Interview: Ennahda has no reservations about improving relations with Cairo: Tunisian PM

Karem Yehia from Tunisia, Wednesday 23 Dec 2015

Habib Essid
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid delivers his speech at the Mediterranean Dialogues Conference Forum, in Rome, Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. (AP)

Ahram Online met with Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid in his office in Tunis amid negotiations with party leaders regarding amendments to his government.

The coalition government headed by Essid, who is labeled by some as a technocrat, consists of Nidaa Tunis, the modern Islamist Ennahda, and two liberal parties.

The interview begins with a discussion of Egyptian-Tunisian affairs and goes on to cover developments in Libya and terrorism.

Ahram Online: The Joint Jordanian-Tunisian Higher Committee reached an agreement that exempts citizens from obtaining a visa before entering each country. When will we see a similar move between Egypt & Tunisia?

Habib Essid: From our end we are ready to cancel the entry visa for our Egyptian brothers. We expect Egypt to be ready for this too, on the basis of reciprocity. We have discussed this before but we did not reach an agreement.

AO: How do Egypt and Tunisia cooperate in their fight against terrorism? How would you evaluate this cooperation?

HE: There is solid cooperation between the two countries in combating terrorism and there have been improvements in this field in terms of intelligence and training. The internal security forces in Tunisia can benefit a lot from the Egyptian experience and there is no doubt that it is extremely important to push for such cooperation given the current situation in Libya.

AO: Since you have experience in handling security responsibilities, Do you see any relation between terrorist attacks in Egypt's Sinai and the terrorism taking place in the mountainous border areas of Tunisia?

HE: Up until now there has been no data to suggest a relationship between what is happening in Mount Sinai and Mount Al-Shaabani. However, terrorist networks all over the world often connect with each other, so exchanging information [between Egypt and Tunisia] will help us expose these networks and combat terrorism.

AO: Did you find any rejection or reservations from Ennahda Islamist party regarding the ongoing convergence with Cairo?

HE: There are absolutely no refusals or objections regarding this issue. We as a government did not encounter any reservations on improving relations with Cairo.

AO: Egypt declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation two years ago and the British PM David Cameron recently said that his government believes that MB ideologies are connected with extremism and terrorism. Does the Tunisian government share a similar stance?

HE: Our stance is crystal clear; we have no problem with anyone who respects the Tunisian constitution and Tunisian society. However, we are against anyone who does not respect the diversity of the Tunisian civil society and we have a certain stance against terrorists.

We have previously declared that some organisations are terrorist. Tunisia is independent and can make independent decisions.

Just because another country declared a certain group a terrorist organisation that does not mean that Tunisia is forced to do the same.

AO: Would you accept hosting members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia?

HE: They didn't ask for that. But if they did, we will consider the matter and then make a decision.

AO: Did the Egyptian-Tunisian positions on Libya grow closer after last week's Skhirat agreement?

HE: Our views are already convergent, and we have the same position on Libya. Egypt and Tunisia support a peaceful and political solution among the Libyans by all means in order to solve the deteriorating security conditions in the country.

AO: Do you believe there is a chance for success in Libya after the Skhirat agreement?

HE: We are optimistic, and there is no doubt that the agreement is a step forward. But the real work will start after the deal-signing phase, and it will be difficult.

AO: What are the implications of the collapse of the Libyan state and the expansion of ISIS into cities located on the Tunisian borders? Also, how do you perceive the issue of weapon smuggling and terrorists?

HE: We have no specific figures, but we discovered several caches of weapons in southern Tunisia and other parts of the country, and there are weapons that actually came to Tunisia from Libya. The terrorist operations that hit Sousse, Bardo and downtown of the capital Tunis are the clearest evidence for this. And yes, planning, training, and weapons come from Libya.

AO: How many Tunisians joined the militant groups in Libya and Syria? How will you deal with this matter when they return home?

HE: According to initial figures, the number ranges from 2500 to 3000 Tunisians, but nothing is confirmed so far. We have a plan in dealing with them when they return to Tunisia. The new anti-terrorism law determines the way through which we can handle the Tunisians coming back from tense areas. They will face trials according to this law.

AO: How many people are charged in terrorism-related cases now?

HE: Around 1200 people and they have all been arrested.

AO: In a country known for modernisation—which is surprising for some observers—how do you explain the large numbers of Tunisians joining terrorist organisations outside Tunisia?

HE: There are two things to consider. Firstly, some of those were ideologically prepared to believe in jihad and death for the sake of such ideas. Secondly, some areas in Tunisia didn't experience their share of development, and their citizens do witness stressful economic conditions, to the extent that they have resorted to such a devastating ideology for the sake of money.

AO: What is Tunisia’s position towards joining the anti-terrorism military coalition that was recently announced by Saudi Arabia with 34 states taking part in it?

HE: We are against any military intervention and believe in political settlements instead. Military action can only include limited operations as a reaction to a specific attack. The solution should always be political. As you know, Tunisia joined the anti-ISIS coalition, but as a form of cooperation in terms of providing information more so than conducting military operations.


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