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Hafedh Caid Essebsi: Tunisia's presidential elections will be every man for himself

Nidaa Tounes leader tells MEE of 'national unity' government's challenges, and says gloves will be off in upcoming polls
'I will not swim against the tide of Nidaa Tounes,' Hafedh Caid Essebsi told MEE about Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s future (AFP)

TUNIS - It has been two and a half years since Hafedh Caid Essebsi, 57, son of President Beji Caid Essebsi, took over the Nidaa Tounes party's leadership as executive director.

His appointment at the Sousse congress in January 2016 split the party. Several founding members chose to set up their own parties, and the crisis became entrenched within Nidaa Tounes, suggesting the party might fail to muster enough candidates to run in the 2018 municipal elections.

In the end, Nidaa candidates stood in 345 of 350 municipalities but won only 20.8 percent of the vote, behind Ennahdha on 28.6 percent and independent candidates, who collectively obtained 32.2 percent.

The strong showing of independents and the low turnout - about 34 percent - suggest Tunisians are already tired of party politics in post-revolution Tunisia.

But Hafedh Caid Essebsi, now a veteran of political intrigue, is not beaten yet, and remains one of Tunisia's most influential political figures. 

Middle East Eye spoke to him about the results, the difficulties of the national unity government established by the Carthage Agreement, and next year's presidential elections.

Beji Caid Essebsi greets his son before signing documents defining plans for a national unity government in July 2016 (AFP)

Middle East Eye: Nidaa Tounes was relegated to third place in the 6 May municipal elections. What's your assessment?

Hafedh Caid Essebsi: First of all, I would like to point out that despite the shortcomings noted during the campaign and on voting day, these municipal elections were an important achievement for Tunisia's democratic transition process.

For Nidaa, the results were fairly satisfactory, despite several challenges: first, the problems stemming from a complex electoral law and the advantages it gives to independent lists at the expense of political parties, which are constrained by restrictive provisions.

The Independent High Authority for Elections [ISIE] must be reviewed to allow democratic and transparent polling, since that body cannot be both judge and jury at the same time. It is biased.

Lastly, the High Independent Authority of the Audiovisual Commission (HAICA) and the ISIE all but prevented the media from adequately covering the event, which certainly can partly account for the low turnout.

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Several international observers, including the commission mandated by the EU, have also pointed this out.

At Nidaa Tounes, we feel we have risen to the challenge quite successfully, given our party's experience over the past two years and the number of competing political groups that have emerged.

Not to mention the smear campaigns unleashed against Nidaa Tounes and myself, whose outright goal was to weaken the party and hurt me personally in order to oust me.

MEE: Could the 66.3 percent abstention rate and the independent lists' winning majority possibly be a message to political parties?

HCE: The result we got was certainly below what we wanted. Our voters and supporters' low turnout demonstrates their dissatisfaction with a number of tough decisions they, unfortunately, have not yet come to terms with - besides the crisis the country is currently facing.

Nevertheless, this is still quite an honourable result for an ideological party that today has been in existence for almost 45 years and has continued to look to religious discourse, via some imams in a number of mosques it can always count on.

Nidaa Tounes was chastised for a negative record in government, even though this is not a Nidaa Tounes cabinet but rather a national unity government, with extensive representation from Ennahdha and other parties.

We have been handed a situation that is also the product of the six governments in charge before us. We found the state coffers empty. The economic crisis has therefore also contributed to the rejection of our policies. It's going to take some time for it to clear up.

Ballot boxes are opened at a polling station on 6 May (AFP)

MEE: In a press release and video, you reported violations during the vote. Yet, in so doing, you yourself violated the mandatory electoral silence period on polling day. Isn't that contradictory?

HCE: Several irregularities were recorded during the election campaign, and complaints have been filed with the ISIE.

As for the video on social networks, the ISIE had announced even before the campaign started that broadcasts found on social networks were exempt. Several other parties and independents kept using social networks, including on election day.

MEE: You often talk about being attacked in the media and by political parties. Why are you so divisive?

HCE: It's not just that I am my father's son. It is also rooted in Tunisia's history. Before the revolution, president [Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali's associates had given a very negative image. I was unwittingly saddled with that bad image.

MEE: Then again, many resignations ensued after you took charge...

HCE: When the party had a president, I was already among those who wanted Nidaa Tounes to organise an elective congress.

The resigning members [those who left the party after the Sousse congress] had turned that down. Then came the 2014 elections, which did not provide us with the opportunity to actually implement our platform because we had to make allowances for other political parties.

We wanted to form a government without the Ennahdha party, and one of the opposition parties, the Popular Front, refused to join the administration.

Another party, Afek Tounes, refused to participate in government without Ennahdha.

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We therefore had to call on former head of government Habib Essid for the appointment of a second government, which certainly did not please all Nidaa Tounes supporters. It was a necessary step, though.

MEE: Is an elective congress still scheduled for Nidaa Tounes?

HCE: Today, our pressing objective is to complete the second phase of the municipal elections, namely when alliances are formed with a view to gain the highest possible number of mayoral presidencies. Municipal councils will meet around mid-June.

Once this is completed, we will, of course, move on to an elective and democratic convention. It will begin with elections at grassroots, then regional levels, and the national convention will round off the process.

