from that area.
In an interview with you when you were prime minister in 2011 you said that only God knows Ennahda's intentions. How do you see Ennahda today?
I believe that Ennahda has taken considerable pains to develop itself. Indeed, we have arrived at a consensual constitution for a civil state without a religious frame-of-reference. We are all Muslims. That is what we all agreed on. Initially, they [Ennahda] moved in the direction of introducing Sharia Law and regarding women as “complementary” to men. We opposed that and civil society stood with us. However, finally we reached a consensus.
What are your conditions for Ennahda to take part in a national unity government or for one of its members to serve as the speaker of the new parliament?
Before entering the electoral battle we in Nidaa Tounes said that we would not govern alone even if we obtained an absolute majority. Ultimately we will govern consensually. This matter will be the subject of deliberations when the new parliament convenes, handled in a way that stirs the least possible sensitivities. We are passing through a phase that requires solidarity and unity of ranks. I would like to make it clear that the president of the country must be a president for all Tunisians. He must forget his relationship with his party and work with everyone together. Our platform is to rehabilitate the Tunisian state. Among the most important needs since independence is to build a modern Tunisian state, a state that is just, ruled by law, and treats its people equally without discrimination. It is simultaneously a state for a Muslim people, a civil state for a Muslim people.
But what are your conditions for Ennahda's participation in government?
We don't have conditions. We will strive towards a broad consensus between all the components of the parliament. Other parties apart from Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda won considerable amounts of votes. As concerns us, the people gave us their confidence and they conferred on us the task of forming this government. However, we have to respect the results of the popular polls as they reflect the existing political reality and diversity. We are against exclusion of any sort. But this does not mean that everybody can have a seat in the government.
Is it true that you are requiring Ennahda to have its president, Rached al-Ghannouchi, issue a statement in which he disassociates himself and his party from the International Muslim Brotherhood?
We are not in a position to dictate conditions. We are in the process of a unique, nascent experiment in the Arab world. We must make it succeed. We must not set preconditions. As regards your point about the relationship between Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood, sheikh Rached [al-Ghannouchi] has already stated publicly on Tunisian television that he has no connection with the international organisation. But ultimately I am not qualified to speak on his behalf.
Are you going to send the Islamists back to prison? They, or at least some of them, fear this.
The question is inappropriate. We do not have the power to put anyone back in prison or let them out. That is not our policy. Only judges can send people to prison. I exercised power in government and I never put anyone in prison or intervened to secure anyone's release. The judiciary is independent.
Will you use terrorism as a pretext or justification for restricting freedoms?
Impossible. The greatest gain that the Tunisian people won from the Revolution was the freedom of expression, even if some feel we have gone too far in that direction. There can be no going back on that.
If you fail to solve the problems of the economy and security do you expect that Ennahda will return to power and form a government five years from now? Or do you think that Tunisia will have a third option?
Firstly, I expect us to succeed. Secondly, it is indisputable that the situation is difficult, not only economically, but also socially and in terms of security. However, if we did not have solutions we would not have stepped forward to assume the mantle of responsibility. I believe that solutions exist. We need to bring the security situation under control and to achieve stability for this country. If those two conditions are met then Tunisia can emerge from its economic crisis with the cooperation of sister nations and that will bring investment.
What do the French and Americans want for Tunisia? Are they really promoting a national unity government that includes both Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, or do they want a government of technocrats supported by these two parties in parliament?
Tunisia is free to make its own decisions. We do not deal with dictates from abroad. I personally refuse to do so. “The people of Mecca know its paths better than others,” and we Tunisians will decide what is best for Tunisia. We will not tolerate anything from outside that could undermine our independence in determining the affairs of our country.
You kept up a polarising rhetoric towards the Islamists during the parliamentary and presidential elections that was contrary to the tone of this interview. How will consensus prevail?
Our policy as a party has brought results. The troika government left power by consensus. I believe this is a precedent that has never occurred in any other country. Perhaps Tunisians are made of a different metal. We moved in that direction and we achieved a result. Through [consensual] politics we will achieve other results. I thank God that we are continuing along that road.
If Tunisians take to the streets in protest against your rule will you leave power like the troika did?
We will do our best to respond to the needs and demands of the people. I cannot imagine that people will stage mass protests if their government works in that manner. Let's leave the question of who's in power to the ballot box. We are a democratic people. When I was prime minister I personally oversaw the first free, fair, and transparent multiparty elections and brought in the parties that formed the troika government. I also left power in a noteworthy and unprecedented way. We handed over power to the people who had won the majority. We do not cling to seats for the sake of seats. We seek to rule by the popular will and we will leave power by popular will.
You have been blessed with good health, but do you fear that Tunisia could experience a time similar to the last years of Bourguiba’s rule before Ben Ali overthrew him in the medical coup? At that time, Bourguiba was 84 years old.
The matter is not a question of age. It is a question of the state of health of the individual. You can find very young people who have aged before their time. It all depends on the state of mind. As long as a person's intellect and senses are intact, there's no problem. No president is required to run the 100 metre dash in five minutes every morning. What is required of him is to manage things wisely. He must restore calm if tensions flare up and offer the most appropriate solutions to existing problems.
*This story was previously published in Ahram Weekly.