Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat—As a leading member of Tunisia’s former Troika government, Democratic Forum of Labor and Liberties (Ettakatol) party leader Mustafa Ben Jaafar finds himself in a difficult position as his country prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections later this year. On the one hand, the Troika government, led by the Islamist Ennahda Movement, had become widely unpopular by the time it was forced to step aside to alleviate growing social and political tensions in Tunisia. On the other hand, however, since the 2011 elections Ben Jaafar has served as the president of the National Constituent Assembly—a body that has achieved marked success in steering Tunisia through its difficult transition phase.
Ben Jaafar took the time to speak with Asharq Al-Awsat while he was in Paris, telling us that he hopes to be a “consensus candidate” for the presidency.
Asharq Al-Awsat: According to Ali Laarayedh, the last Tunisian prime minister and an Ennahda member, Ennahda is looking for a consensus candidate. Is this move meant to exclude Beji Caid El-Sebsi, the head of Nidaa Tounes, who has not attempted to hide his desire to run for the presidency?
Mustafa Ben Jaafar: I understood from this statement that Ennahda would not present its own presidential candidate. But the issue isn’t finalized yet, even within the movement. It is natural for a party of this size to have internal currents interested in supporting their own candidate in order to have a president with their party’s platform and to defend its ideas and programs. However, Ennahda’s choice to support a consensus candidate means that it has learned a lesson from managing public affairs. Is this move because of Beji Caid El-Sebsi? I don’t think so.
Q: Could you be a consensus candidate?
It would be an honor for me if this happened, especially if my party endorsed me for the presidential elections when the National Constituent Assembly convenes this August.
Q: I’d be willing to bet that your party will submit your nomination for the presidency . . .
I think there is momentum within the party towards that position, since my candidacy could only benefit the party, even if we lost. Any credible party believes that, whatever the case, participation has its benefits. So if the circumstances lead to a consensus candidate it would be a great thing, since the coming period needs consensus, as I told the government and the head of state.
Q: How do you plan to deal with the criticisms that your policies are no different to those of the Ennahda movement when it was in power, especially given that you served as president of the Constituent Assembly at that time?
Yes, it is a difficult comparison, but logic will eventually prevail. The coalition government is not charged with implementing social and economic programs but with managing the transitional period, ratifying the constitution and organizing presidential and legislative elections. We were optimistic that the transitional stage would only last a year, but certain events have prolonged it to three years.
Q: If we could turn to the coming parliamentary elections in October: Has Ettakatol formed any alliances with other parties in the run up to the elections?
We can’t predict what will happen in the next election. With some small exceptions, the prevailing idea for all parties is that what Tunisia needs today is a national unity government. This means that the opportunities for alliances will be easier in the coming state compared to the previous one. Given the security situation, the economic difficulties, the events in Libya and the structural reform Tunisia needs to undertake, what we need is unity—or, at the very least, harmony. So I see a need to form a wide and deep alliance that doesn’t exclude anyone who wants to build a democratic Tunisia.
Q: Isn’t it better to discuss alliances before the elections, not after?
Regarding this thorny question, I think that the main focus of the upcoming elections will be economic and social issues. Thus, we’re looking to bring together the largest democratic socialist force possible to crystallize an economic and social program. So far, we have four parties working together, but the door is open for more to join.
Q: Are you presenting any joint candidates, or is it simply shared politics?
We have not gone into those details. After weeks of discussion, we have drawn our major political lines, and we’ve agreed to coordinate our efforts. Perhaps we will reach a decision on a unified or consensus candidate [for the presidency], or even share political circles. The forms of coordination are not yet entirely clear.
Q: Perhaps the problem lies in the system of proportional voting . . .
Of course, the electoral system encourages parties to remain separate. But the political message is to show Tunisian society there are alternative programs and policies to those offered by the major parties, at least at the level of current opinion polls. This is an important message. First, because it proposes a credible alternative and, second, it raises the issue of forces capable of bringing about a better balance to the political scene. In the latter situation, such a force could potentially serve as a mediator in the event of tensions and power plays between parties.
Q: What is your assessment of the Ennahda-led coalition government that was formed following the 2011 elections, especially now that it has stepped down?
First, we must remember that this coalition began as a way to deal with the results of the 2011 elections. There was no alternative to the alliance of the Ennahda Movement and the [Congress for the Republic (CPR)] party of President [Moncef] Marzouki. The results, and what happened to the parties, forced us to make this choice, and it required us to manage the state during a difficult transition, given the problems Tunisia experienced in 2011.