MEE: Can the municipal elections results challenge your already controversial leadership among Nidaa members?

HCE: The municipal elections results confirmed Nidaa Tounes's effective presence throughout the nation and its fairly robust electoral base.

Today, ours is the leader of modern and progressive parties, and we are in a position of ensuring stability and political balance vis-a-vis the Islamists.

As far as I am concerned, these election results have strengthened my position within the party, as it has conferred on Nidaa Tounes and myself legitimacy at the ballot box.

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MEE: We see a disagreement already bristling with Ennahdha over the Tunis town hall. Does this betray a rift with your partner in government?

HCE: It is up to each of us to defend our positions in order to win this emblematic municipality's presidency.

The Tunisian people elected Nidaa Tounes as the first party in 2014, with 86 seats in the national assembly. In the interest of the country and its stability, we have made a great concession by accepting the president's initiative to form a national unity government.

This has allowed other political parties, whether represented or not in parliament, to be part of this government, while we are currently perceived as solely responsible for this government's results.

Souad Abderrahim, the Ennahdha party's candidate, came out on top in the Tunisian capital's municipal elections and is well placed to become Tunis's future mayor (AFP)

MEE: This means you do not intend, within municipalities, to set up with Ennahdha an alliance of the kind you struck within the government?

HCE: Not at all. The negotiations for municipalities will not be the same as for the government. Everyone will be looking after number one to get the maximum number of municipality presidents... I can't see us reaching genuine common ground.

The game for us is also to win the next battle - namely, secure the maximum number of municipality presidencies. Indeed, at local elections, the real power is at stake. Two-thirds of independent lists were made up of former Nidaists, or others in close alignment with Nidaa. We'll do our best to bring them together.

MEE: Will a new political dynamic take hold during the municipal elections?

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HCE: Municipal work consists of taking an interest in citizens' lives, not in boring them with our political party troubles. This is the first time we've had democratic municipal elections in Tunisia. They have completed the rooting of the democratic process in Tunisian political life.

MEE: In your opinion, can there be room for a third way, alongside the two major parties, like La Republique En Marche in France, for example?

HCE: The people who did turn up eventually voted massively in favour of Nidaa and Ennahdha. Tunisia's specificity is different from other countries: Tunisians always vote for parties.

Will Beji Cai Essebsi stand again in the 2019 presidential election? (AFP)

MEE: So, what about 2019? Will you definitively distance yourself from the Ennahdha party?

HCE: 2019 is a year and a half away. At that point, it will be every man for himself.

Our current relationship is essentially based on the country's best interest. It forces us to coexist and cohabit in the same government but also find common ground in parliament - both to pass the main bills and make sure we don't end up in a deadlock.

As a result, the municipal elections made it clear we do remain the two main political parties in an ongoing competition to push through two different political and societal projects.

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MEE: Regarding this new image, what do you think of Ennahdha's new ideological label? It calls itself “Muslim democratic”, no longer “Islamist”, does it not?

HCE: I hope that's true. The fact that Mr Ghannouchi wears a tie is a step forward: it goes to show they are trying harder to reach out to us than we are stretching ourselves out towards them. I urge other Ennahdha members to do so.

Rached Ghannouchi, wearing a tie (AFP)

MEE: Who will be your candidate in the 2019 presidential election?

HCE: That is for our congress to decide, but we will give priority to the president if he wishes to stand for re-election.

MEE: Does he?

HCE: I honestly don't know.

MEE: Would you consider running?

HCE: Not at this point. I am currently trying to meet the government's objectives and see to it that the Nidaa elective congress does take place.

MEE: How will you set about getting ready for the 2019 legislative elections?

HCE: The same way we managed to prepare the municipal elections. The context will be somewhat different, though, given that the legislative elections will be held after our congress convention.

Of course, the selection of the future candidates for the legislative elections will be made after an internal party consultation at national level.

MEE: What about the negotiations on the Carthage II Agreement?

HCE: We are in the process of drafting a new political, economic and social action plan, obliging all Carthage pact members – and the government as well – to initiate major urgent economic reforms to foster economic recovery and reinvigorate the Tunisian people with confidence and hope.

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We will be talking on points of economic divergence, so as to continue on solid ground.

Moreover, it should be noted that Nidaa is not Ennahdha's sole partner. 

MEE: What do you think of Youssef Chahed? You have had conflicting positions at times. Do you still believe he should resign from government?

HCE: Youssef Chahed is one among our young leaders who parted with al-Joumhouri's party and joined Nidaa Tounes in 2013. He had the chance to be appointed by the party's founding president as chairman of the Thirteen Commission, whose mission was to organise the Sousse constituent congress and ensure its success.

This congress allowed me to be elected as the party's first leader and legal representative.

Regarding his appointment as head of the national unity government, he was nominated following the head of state's move with the Carthage pact and the national unity government.

Youssef Chahed's continuance or departure is directly dependent on the Carthage pact signatory parties, not only on Nidaa Tounes or myself.

I don't intend to swim against Nidaa Tounes's tide. I am not about to isolate myself, nor impose my vision, either.

This is an edited translation of the original French.

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