London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Tunisia finds itself in the midst of an escalating political and security crisis following the assassination of secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi on July 25, the second killing of an opposition leader this year. The Islamist-dominated government in Tunis has been subject to increasing calls to step down, while the Constitutional Assembly has been dissolved.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi spoke about the political and security crisis in the country, the threat of terrorism and the escalating calls for the dissolution of government.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Ennahda issued a statement earlier this week proposing to expand the political base of rule in Tunisia. Why have you taken this decision now? Is this in response to the escalating political and security crisis in the country, or was this initiative already in the pipeline?
Rachid Ghannouchi: We said that we are open to all proposals that aim to protect the democratic process in Tunisia, particularly as our country is passing through difficult circumstances which require that we exert all of our effort to confront terrorism. Within this framework, and in order to serve the national interest, we are extending our hands to everybody as part of looking for a way out of this transitional phase for Tunisia.
Q: What is your estimation of the chances of achieving this broad-based national government and diversifying the country’s cabinet?
The government today is not composed of a single party; it is formed from three parties and they occupy half the cabinet seats, the other half are held by independent figures and technocrats. We are prepared to open the government to all competencies. Since the government’s formation, we have worked to expand its base beyond these three parties, securing a broader base with new competencies.
Q: Ennahda is now talking about a government with broader competencies, but is it not true that Ennahda spurned a vital opportunity provided by former prime minister Hamadi Jabali to achieve this precise form of technocratic government?
We do not believe in replacing a political government with a government of technocrats. Otherwise, why did we hold elections in the first place if this is not the framework for deciding who is in power? In addition to this, the current government of Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, as was the case with the Jebali government, is made up of different competencies, including those affiliated and not affiliated to political parties.
Q: You talk about a government of competencies; however, many of the different political forces in the country are of the view that what is taking place in Tunisia today is the result of government incompetence and security weakness. How do you respond to such accusations?
These are exploitative reactions to the difficult circumstances that the country is going through. Terrorism is not a phenomenon unique to Tunisia; it is an international phenomenon that is present in the strongest and most secure states. All the superpowers have been subject to harmful [terrorist] strikes and no official there has come out following the events to call for the dissolution of parliament or government. People are supposed to come together and unify during times of crisis, not the opposite. There is an attempt to politically extort the government by exploiting these events. This includes those who exploited the blood of Chokri Belaid to achieve political goals that they had failed to implement via the ballot box. Rather than seeing calls to confront and address this terrorism problem, we have heard calls for the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the government. In fact, the only thing left for them to call for is the prosecution of the Ennahda movement! Those who are making such calls believe that the Egyptian scenario could play out in Tunisia, but they fail to understand that the scenes of bloodshed have caused the Tunisian people to hate and avoid such a scenario. We are open to dialogue. We will not reject any proposal, particularly as Tunisia is in the process of confronting this dangerous terrorism problem.
Q: There have been a number of reports and claims that what is happening in Tunisia is not just terrorism, but that it is being backed by some political forces on the scene. What is your view?
Investigations have revealed that terrorist elements are embroiled in these operations, but who is behind them? Are they being backed by national or international intelligence services that do not want to see the transitional phase in Tunisia succeed? This remains unclear.
Whenever Tunisia approaches a crowning moment, we see the situation blow up. For example, not much time remains until the formation of the Election High Commission, and this comes after we have narrowed down 900 prospective members to eight members [of the High Commission], leaving just one to be chosen. Therefore, the recent events came to overturn this process. Rather than the opposition unifying their positions towards this threat, they have instead called for the dissolution of the constituent assembly and the government, in other words increasing the threat of terrorism. As a democratic state, we should not be sending a message that terrorism can force us to change our agenda. The opposition are sending a message to the terrorists that will only strengthen their belief in their own ability to destroy state institutions.
Q: Many people have drawn parallels between prime minister Ali Laarayedh’s statement, in which he seemed to challenge the terrorists and the subsequent attack on the soldiers in Mount Charbel killing eight, with many viewing this attack as a direct response to the premier’s speech. Do you agree with this interpretation of events? Do you think this operation had been planned in advance?
There can be no doubt that there was advanced planning; however, its timing may have been tied to this speech. I am certain that terrorism will not succeed in Tunisia because the people are united and oppose violence. The Tunisian people are peaceful, therefore the terrorists will only succeed in pushing the Tunisian people to unite and stand together with the institutions of the state. We are reassured that Tunisia’s military and security apparatus are well-trained and enjoy the full support of the Tunisian people who are committed to national security and completing the course [of the revolution]. All of the terrorists’ objectives and goals will break on the unity of Tunisian security, military, and people.
Q: The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) has rushed to call for the dissolution of the government against the backdrop of the recent violence and unrest. What’s your view of this move, particularly given that the government and UGTT had reached a state of relative cooperation in the recent period?
There are influential political radicals who are trying to recruit the UGTT for the benefit of extremist communist fronts, however we believe that they will fail in dragging the UGTT out of its role in defending the workers and transforming the organization into a spearhead for the opposition. We are conducting dialoguing with the UGTT and its secretary-general Mr. Hussein Abbasi and we believe that reason and the spirit of solidarity will triumph over all.