Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—Beginning his political career as a lawyer and pro-independence activist, Beiji Caid El-Sebsi became an advisor to Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, after the country won its independence from France in 1956. He would go on to hold a number of senior government jobs, including a stint as foreign minister in the 1980s, before leaving frontline politics in the mid-1990s.
Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s exile following the country’s 2011 revolution brought Sebsi back onto the political scene as interim prime minister, after mass protests led to the resignation of his predecessor Mohamed Ghannouchi. After leaving office once more at the end of 2011, he went on to found the secular, left-leaning Nidaa Tounes (Tunisian Call) movement in 2012. He remains the chairman of the party today, and is currently spoken of as its presidential candidate in the upcoming elections.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Sebsi about Tunisia’s upcoming elections, his talks with the leader of the rival Ennahda Movement Rachid Ghannouchi, and reports that he plans to cap his long career in public office by running for president.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The majority of Tunisian political parties have approved of holding presidential and legislative elections separately, and it seems that the intention is to hold parliamentary elections first. While the Ennahda movement supports this, your party would rather see presidential elections first. How can this dispute be resolved?
Beji Caid El-Sebsi: Tunisia now has a constitution, and I think that future political life cannot begin by violating it. This is clear. The Nidaa Tounes movement truly supported a separation between the presidential and legislative elections, but on the basis that the presidential election would be held first. Why the presidential election first? And, why, if we held legislative elections first, would we be contradicting the constitution? The constitution stipulates transitional provisions, and these transitional provisions have the same status as the provisions of the constitution itself. Article 148 [of the transitional provisions] states that the Constituent Assembly will be dissolved as soon as legislative elections are held. If this stipulation is abided by and legislative elections are held first, the result will be the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. It is assumed that the president would remain in place. But the presidency is a part of the Constituent Assembly because it elects the president; the people do not elect him directly. So, the president is part and parcel of the Constituent Assembly. So how can you dissolve the Constituent Assembly and expect the presidency will remain in place? If we take the example of cutting a tree, then it makes sense: you cannot cut down a tree without all of its branches falling. One branch will not stay in place if the entire tree has been cut down. Therefore, it is the logic and spirit of the constitution that dictates that presidential elections must be held before legislative elections.
Q: What is the outcome now, especially since your party has indicated that it would back down in the event of a consensus among all parties?
We have stated that we would like presidential elections to be held first, but we will not fight a war if legislative and presidential elections are organized and held together. This is because these were the initial terms that had been agreed upon. Holding the two elections together essentially maintains the spirit of the constitution. But, if this were to happen, then the presidency should not remain in place while the Constituent Assembly is dissolved. Both the presidency and the legislature must be elected at the same moment; this is natural. But if the majority goes in this direction, I don’t think it would be sound.
Q: A few weeks ago, both you and Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda Movement, paid a visit to Algeria. There is also some talk of your meeting in Paris. Have you made a deal on sharing power, with the Nidaa Tounes movement taking the presidency and Ennahda taking the seat of the prime minister?
We are against deals. We visited Algeria, but individually. This visit to Algeria was not a joint venture, and therefore the chatter surrounding this matter is meaningless. Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi visited Algeria to attend a conference of an Islamic party, and of course he was greeted by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. President Bouteflika and I have shared 55 years of friendship, and by virtue of this relationship, he invited me to visit him. Indeed, I responded to this invitation and visited Algeria alone. I did not meet Ghannouchi there.
In regards to the meeting in Paris meeting, I have previously explained its purpose at length. Ghannouchi is the head of the party that was in power, and we were out of office. The country was at an impasse, facing economic, social, political, and security crises. In a televised speech, I directed my words to Ghannouchi, asking: “My brother Rachid, what are you doing as head of the ruling party, while the country is approaching the abyss and you’ve still done nothing? We as the opposition are ready to find solutions, but we have no-one to speak to about it.” After a period of time, he called and asked to see me. I told him I’d be traveling as I had commitments out of the country. He was gracious and said that he could meet me wherever I was. And indeed, he came to see me in Paris and we talked for more than three hours. In my opinion, I convinced him, or perhaps he was already ready to be convinced, that it would be wise to join the national dialogue—because there is no solution other than dialogue. He joined the dialogue, and after much deliberation, we reached an agreement on the constitution. In fact, the Ennahda movement and the other parties it was involved with at the time [in the troika] had agreed and signed upon a specific draft constitution. But because of pressures they gave up this project, and instead everyone agreed upon a [different] compromise. They agreed to step down from the government, and were replaced by the technocratic government composed of independent figures. This was a significant step.
Q: What of the speculation on social media websites that your two parties have reached a deal on power-sharing?
One of the gains of the  revolution was that the media was freed, but this freedom does not mean that the media has gone down a successful path. Here, I would like to recall the words of a French writer: “Anything in excess is unjust.” Thus, let them say what they like. I am a human being who serves his country. I support anything that benefits my country. Secondly, the party that I lead raises the slogan: “The nation before parties.” For this reason, I support anything in the interest of the nation.
Q: There are internal disputes within the Nidaa Tounes movement. Are you not fearful that these disputes can lead to weaker results for you in the presidential and legislative elections?
The presidency is not an end in itself for me. I am not committed to running. My party nominated me for the presidency, but I have not yet accepted. I will run for president if I do not find, from amongst the other candidates, someone who can find a way out of the situation Tunisia is currently experiencing. This is why my personal chances do not interest me.
