TUNIS, Tunisia—At 87, Beji Caid Essebsi is the leading voice of the secular opposition in Tunisia and head of the Nidaa Touness party. As Tunisia's economy and security situation deteriorate, he and other politicians are struggling this week to agree on a new government to take over from the Islamist-led government. Lally Weymouth spoke to Essebsi on Wednesday in Tunis. Excerpts:
Lally Weymouth: National dialogue has been underway to seek a technocrat as prime minister who would arrange for elections to be held. It has taken months, and there is no prime minister.
Beji Caid Essebsi: The problem is that the dialogue has 23 parties which are very different and which don't have the same political ideologies.
What will happen?
We are in a post-revolutionary period. We need to reach an agreement [on a prime minister] by consensus. ... We elected a constituent assembly with the objective of drafting a constitution in a period of one year. But now the constituent assembly is in its third year, the constitution is not done, and they no longer have any legitimacy.
Reportedly, you want to become president?
It's not forbidden to participate in presidential elections. The president is elected by the public. If, on the day of presidential elections, I feel that I am up to such a function, then I can participate. I am for the presidential system.
Which is not the current Tunisian system?
Not at the moment. We had experience with a presidential system with [Tunisia's first president, Habib] Bourguiba. But there was no [participation].
How do you think [the political party] Ennahdha has done running Tunisia? What are your criticisms of them? ... What is the difference between your party and them?
There are ideological differences. They are for a religious state, and we are for a civil state. They have tried in the constitution to change the structure of the society. They want an Islamic society, and we are against that.
Like the Muslim Brotherhood?
Yes, exactly. But they haven't succeeded—civil society stopped the process. For example, they wanted to introduce sharia as the source of law. We are against that. They also tried to change the status of women and make them complementary [rather than equal]. And we don't accept that.
We protested and they backed off on that. We don't know yet because the constitution is not yet adopted. So the scenarios are all open.
Didn't they say it was a crime to attack the "sacred values" of the state?
They introduced Article 141, which said that Islam is the religion of the state. We are against that—we said that we cannot accept that Tunisia will be a religious state. They backed down on this.
But you don't know because there is no final [constitution] draft. When will the final draft be done?
That's the problem of the constituent assembly.
That is why you want to get rid of the constituent assembly?
The constituent assembly was elected for one year, and it has been there three years. They were elected for the particular objective of drafting the constitution, and they didn't do it, so their time is up. Finally, we must appoint a prime minister.
Do you really think there will be a prime minister by Saturday?
If it were [up to] me, we would have had one three months ago.
Ennahdha wants guarantees before stepping down—that they won't be prosecuted, right?
Yes, but we can't give guarantees. Nobody can give them serious guarantees. It's justice that guarantees impunity or condemnation.
But they won't leave office without guarantees, right?
They have to leave.
Aren't they afraid of being prosecuted for crimes and terrorism?
They are scared because of what happened during their time, but nonetheless we cannot give them any guarantees [of immunity]. The only guarantee is that there will be a process of justice.
Why would they leave office if they don't get guarantees?
Because they didn't succeed in running the state. And because they have put Tunisia in an unprecedented state—without a social plan, an economic plan, without a security plan.