Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Tunisian political parties gear up for parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26, and presidential elections one month later, Asharq Al-Awsat talks to former Tunisian prime minister and senior Islamist Ennahda Movement leader Ali Laarayedh about the political situation in the country.
Laarayedh was imprisoned under the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime, later serving as interior minister in the Hamadi Jebali government. He succeeded Jebali as prime minister in March 2013, heading the troika government led by the Ennahda, Ettakatol, and the Congress for the Republic parties. His government’s resignation on January 29, 2014, following a protracted political and security crisis in the country, handed over power to a caretaker technocratic government led by Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Laarayedh about the Islamist party’s experiences in power and Ennahda’s future political ambitions.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Ennahda’s leaders went from prisons to the government; you yourself became interior minister and then prime minister. Did you expect this?
Ali Laarayedh: I had great confidence in changing the situation in Tunisia and knew that the revolution was around the corner and that it would not slow down. However, what I did not envisage was that the situation would develop and accelerate at the rate it did to arrive at the 2011 revolution. I followed the popular and political movements around Tunisia, but in fact, we in Ennahda were not anticipating the success of the revolution in 2011. It was a surprise to Tunisians, and even to international powers who thought they were always able to predict such events.
Q: After decades without legal status, could you ever believe that Ennahda was able to rise so far as to form a government?
Because the revolution was sudden and fast, it benefited all Tunisians, including supporters of the Ennahda Movement. The revolution did not allow any political party to influence it. Therefore, we were not surprised by the results of the 2011 elections, and were concerned about the reactions of Tunisians to the Ennahda Movement, because the former regime tried to smear its reputation in many ways.
Q: Do you have any observations or reflections about the first Constituent Assembly elections held after the revolution?
I cannot hide the fact that some Tunisian political parties objected to the Ennahda Movement, and they focused on talk that the movement was religious in nature, which contravened the law [regulating political parties]. However, following the revolution, the Tunisian authorities decided to open the political field to all. We started after the revolution to work on dispelling any doubts about Ennahda and rearranged our priorities, and we received a great response from the Tunisian public after being banned from communicating with them for decades.
Q: Did you have any doubts about how the Tunisian public would react to your movement?
Let me assure you that the Tunisian people were much better than some political parties. They were prepared to listen to our views and policies directly from us, not from other parties. This is what allowed us to win the 2011 elections.
Q: Your experience in government was somewhat negative. Do you have any insight as to why? How do you evaluate Ennahda’s time at the head of the government?
The government experience can only be evaluated within the framework of its relationship to the democratic transition in Tunisia and the level of awareness of all parties of the difficulties of the particular political, social and economic phase we were passing through. We thus reached a number of conclusions, including the fact that [political] freedom caused some confusion among Tunisians. Not all political and social parties were ready for democracy, and all of them were used to resolve problems in an oppressive climate and manner. The period that preceded the revolution was difficult and full of conflicts between parties and within the parties themselves. We can say that the size of the aspirations was much greater than the size of the capabilities available in Tunisia.
Q: Does this mean that the Ennahda-led troika alliance was faultless?
I did not say we ruled without making mistakes, but it is important to point to the level of freedom after the revolution. This is the reason which affected security and stability, and it created a climate of unfair demands which sometimes led to chaos. Even then, I think that the governments which followed the elections of October 23, 2011, achieved a number of reforms related to taxes, the subsidy policy for consumer goods, security, and development in communities.
Q: But the criticisms directed at the Ennahda Movement were numerous and related to many issues. Are we to understand from your words that the rule of Ennahda and its partners was faultless?
This is not true, we faced a number of problems during our time in government, most importantly preserving liberty and adhering to the principle of respecting the law and state institutions. I think we succeeded in laying the foundations for these gains, which was acknowledged by others. We also faced the security problems with political nous and patience, and dealt with terrorism while adhering to the principles of human rights. We reformed the Interior Ministry and the work of security officers, and introduced training programs. We also amended a number of laws to allow the right to demonstrate. The biggest problem we faced, however, was the economic and social issue, because changing these conditions takes more time than was available to us.
Q: You have told us about the achievements of the troika, but did not mention the mistakes?
If there is criticism of Ennahda, it is that its leaders were not fully aware of the problems related to democratic transition. It became clear that this stage was much more complicated than we and our partners in government had envisioned. We thought the announcement of the results of the 2011 elections would immediately lead to political and security stability, and allow us to turn to resolving the difficult issues. This issue applied to us, and also to the opposition, because we were not trained in governance, and it is interesting that the public were better at applying the principles of democracy in facing these problems than the politicians were.
Q: But the party in government is the one totally responsible, and you cannot direct blame at the political elite, who followed the democratic transition with great attention—and even greater suspicion . . .
