Beji Caid Essebsi interview: The Tunisian leader of the Nidaa Touness party on why the Islamists must go.

Why Tunisia’s Islamists Must Go

Why Tunisia’s Islamists Must Go

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 12 2013 8:49 PM

“They Are Incompetent”

Tunisia’s secular opposition leader Beji Caid Essebsi on why the Islamists must go.

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What about the security situation? Two secular political leaders were assassinated this year. Last year, there was an attack on the U.S. Embassy.

That is an example of the lack of security. We can just say that there is no security.

Why isn't there any security?


Because the Islamists don't have experience being in power. They are incompetent and have been in favor of radical Islamist movements. They know these radicals have committed crimes in the past, but they have never prosecuted them. Tunisia never knew political crimes like this. The last political assassinations occurred in 1952 and 1953.

But you've had two this year.

Three. First, there was Chokri Belaid. The second was Mohamed Brahmi. But even before him, there was Lotfi Nagheth.

He was a secular politician?

A representative of our Nidaa Touness [party] down south.

Why did they [target] these people?

Because they were popular leaders who were against the Islamist movement.

Are there Islamist training camps in Tunisia?

Not anymore. Before, the jihadists were trained in Tunisia, but now the security forces are fighting them in the Chambi mountains near Algeria.

So Ennahdha decided to fight them?

Yes. Now the government has decided to call Ansar al-Sharia [a radical Islamist party] terrorists and to fight them. ... The army, the police, the national guard have had great success in fighting them. But there have been many victims.

There was video of [Rachid] Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party, speaking with the Salifists, telling them just to be patient.

That's true. But now he understands that he has to combat them or else his government will be overwhelmed.

They attacked the U.S. Embassy, right?

The attack was a popular movement led by the Salifists. In my opinion, the government didn't react in time to prevent what happened. It was unacceptable. This had never happened in Tunisia.

Again, is it because the government is friendly with the Salafists?

Yes. They allowed tens of thousands of people to [gather] around the embassy and then they sent very little police force. The police were outnumbered by the Salifists, who went inside the embassy and trashed it.

If there is an election, will your party do well?

I hope. We will not have elections for one year.

One year? What will happen to this country if you wait one year?

If we want to have elections with international standards, we first have to create an independent commission to supervise these elections. ... Otherwise, we cannot accept that these elections will be adequately prepared for by the government.

How can you let your economic crisis go on while the politicians prepare for an election for one year?

We used to have an independent commission, which took care of the last election [in 2011], but [the Islamist government]
made sure to dissolve it. Now we need a new one, which is not ready.

What else did they do?

Bad things. First, they made a government with 70 ministers—even in China this is not the case. Secondly, they are incompetent. If we are demanding the dissolution of this government, it's not because they belong to the Ennahdha party—it's because they are incompetent. The way they have been running the country has been disastrous.

The security situation is bad, the financial situation is bad. What's going to happen if you wait another year?

It's for the people. I said right away [that] we need to name a prime minister and right away we need to construct a new government to create a psychological shock. We need to create a credible government that will eventually help change the situation.

I've heard that Tunisia is considered the one country where the Arab Spring could succeed.

Arab Spring is the creation of the G-8. At [the 2011 Group of Eight meeting in] Deauville, [France,] when I was prime minister, I was invited to speak and I said there is no Arab Spring—only the start of a Tunisian Spring. For it to become [an] Arab Spring, it needs to succeed in Tunisia. We have an educated population; we have liberated women. We have a large middle class. The only thing that remains [to be done] is sufficient economic development. I said if you help us with [foreign] investments to catch up, then maybe Tunisia will succeed in having a democratic governance. But this hasn't happened. So today we cannot say we have succeeded with the democratic process. But this can still happen if we have good support.

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.