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Ennahda official says movement ready for early elections

Interview with Rafik Abdel Salam

August 3, 2021 at 11:14 am

Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem speaks with journalists during a press conference on 8 August 2012 in Tunis [FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImage]

Former Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdel Salam has spoken about the “coup” by President Kais Saied. The senior Ennahda Movement official claims that there is no other option for Tunisia but to hold early presidential and legislative elections “to establish a new electoral legitimacy” in the country.

The following is the text of the exclusive interview with Arabi21:

What is the significance of the arrest of MPs Yassine Ayari and Maher Zaid by the security forces?

This reflects a tendency to use the courts to remove bloggers and politicians who oppose the coup. It also reveals the extent of the dangers that threaten Tunisia’s nascent democracy, raising the spectre of dictatorship after we thought that we had turned that page forever.

President Saied said that he abhors dictatorship and will not be a dictator. He has stressed that all countries can take exceptional measures to preserve the unity of the state and uphold the law, civil rights and freedoms. What do you think?

It is not about intentions and declarations. The president may have good intentions, but politics is not driven by intentions and statements. It is driven by guarantees and mechanisms that inhibit tyranny. When one person seeks to gain control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state, it necessarily creates a dictatorial and tyrannical situation.

The political system is based essentially on a supervisory parliamentary institution and an independent judiciary that protects rights and freedoms. The absence of a balanced distribution of power paves the way for absolute control and corruption. As for the exceptional measures, they do not allow the deployment of tanks in front of the Assembly of People’s Representatives [parliament] and disrupting its work under any scenario. This is an indignity for Tunisia and its revolution.

There are reports and gossip about financial, political, intelligence and media support that President Saied has received from regional and international bodies to carry out this coup. How accurate are these reports?

Regional traces in particular are there at the planning and implementation levels. We have seen a situation quite similar to what happened in the 3 July 2013 coup in Egypt, including attempts to mobilise support and demonise opponents, and use the media and social media to create an atmosphere that provides cover for disrupting constitutional life and paralysing the democratic system. There has been a lot of incitement and misleading claims. We should not forget that Gulf money has entered the arena to pollute political and media life in Tunisia.

READ: Unlike secularists, ‘Islamists’ in Tunisia were weak but not undemocratic 

Some accuse Ennahda of being primarily responsible for the political, economic and social crisis since the Jasmine Revolution. Does Ennahda bear full responsibility for the situation?

Ennahda governed Tunisia for about a year and a half, and then left power after the national dialogue in 2013. Its participation has been limited in subsequent governments. However, it has become ingrained in some minds that the movement controls everything in the country. Media influence and accusations have all been directed towards Ennahda, plus we have to consider that the other parties are largely absent.

The major dilemma is that Ennahda has not been able to assume responsibility for all pillars of the government due to the constraints of local and regional situations, nor has it clearly moved to the opposition. Being in this grey area is troubling, because you cannot fully rule the country and bear responsibility in this regard, or stay in the opposition away from the consequences of being the government.

It seems that Ennahda has chosen dialogue and trying to calm the situation without escalating it. How do you perceive this approach?

We have chosen to move into the political realm rather than challenging recent decisions on the street at this point to avoid social division and pushing supporters on both sides towards direct confrontation. There are forces that supported the coup for political and ideological reasons and want to invest in the crisis and push things to the limit. If the state collapses, God forbid, and the ongoing social rift deepens, then we will have nothing to fight about.

We insist that what has happened is a coup d’état and a flagrant violation of the constitution, and we are relying on the awakening of the people and the bloc of political forces to reject this new reality and rectify the situation. We are one important actor among others; we are not the only party in the arena. We do not want to bear the burden of the coup alone.

When will Ennahda make its decision either to resist the coup or make concessions?

Ennahda can give up its rights, but it will never give up the homeland’s rights; first and foremost it will defend freedoms, democracy and state institutions. What matters first is the protection of the constitution, the values of the revolution and the foundations of the democratic system. Defending this cause is entrusted to all forces that reject hegemony and the coup; it is not Ennahda’s exclusive responsibility.

