Interview with Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi
Everyone values his role in reigning in the crisis despite the criticism he faced from a number of parties. He has strongly supported the option of political realism, and many believe he saved the country from “the Egyptian scenario”. In his interview with “Al-Dhamir” he explains his views on the beginning of the national dialogue and how he overcame its difficult moments. He also presents his vision for national consensus and the horizons of the upcoming phase, including its many challenges. The following is the interview transcript:
Question: Two days ago, the national dialogue commenced after much wrangling and the fear of going back to the tense situation, what is the Al-Nahda Movement’s position towards the commencement of the dialogue, especially because it means the countdown to the end of the movement’s rule?
Answer: The dialogue table that has brought together the different parties is a wonderful and historical scene and a message of reassurance to the entire Tunisian nation that its political elite is not preoccupied with power or engaged in marginal arguments and quarrels, but instead looking for reconciliation and agreements that strengthen the country in the fight against terrorism and accelerate the transitional phase. They are also creating the required security and political atmosphere for holding fair and democratic elections.
During the hard moments of the dialogue, before everyone was convinced there was no way to overthrow the government through the streets and after the first steps faltered, my thoughts were with the ordinary citizen, the youth, the student, the woman, the businessman, the soldier, the security guard, etc… I shared their feelings of fear and anticipation in the face of terrorism and the potential collapse of the national economy and other possible consequences of incitement and discourse of demonisation, including social fragmentation and wounds that would be hard to heal. I was determined not to let them down, even if it would cost us concessions seen by some as relapse or a defeat. However, we are convinced that these are steps we take towards our people who are now able to clearly differentiate between those who seek consensus and those planting the seeds of sedition; between those who limit themselves to partisan interests and those who weigh things in the scale of political realism and see things from a national perspective that puts the public interest before personal interests.
Unfortunately, some wished chaos, sedition, destruction, bloodshed and tears for Tunisia while some hoped for the “Egyptian scenario”, but they were met with the “Tunisian exception”. Everyone sat around the dialogue table, which we, and our partners, put on the right path, and therefore I congratulate all Tunisians and thank our partners and the hosting organisations for their conciliatory efforts, despite all the difficulties. Now, it is important for each party to fulfil their obligations in order for us to quickly resolve the crisis that has unjustifiably gone on for too long.
Question: Your speak optimistically about the commencement of dialogue despite the fear of its failure, which many parties believe is inevitable
Answer: The fear of the dialogue’s failure is not justified even though we believe there are parties who are not happy about the Tunisians’ determination to reach a consensual resolution of their differences, but the political forces, led by Al-Nahda, are committed to the success of the dialogue, which is what we felt during the preliminary discussion sessions. The government has pledged, in writing, to resign according to the road map and the members of parliament who had withdrawn from the Assembly have started to return to their constituent duties, and tomorrow, God willing, the negotiations regarding the independent government will begin. We do not believe there is any justification for the fear of failure, especially since Al-Nahda, which some parties tried to raise doubt about their seriousness, credibility, and positions, have demonstrated that they are the party most committed to the success of the dialogue because they are the ones who will concede the presidency of an elected government in favour of a unity government in order to protect the country’s interests. Our country’s wavering train has been put on the right track to democratic transformation, which would crown our beloved Tunisia as the first Arab democracy.
Question: But the fears originated from the doubts regarding Al-Nahda’s intention of leaving power, and that it would work towards buying more time for itself to prolong their time in power or cause the dialogue to fail in order for it to continue its work
Answer: This is nonsense. A lot of time has been lost questioning intentions and laying traps and mines in the path of dialogue, but Al-Nahda has proven, as I have repeatedly said, that it sees national consensus as a victory for the revolution. The movement has lived through 40 years of oppression and persecution for the sake of freedom and democracy in order to give our people a modern and consensual constitution as well as a political system founded on the alternation of power, human rights, and social justice and that ensures political and economic development and protects freedoms. We are not after authority or seats; we are not after revenge or retaliation, nor are we, as some say, afraid of accountability and are therefore holding on to power! Our vision was clear from the beginning, and I will sum it up in one simple sentence; Tunisia can only be democratically governed, especially during this transitional phase, through consensus, and therefore, we called for a national unity government after the elections, though our partners preferred to be in the opposition. We have also sought to widen the base of governance on more than one occasion to no avail and we have even given up positions in the key ministries in Ali Laarayedh’s government. Today we believe that forming an independent government that gains its legitimacy from national consensus is necessary to hold elections with results that all parties can accept.
Question: There are those who believe that this position is Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi’s position and that it is not accepted by everyone in Al-Nahda, and that the resignation from government will lead to a severe divide in Al-Nahda’s ranks.
