INTERVIEW: Leading Ennahda MP: 'We brought Tunisia into the democratic era'

Karem Yehia in Tunis , Friday 5 Dec 2014

Ahram Online sits down with Ennahda's Mehrezia Labidi to talk about Tunisia's future and Ennahda's place within it

Mehrezia Labidi
Leading Ennahda MP Mehrezia Labidi (Photo:

Mehrezia Labidi, a Tunisian MP from Ennahda, is widely known as the most popular and influential figure among the female members of the Islamist party, which came in second in October's legislative polls with 68 seats (31.33 percent) last October.

In fact, Labidi had reached the highest parliamentary position ever to be filled by a Tunisian woman as she became the deputy speaker of the constituent assembly that drafted the post-revolution constitution.

The Islamist politician, being one of 68 women recently elected in the 217-member parliament, was educated in France. She won her constituent assembly seat in one of the constituencies for Tunisian expatriates in the European country.

But in October's polls, Labidi became a parliamentarian in Tunisia's northeastern town of Nabeul. Ahram Online met with Labidi inside the parliamentary headquarters in Tunis for an interview.

AO: As the constituent assembly's deputy speaker, how do you evaluate the interaction between secularists and Islamists inside the constitution-drafting body?

ML: Some aspects of such interaction were successful, while other aspects were not. In reality, the secular-Islamist interactions did not only involve Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic (CPR) – Ennahda's partners in the former "troika" coalition government. We dealt with other secular parties and blocs such as the Democratic Path, Al- Joumhouri Party, Democratic Alliance and secular independents. This occurred inside the committee that worked on the constitution's general principles. But our positions were close to those of nationalists such as Mohamed Brahmi's Popular Front, as well as Al-Joumhouri MPs. I believe the real interaction between Tunisia's Islamists and secularists took place in committees whose work involved legislation and constitution-drafting. Thanks to the public atmosphere of freedoms that allowed people to meet and talk whether in parliament, civil society conferences or other places. People, in fact, had no option but to work on a joint basis, which was important for them to overcome preconceived notions about each one another.

AO: What were the negative aspects of such secular-Islamist dealings after the revolution?

ML:  Reaching a level of positive interaction requires time and persistence. Politicians along the spectrum have known each other since they were young. I think that 60 percent of the MPs spent their college years together, regardless of being in political consensus or disagreement. Also, major ideological or ethnic differences are not present in Tunisia. Our differences mainly involve ideas. You can find leading Ennahda figure, Al-Agami Al-Waremi, using Leninist ideas in his speeches, while leftist politician, Hamma Hammami will refer to Quranic verses. We should not forget that fighting against authoritarianism has united Islamists and non-Islamists despite our ideological dissimilarities. For example, my leftist colleagues and I used to read Al-Ahram and Le Monde newspapers together.

AO: But the polarisation between Islamists and secularists is clear in the Tunisian society?

ML:  This is normal because we have not lived in a democracy for many years. Some people put an emphasis on the differences to make Tunisians hate democracy and call for security and bread instead.

AO: Presidential candidate and leader of Nidaa Tounes party Beji Caid Essebsi described those who voted for Moncef Marzouki in the first round as "Muslim extremists, Salafists and terrorists." What do you think?

ML:  Essebsi's comments are awakening dormant enmities. Some politicians resort to intimidation as discourse. Some Tunisians are concerned about their freedoms from Essebsi, while others fear Marzouki's rush in defending human rights due to its effect on the country's foreign policy. But the problem lies when intimidation dominates the speech of the other side.  Ennahda stands in the middle between the disagreeing parties, calming down tensions between them. Tunisia is apparently divided between two political blocs, though we see a lot in common between all people. Inside Ennahda, we always say there is no battle between secularists and Islamists.

AO: Ennahda gained 20 less seats in October's parliamentary elections than the 2011 constituent assembly's polls. How do you explain this?

ML: We governed Tunisia in a tough period. It is normal that votes for parties will decrease for those who ruled at such periods. Just look at Lech Walesa's experience in Poland. We always say that we have competitors not enemies.  

 AO: Don't you feel concerned about the huge electoral losses of Marzouki's CPR and Mustapha bin Jaafar's Ettakatol – as your secular allies – in the legislative race?

ML: The political scene is not constant, but rather changing. This applies even to Ettakatol, which has no parliamentary representatives now after entering the constituent assembly with 20 members. This is not an indication that Ettakatol lacks political weight. The same conditions are applied to Naguib Al-Shabi and his Al-Joumhouri Party, who was not an ally of Ennahda. These are figures and parties that carry a political history of struggle against dictatorship. They will not disappear from Tunisian politics even if they lack seats in the new parliament.  Ennahda does not count only on allies inside the parliament. Everyone – even if not in parliament – who seeks to maintain freedoms, peaceful coexistence and democracy in society is our ally. On a personal level, for example, I would have chosen to vote for Hammami if he reached the presidential runoff round against Essebsi who I am confident we will not disagree with over issue of freedoms. Those who attempt to portray the society as Muslims versus takfiris are wrong.   

AO: The political powers in Tunisia accusing Ennahda of seeking to impose the Islamic identity on Tunisia after the revolution?

ML: No, Ennahda party brought Tunisia to the democratic era with its accountability toward Salafist members who tried to incorporate the Islamic Shariaa (law) into the constitution draft.

AO: But rumors say that Ennahda presented a constitutional draft that stipulated Shariaa?

ML: That didn't happen, but, what happened is that Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, put forth article one of the 1959 constitution which provides that Islam is a fundamental element for the country. Ghannouchi also saved the country from a crisis when he signed the road map on lastyear and agreed to the resignation of Ali Aryd's government resignation (Ennahda). Moreover, Ennahda accepted the parliamentary elections results that declares Nidaa Tounes won, despite the unethical wrongdoings that occurred. We hope the results of the elections' second round will be accepted with the same vein as well.

AO: Does Ennahda seek to stay neutral between candidates Moncef Marzouki and Beiji Caed Essebsi?

ML: I think we will remain the same, but the final decision will be set from the party’s Shoura Council.

AO:  How different Ennahda is from the Muslim Brotherhood?

ML: Ennahda is an Islamic party, we were related to the international Muslim Brotherhood group when we started, but in the 80s we began a Tunisiation of the party with an Islamic reference.

AO: How do you feel about the fact that many civil society organisations see you as an enemy?

ML: Ennahda and civil society have affected each other's experiences. But the problem is that the leftist orientation needs to get out of the dogma, the same goes for political Salafism.

AO: You are also accused of being responsible for the return of the old regime. Especially when you dropped the political isolation law.

ML: Tunisia's leftists are the ones who brought back Ben Ali's regime by not supporting Ennahda. We voted against the political isolation law to avoid pushing the country into a crisis like that which we have seen in Libya.  

AO: Will Ennahda protest if there are signs of failure from Nidaa Tounes?

ML: We don't call for chaos in the country; we will protest our situation according to the constitution, but if we become a political opposition, we will be a constructive opposition. The challenge is to achieve the democratic rule in Tunisia. It’s important to us that there is no bloodshed between Tunisians. 

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