This is very sensible, and we in the Ennahda Movement are aware that after the 2011 election results we did not make more effort, and did not look hard for a formula to bring everyone in to share the burden of governance, and some parts of the opposition worked at hindering the government’s work and causing its failure. I want to point out here that everyone thinks that the party in government must do everything, which means that the mentality of the old regime is still around with some political leaders; while democracy relies on state institutions and decision-making is shared by many parties, including the media, civil institutions, public opinion, and others. Therefore, when you are in power, you do not think alone about making decisions and implementing them, but must think that part of the decision is in the hands of other parties.
Q: Is this an attempt by you to shirk responsibility following the flood of criticism which led to the departure of the Ennahda-led troika from power?
I admit that the awareness of the complexity of the social conditions has now increased, and that the issue of saving the country from the worsening reality needs a collective effort. The Ennahda leadership was aware of the difficulty from the start and decided in the end to make a civilized change in the government after instilling the principles of coexistence and peaceful transition of power.
Q: Many observers of the Tunisian revolution thought the Ennahda Movement made a bad decision by leaving power under the specter of an Egyptian scenario and the possibility of the same happening in Tunisia. Do you agree?
What is strange is that we have in Tunisia those who still point to the Egyptian scenario and wish it would happen here. Even then, we say there is another scenario which could find its way to Tunisia and push the country toward internal strife, through economic recession, the loss of security, and the threat to the course of the democratic transition. We had two options: hold on to legitimacy and the results of the elections, or complete the course of democratic transition; so, we chose the latter and preferred to abandon power rather than sacrifice the revolution which we all worked so hard for.
Q: After the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt, do you not think that the next target might be the Ennahda Movement?
The Ennahda Movement is essentially Tunisian, and it is becoming more rooted in its home ground and takes care of public affairs. Therefore, it is different from the Egyptian Brotherhood at the ideological level, and our concern is directed toward tackling the social issues the Tunisian people face.
Q: In your view, will the Ennahda Movement be able to return to power after its initial, unsuccessful experience?
There is no doubt the political map will change after the next elections, and I think the Tunisian people are now aware of the politicians and political parties and what they are capable of.
Q: Do you not think that some Tunisian voters will punish the troika itself, or do you think the punishment will be directed at opposition parties?
There is no doubt that some Tunisians will punish the troika alliance because they see it as responsible for failing to achieve their dreams. We know that many parties who rule during transition periods do not normally return to power in the first real elections. Many Tunisians targeted the Ennahda Movement before the revolution and after it, and cast doubts about its belief in democracy, and the movement was targeted by the media as an enemy of freedom; but all these suspicions have now disappeared and we have proved that the state did not interfere in people’s beliefs.
Q: Do you not think the issue of a consensus president proposed by Ennahda is an affront to democracy and the freedom to nominate and choose from a number of different candidates?
We think the next presidential and parliamentary elections are a major political issue which will affect the lives of Tunisians for [the next] five years and maybe more. We have information that the number of candidates [for the presidential elections] will be more than 10, and this in our view spreads the votes thinly, so we thought about the idea of holding discussions to agree on a figure that would be capable of winning more support and legitimacy, and who would be able to work under a climate of consensus. I can also say to our critics that Ennahda has not put forward a candidate and that we have found a positive response from political parties towards the idea.
Q: But the idea did not receive total support and some presidential candidates objected to it. Are there any reasons in your view for the objection or acceptance of the idea?
We expect some candidates may find themselves left outside the presidential post, while others may find it difficult to abandon their candidacy in the first or second rounds. But the proposal of the idea is more important than thinking about its possible outcome.
Q: What about the monopoly by both the Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes movements, and are there hidden plans to share power after the elections as suggested by some members of the opposition?
Opinion polls have put the two movements in the top positions on more than one occasion, which led to this conclusion, and which does not suit the other political parties. We want the other parties to unite and form alliances which have weight, because this is in the interest of a good political system. We want the arena to include more than one political power, and we want a number of political parties who can assure us about the future of democracy in Tunisia.
Q: And how do you read the next political map; do you foresee any fundamental changes?
I personally expect to see three major political forces and not a two-sided monopoly as presented by some political leaders. The Ennahda Movement, Nidaa Tounes and the Popular Front could represent these three forces.
Q: Will we see Ennahda in government again, and what percentage are you aiming for in the next parliamentary elections?
It is risky to estimate the size of the political parties at this stage. Political activities are continuing and they may result in many political alliances in the next few months. I think that opinion polls are largely true; the Ennahda Movement and other parties have a wide and stable electoral base, but the fear today comes from the possibility of Tunisians staying away from the elections, and this is a danger for us all. The estimates say that around 40 percent of Tunisian voters are still undecided. My personal expectation is that the turnout in the next elections will be important, and that Tunisians will ignore calls by some parties, such as Hizb El-Tahrir, to boycott the elections. Most parties support participation regardless of who may win, which is very positive. We expect a collective enthusiasm will ensure the success of the elections, as well as active participation, and to give votes to those who actually deserve them.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.