We were convinced that the situation would be difficult, and that it would be impossible for any party—even if it had a majority—to govern by itself, so we sought to form the largest coalition of parties possible. Unfortunately, when we reached out, we found resistance from certain parties, particularly from the former opposition and parties that were fighting against [former President Zine El-Abidine] Ben Ali in defense of freedom and democracy. Thus, the coalition that emerged was an expression of the current need. The fact is that the three parties that formed the coalition were familiar with each other and wove an alliance from their pre-revolution connections. We had worked for five years in the October 17 Freedoms Commission. Prof. Ali Laarayedh and Dr. Ziad Dolaty were secretly working with us, as well as some figures from the Ennahda Movement. So we were in constant communication and regularly issued important documents.
Q: Could we return to the question about your assessment of government action under the flag of the tripartite coalition?
As a whole governance was positive, because in politics it’s the results that matter.
Q: How is it possible to talk about positive results while the opposition fights against you, and while the government was forced to resign because of rising disapproval from both the people and political circles? How is it possible to talk about success?
I’m talking about Tunisia in general, and not only the experience of the government. The goal of the coalition was, as I mentioned, to manage the transitional period with the lowest possible costs. And in this regard, the successive governments [of Hamadi Jebali and then of Ali Laarayedh] succeeded in taking important steps in the transitional phase and ratifying the constitution. I think that is a success. Conversely, it is completely natural for the opposition to call for the government’s failure a mere week after its formation. This is the role of the opposition, although its performance was somewhat exaggerated.
I won’t hide that I announced that the transitional phase would not take the traditional form of a democracy and that there would be disputes between the government and the opposition. We need to work together to overcome many obstacles. There were objections to what I said, and we then entered a traditional scenario, where the government rules and the opposition attacks. Yet despite all the difficulties and dangerous events Tunisia has experienced, particularly the political assassinations and acts of terrorism caused by domestic tension, there is consensus today that Tunisia successfully entered a transitional stage.
This is, in my view, a correct assessment, but within that stage, it is possible to ask if this is our best performance. Perhaps the answer is no. The reasons, I think, are clear. The first reason our performance is not the best is because our politicians lack sufficient experience in managing state affairs, since most were either behind bars or in the opposition. They had been targeted since before the previous government. Moreover, there was the added difficulty of successfully working together. Those who had just come into power, in particular, brought with them different ideas and different social projects, and the process of conducting state affairs was not easy at the time.
Q: Who benefited, politically, from the coalition? What do you think of those who believe that you worked for the benefit of Ennahda, which certainly benefited from the coalition?
The main beneficiary is Tunisia, because the transitional phase achieved its goals. We even went further than that, if you look at the success of putting the coming elections under independent management in order to be confident in the results.
Q: I want to return to the previous question: Did Ennahda not lean on Ettakatol and the CPR? Were you partners in governing or were the decisions not in your hands?
The parties and politicians who refused to enter the coalition saw us as the root of the problem. If we had left Ennahda by itself it would have collapsed after a month, and of course the opposition would reap the benefits of that failure. This criticism would be possible in a normal, stable situation, with a solid foundation of democracy. But the fact is that we were in a transitional stage, and the option was either success or failure and chaos.
Q: But most people find those arguments unconvincing or difficult to understand . . .
Today, those who speak about this topic understand this type of thinking. But at the time, they did not accept that a democratic progressive party could ally with an Islamist party. However, the fact is this approach was not difficult to understand for those who banded together over the years in response to the authoritarian regime. The various political and intellectual families met, and connections developed between them. This is the experience of October 17, which opened the door and facilitated the coalition. Naturally, those who were not pleased with what we had done were betting on the failure of the government—and the collapse of the party that won by a high degree. In the first legislative elections, Ennahda won 90 seats, while the party directly after that won only 29 representatives, and we took only 20. Because of this, they returned to the bloc in order to confront Ennahda. Those who were sensible understood that the bloc—despite the relatively modest size of its parliamentary presence—had an instrumental role in the government and had a large effect on its options, policies and decisions.
Q: What is your assessment of the performance of Mehdi Jomaa’s government that came in after the troika government stepped aside?
It is difficult to judge. What is important is that its presence contributed to the reduction of tensions between the parties. We have also moved away from overly politicized controversies. This is important at this stage, and his government is doing what it can. We see Mr. Jomaa and his ministers actively working at home and abroad to mobilize support for Tunisia. However, we know that the results will take time and not appear immediately.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.