We organized the Nidaa Tounes movement with very small numbers, but in a matter of years, the party has become the first in the country. Now, the party has 110,000 followers, so our current situation is different from a party that only has 10,000–11,000 followers. A bigger party has to be run differently. Thus, after our party increased in size, we decided that we had to change how things were done. We decided that the chairman of the party does not have to act as the boss with the final word. I myself suggested that we hold a conference and elect the executive committee of the party, but we found that many members had reservations that these elections would replace their posts. But this route—the election—is inevitable. We are no longer in the era in which it is the president who governs [totally]. I know the repercussions of autocracy, as I was involved in the party for decades until it became the presidential party.
We are moving towards the elections season and must draw up the ballots. There will be differences of opinion about these choices. Perhaps we will form an alliance with other parties. Therefore, we must lead our party so there are no uncertainties surrounding it and it can be elected. This is the dilemma facing our party now. I am for elections, but there is a movement within the party that wants to continue the way we have always been.
Q: You have stated that you have not yet decided on your candidacy for the presidential elections. Have you suggested an alternate candidate in case you decide not to run?
At the moment, we are waiting for the date of the election to be decided. As long as it remains undecided, it is difficult to announce who our candidate will be. Until this point, no one else has announced plans for candidacy. The executive body of the Nidaa Tounes movement meets every month, as is the norm within the party. The last meeting was held on May 18 and it raised several issues, including the fact that a group of leaders within the party wanted to nominate [me] for the presidential elections. The other attendees of the meeting agreed on the issue. This is the truth of the matter. But there can be no serious discussion on who the candidate will be until the date of the election is announced.
Q: In Tunisia, there is growing nostalgia for Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. What do you think of his legacy?
I am a student of Habib Bourguiba and a graduate of Bourguiba’s School. Bourguiba is now in the hands of God, but remains a symbol [for us]. When I look around, I see that statues of Bourguiba are everywhere. Bourguiba was our teacher. I myself worked with him for 35 years. I have some reservations about some of his positions, but Bourguiba remains a genius. Whatever Tunisia is now is thanks to the achievements of Habib Bourguiba’s work. Among these we can count the structures of the state, women’s liberation, and universal education. Tunisia has achieved what many other Arabs have not, and this is thanks to the Bourguiba’s policies in the field of education. But he was not alone, as he had the support of other leaders; therefore, all of this was collective work. Thus, the Tunisian people were led by Bourguiba’s victories, which include the achievement of independence, the establishment of a modern society, and the building of a modern, twentieth-century state. Now, that state aims to become a developed country.
Q: To return to the subject of your candidacy for the election, there are many who describe you as the “Hakim” (wise man) of Tunisia, and claim that your nomination could hurt this image. Can you comment on this?
First, I would like to say that I am not the only wise person in Tunisia. I am honored to be described as the wise man of Tunisia, but this wisdom must be used in the interest of the country’s public affairs. This interest in public affairs does not mean that there needs to be a “wise man” leading Tunisia. It means that whoever has power must find a way out of the deteriorating situation Tunisia is experiencing. Here lies the responsibility of the people who ran public affairs during the past two years, as they are the ones who led us to this situation in the first place. I would rather be unwise in a developed country than be wise in a deteriorating country.
Q: What’s your assessment of the government under Mehdi Jomaa?
We did not [originally] choose Mr. Mehdi Jomaa or his government. But, because some parties agreed on selecting him and his government, we have supported and continue to support him—despite the fact that others have not. This is because there is no alternative. We cannot have a vacuum, and if Mehdi Jomaa did not exist at the current moment, we would have to invent someone to put in his place.
Q: What do you make of the claims that Nidaa Tounes is a media phenomenon, rather than a party with popular support?
People stand against anyone who is successful. This is a characteristic of Arabs. When we find a man who is successful, we do not say he is talented and successful. Instead, we throw baseless accusations at him, calling him a thief and claiming that “I’m better than him,” and so on. Accusations against us follow this pattern. I would like to say that even if we didn’t poll as the leading party, we would still be facing such accusations.
June 15 is the second anniversary of the founding of the party. This is why we chose to hold the [party] conference on the same date. There are other parties that are 30 years old [the Republican Party] and 40 years old [the Ennahda party]. But the Ennahda party has 60,000 members, whereas our party has 110,000. We can talk about being a media phenomenon, but it remains true that our party is a phenomenon of numbers. Will these numbers evaporate on election day, or will they remain steady? Time will tell.
Q: Rachid Ghannouchi has said that the Ennahda Movement has left the government but has not lost its political clout—that it has left the executive branch but not the legislature. What influence has Ennahda had on Jomaa’s government?
We entered into a national dialogue, and as a result of this dialogue these problems have resulted. The national dialogue is not perfect; it has shortcomings, particularly in that it took responsibility for replacing the executive branch, but not the presidency or the Constituent Assembly. They remained the same. I would like to say that I am one of the people who called for the dissolution of the assembly on February 6, 2012—the day Chokri Belaid was assassinated. The reasoning behind my decision was based on the idea that the system we elected and put into place on October 23, 2011 failed. By this I don’t mean just the government, because while we changed the government, we did not change anything else. Although the Ennahda Movement gave up its government role, it remained within the Constituent Assembly. This means that the Ennahda Movement didn’t give up its position of authority, given that the Constituent Assembly still has oversight powers over the government. The Ennahda Movement has another means of control through their relative majority in the constituent assembly. That is why I think that while we are starting to move in the right direction and have made significant gains, we still have work to do. There is still a chance we may stumble between now and the election date.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.