Answer: Al-Nadha is a movement comprising of institutions that allow more than one opinion, but ultimately respect the decisions issued by the movement. I have read a lot about the existence of contrasting positions, and that the resignation of the movement’s leader will be met by a veto by the Prime Minister. However, this view has been belied by reality and we know who is fuelling such positions with the aim of spreading sedition within the movement and the country. There are different internal readings of the crisis and assessments of the current situation, but there is a consensus within the movement that we will not allow the coup-aspirers to lead us into strife, conflict, and the failure of dialogue in order to provide them with grounds to poison the atmosphere, fragment the state, shed the blood of the Tunisians, and drag the country into a security, political, and chaotic vacuum justifying the abortion of the revolution and stopping the democratic transition.
Therefore, consensus-building is a strategic option, and when we found a general tendency towards the need to change the government, we agreed because our goal is not power, but the success of the revolution and the completion of its path through holding elections that will ultimately defeat the counter-revolution and will lead to the triumph of the last remaining candle of the Arab Spring over coups, terrorism, and internal and external conspiracies.
The requirements of the transformation necessitates a unity government to oversee the upcoming elections, and we are keen to provide all the guarantees of transparency and impartiality, as it is a superior national interest that is more important than any partisan interests.
Question: Does your conciliatory position indicate a shift in your relationship with “Nidaa Tounes” (The Call for Tunisia) and the Destourians [of Bourguiba’s Destour Party]?
First of all, “Nidaa Tounes” is a newcomer to the political scene that may have changed many equations, although its popular appeal remains largely linked to the personality of its founder Beji Caid el Sebsi rather than an approval of its economic and political programme. The Nidaa banked on, according to a number of opinion polls of course, the decline in popularity as well as the stunning collapse of some parties specialised in hostility towards Al-Nahda without providing any alternatives in order to gain a broad public acceptance. Our position towards it was linked to its emergence as an opposing front to Al-Nahda led by left-wing members known for their hostile discourse towards Islamists. During the current crisis, and even shortly before it, two new variables appeared; the party leader’s statements rejecting calls for eliminating Al-Nahda from the scene, some of which had been expressed by some of his own party’s senior officials, in a neo-Nazi exclusionist language, and the difficult situation of the country that makes it imperative for everyone to work together to overcome the serious challenges in order to deliver the country to safety.
Question: Has this encouraged the two parties to grow closer?
Answer: My relationship with Mr Beji Caid el Sebsi is characterised by mutual respect, and Nidaa Tounes’ position on calls and campaigns for the eradication of Al-Nahda will determine our position towards it. What is important is that we are now under the same tent, i.e. the tent of national dialogue, and I hope the two parties, as well as all the other parties, contribute to establishing agreement and to the success of the experience.
Question: What about the Destourians?
Answer? Their marginalisation after the revolution was a logical result of their legacy in government and the mistakes they made, and unfortunately, most of them did not make any radical revisions or apologies to the people, minus a few exceptions, such as Mr Morjane. I would also like to mention two points; first, the only people benefiting from their absence from the scene and their historical conflict with the Islamists is the eradicationist and opportunistic leftist trend who now seeks to win them over and use them in their battle against Al-Nahda, and frankly, I haven’t seen a response from a significant section of Destourians to this conspiratorial incitement against democracy. Secondly, there is no way we can ignore the role of the Destourians in establishing the independence state and considering them all to be the same, as there are some honourable members who were not involved in the tyrannical regime’s crimes. I do not think there is any objection to them participating in forming a vision for the upcoming phase, especially with the presence of two parties associated with Destourian reference at the dialogue table, i.e. Nidaa Tounes (if such a commitment to the Destourian school is proven) and the Moubadara party. However, this does not mean we will start a new page and forget the past without first cleansing the wounds of the past and the admission and apology for each party’s mistakes on the basis of transitional justice for those involved in the former regime’s crimes.
Question: If you don’t mind, Sheikh Rashid, I would like to go back to the matter of Al-Nahda stepping down from power while its “smaller” allies remain in power; doesn’t this cause a psychological problem for Al-Nahda and its members?
Answer: Al-Nahda will leave the government, but it will not leave power, as a government will not be passed without its approval. We will remain the largest party in the Constituent Assembly, and when we resign from government, we would have presented to our people a consensual constitution and a set date for elections. Our ship will be on its way to complete its journey towards the upcoming elections, which we will enter with an honourable record, despite the challenges we faced during our time in power.
We will go to elections after having completed the constitution our people elected us to write, and with a record full of concessions for the sake of national reconciliation. Moreover, Al-Nahda will be the first Islamic and non-Islamic party that voluntarily gives up power in the context of reconciliation and to enable the success of the revolution and democracy. What would have been expected in principle would have been to hand over the reins of power to the party that wins the elections, but Al-Nahda’s position presented a great example of sacrifice for the sake of harmony and to prove the predictions of the “Islamophobes” wrong, who claimed we would not hand over power even we were defeated in elections.
Question: What about the fact that the “Congress for the Republic” and “Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties” party will remain in power?
Answer: On a psychological level, there is a real problem when the larger party leaves and its allies remain in the presidential and constituent leadership. However, this only highlights further the meaning of the sacrifice Al-Nahda. For the sake of Tunisia and for the sake of it passing the test of democracy drawn from Islam and modernity all sacrifices are worthwhile.
