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.
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.