The Speaker of Parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, confirmed that Ennahda is ready to make “any concessions in order to restore democracy”; what is the nature of the concessions that Ennahda could make?

Ennahda’s position is not a priority now. What is more crucial is the situation of the constitution and the democratic system we chose after the revolution. The priority now is to end the coup and return to normal political life and the legitimacy of the constitution. One of the signs of this will be the return to work of the parliament and an end to the arrest of bloggers and opposition MPs and their referral to military courts. We know that arrests and trials involving civil and military courts are expected to increase.

Many believe that the hostility of some secularists towards Ennahda is much greater than their commitment to democracy and freedom. Is that true?

Although we have seen evidence of this, we can’t say that all secular forces have taken the same stance. The Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party, the Republican Party and Al-Amal Movement, for example, have political and even ideological differences with Ennahda, yet its leaders reject the coup and side with principles and values.

However, there are some who are ready to destroy the country in order to get rid of Ennahda. Hence, the main filter today is not between Islamists and secularists, but support for the constitution and democracy or standing with dictatorship.

To what extent have Ennahda’s opponents succeeded in demonising the movement?

A massive media campaign at home and abroad seeks to demonise the party. It has been alleged that members’ pockets have been filled from the state treasury. Gulf money is behind social media pages launched with the sole aim of inciting the public against Ennahda; some TV channels and radio stations have joined this trend.

Of course, Ennahda endured the burden of the transitional period with all its difficulties and complications, and people feel frustrated because their demands for development and improved living conditions have not been met. After the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi and the end of his Nidaa Tounes party, as well as the ongoing weakness of the other political parties, citizens hold Ennahda responsible for the crises. As a result, the movement’s popularity has declined, even though it is not the main party taking decisions. The technocrats and other influences have more authority than Ennahda.

Is the Ennahda movement ruling Tunisia or not?

We are not holding on to power, because of its burdens, challenges and responsibilities, but we insist on preserving the constitution and the democratic system. If we neglect these foundations, we will waste the foundations that have been established; we will lose all the political gains that were achieved by the revolution.

READ: Tunisia’s instability and coup are backed by the UAE, Saudi 

There is ambiguity about the position of the Tunisian military regarding the current crisis. How do you see the army’s position in this coup?

The army is neutral, but the bottom line is that it is a disciplined institution subject to orders from above. Soldiers have not been deployed on the streets or to arrest people, as the president wanted. The army was content to carry out the president’s order to close parliament. At the moment, it does not want to get involved in politics.

There are fears that the Tunisia may be pushed into violence and chaos. Is such a scenario possible?

There are some parties who wish to push the people in that direction, because the essence of their policy is based on investing in crises. However, we have done everything in our power to block this devastating scenario.

The forces conspiring against the revolution want to push Tunisia into civil war in order to close the chapter on the Arab revolutions. This, they believe, will validate their narrative that democracy does not work in the Arab world, for which the only option — they claim — is totalitarian rule.

How can the coup be aborted?

The people have the responsibility to challenge the coup, along with the political forces that also reject it. This is not the exclusive responsibility of Ennahda. We will do everything in our power alongside our political partners to end the coup and return to the constitution and legitimacy as soon as possible.

The president says that he has taken exceptional measures guaranteed by Article 80 of the constitution, but we see the exact opposite. His seriousness will be tested when parliament returns to work, and the use of military and civil courts to prosecute bloggers and politicians under flimsy pretexts stops.

Some believe that holding early presidential and legislative elections or a popular referendum on Saied’s decisions may represent a way out of this crisis. Could he accept an early presidential election?

If it is not possible to reach political understandings that end this coup and restore the status quo, then we have no choice but to go to early presidential and legislative elections to establish a new electoral legitimacy.

What are Kais Saied’s chances of winning again if an early presidential election is held?

Kais Saied is still selling promises and illusions, after betting on aggravating the situation and investing in the financial and health crises. However, people will discover over time that populism is unable to solve the country’s accumulated problems, and I imagine that his popularity will be drained as the great gap between promises and reality becomes evident.

This interview first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 1 August 2021