Tunisia is facing great challenges on a political, security, and economic level, and the members of Al-Nahda are reading the current and future situation rationally and realistically with the public interest in mind. We want to give our people security, prosperity and stability and this requires a stable political situation and broad national consensus, which can only be achieved by completing the constituent duties, approving the constitution, electing the electoral commission, and setting a final date for the elections, which Al-Nahda seems to be most likely to win. This is our promised gift to Tunisia.
Question: However, there are fears that Al-Nahda’s exit from government will lead to the eradicators seizing power and repeating the scenario of the 90’s.
Answer: the continuation of the political crisis is what serves the purpose of the eradicators, coup-aspirers, and terrorists who have sought, in every possible way, to fuel the state of incitement and tension in order to overthrow the government, and this is what enabled the terrorists to commit treacherous acts, which fortunately the state is confronting firmly, and terrorism is on its way to being defeated. As I said to “Al-Dhamir” months ago, the terrorist groups are fighting a losing and desperate battle in Jebel el-Chambi, and the situation in Tunisia confirms this. Moreover, our police, national guard, and army are dealing them harsh blows and thankfully, they are being defeated.
Question: But there have been great losses in the security ranks over the last few days…
Answer: I pray for God to have mercy on all the martyrs of the security forces, army, and politicians who lost their lives in the most honourable battles in defence of freedom, democracy, and Tunisia’s safety. Our country is located in a sensitive geographic area in which arms are spread and through which terrorist cells from Mali are moving, in addition to the various conflict areas giving rise to many Takfirist and Jihadist groups. Terrorism in Tunisia, and I am not referring to what is being said about the presence of hidden political and intelligence agendas that are aiming to harm Tunisia, is being firmly confronted. The government has categorised Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist group and the army and security were able to dismantle most of its cells and capture many prominent terrorist leaders. Fortunately, there is not area in our country that the state has lost control of and it is moving quickly to eliminate this problem. Terrorism is in the process of being defeated, but the battle is difficult, painful, and long and we must unite in order to confront this problem rather than exploit it for political point-scoring, like some are doing.
Question: The last few months have been plagued with fear of the Egyptian scenario being repeated in Tunisia; Has Tunisia passed the stage of danger?
Answer: The commencement of the national dialogue has sent reassuring messages at home and abroad and we sense optimism that the end is near for the political crisis that has directly affected the security and economic situation. Relief has been the common denominator among Tunisians over the last two days, which is a positive thing. This presumes that all the political parties should have reached the conviction of the impossibility of the Egyptian scenario being repeated in Tunisia, because the situation is different in Tunisia. Our experience was built on national consensus and the coexistence between secularists and Islamists and an impartial and disciplined republican military institution. Even those who hoped that the labour union would play the role of the Egyptian army were wrong. In any case, comparing the Tunisian and Egyptian situation alone is enough to persuade those dreaming of the Egyptian scenario to abandon their dream, because it has become a terrifying nightmare, and Egyptians are seeking reconciliation and consensus. I hope our success in Tunisia encourages them to take more steps towards dialogue to resolve their disputes and overcome the tragic situation Egypt is witnessing today.
Question: To conclude, what is the message that Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi can convey and to whom?
Answer: My first message is to the people who did not follow the coup propositions, refused chaos, and remained committed to defending the state. I say to them that we will not disappoint you, and we will do all we can to defend your revolution, security and stability and will not put our interests above yours. I would also like to give a message to our political partners, we are committed to dialogue and consensus-building, as well as making good on our promises, including the promise of our resignation from government in accordance with the road map. Our vision for the next phase before elections, and after the elections, is built on consensus-seeking. This is the key to stability and security, and we will remain committed to seeing this option through, whether or not we win the elections. My third message is to the businessmen who were amongst those most affected by the political conflict; do not hesitate to support Tunisia in the next phase by investing, creating jobs, and attracting foreign capital, as the success of the revolution is closely linked to our economic stability. My fourth message is to the world: I would like to invite everyone to support the Tunisian experience politically and economically, and to consider the success of the revolution and democratic transition in our country as a victory of the values of freedom and democracy in the world after the dangerous setback suffered by the Arab Spring. My last message is to my brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters in the Al-Nahda Movement; you have paid a heavy price in your battle against dictatorship, and in the 90’s, you refused to fall into the trap of violence. You encouraged and promoted dialogue with the secularists and democrats even when you were being oppressed and persecuted. Furthermore, you were a moderate centrist force that protected the revolution from right-wing and left-wing extremism; you protected your people and country from division, and you made sacrifices for the sake of reconciliation. Please continue your path of rationalism, moderation, and sacrifice for the sake of Tunisia, and prepare yourself for the elections which we will win, God willing, in order for our country to remain the last lit candle of the Arab Spring and its steadfast insurmountable fort against the counter-revolution and coup plots. “And upon God do rely, if you are indeed believers.”