Abir Moussi emerges in Tunisia’s opinion polls as she breaks with political order

The programme of the Free Destourian Party focuses on adjusting financial imbalances, supporting the national currency and boosting national production.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Challenging the system. Abir Moussi, leader of the Free Destourian Party. (Courtesy of PDL)
Challenging the system. Abir Moussi, leader of the Free Destourian Party. (Courtesy of PDL)

With parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for late this year in Tunisia, the Free Destourian Party and Abir Moussi, the 43-year-old lawyer leading it, have become serious contenders.

An opinion poll conducted by the Sigma Conseil polling agency indicated that the Free Destourian Party (PDL) was fourth among political parties with 9.9% support of respondents. Moussi, the party’s outspoken leader, was third among potential presidential candidates, at 12.4%. Other polls placed her and her party even higher.

The Arab Weekly met with Moussi to learn about her views and those of her party, the political scene in Tunisia and the PDL’s prospects and election programme.

Moussi said the growing interest in the PDL is a serious trend due to two factors: the party’s unwavering commitment to its principles despite pressure and intimidation and the party’s insistence on challenging the existing political order and giving Tunisians who are sceptical of the political establishment hope of a way out of the country’s many predicaments.

Moussi said she is undaunted by criticism levelled at her as fighting an old guard battle aimed at resurrecting the pre-2011 political order. She said many of the critics are “in a state of confusion and bewilderment as some of them continue to play on falsehoods and fake news. We are principled in our positions and programmes but our opponents are trying to mislead public opinion into seeing the [PDL] as an exclusionist political entity.”

The former-ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally, in which Moussi had the position of deputy secretary-general, was banned in 2011 by a court ruling after the removal of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Moussi was one of the few who dared to challenge that ruling in court.

Moussi said her party was ready to “accept every political partnership that may contribute to the creation of a national project capable of leading Tunisia to a better future but we strongly reject any partnership that may harm the country and its people.”

She did not mince words about the type of partnerships she would reject.

“The political component to which I am referring,” she said, “is no other than the Islamist party Ennahda that has embraced, since its inception, the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother organisation of all Islamists.

“The embrace of the radical ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood was acclaimed by Ennahda’s leaders before they started working on improving their image at home and abroad by denying their ties to the Muslim Brotherhood to have a hold on Tunisia. Now, we see them relying on mere fallacies and distortions to promote their group as a civil party.”

Moussi blamed Islamists for violence before and after the 2011 uprising that toppled Ben Ali.

She said when Ennahda’s leaders returned from exile, they tried to directly control the state by enacting a law that excluded Destourians, who come from the ruling parties of Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba and his successor, Ben Ali, from taking part in drafting the constitution. This, Moussi said, made it clear that Islamists were the first to use exclusion, thinking that would uproot a national force that had been anchored in the country’s political tradition for about 100 years.

Moussi noted that 2011-13, when Islamists led the government, was marked by violent jihadist activities.

“We saw in their era bloody attacks and political assassinations and we witnessed the slaughter of soldiers and security forces as well as an escalation in terrorist attacks. We have also seen black flags raised in different parts of the country accompanied by calls for the suppression of individual freedoms and public rights,” she said.

“It was a dark period during which radicals such as Ansar al-Sharia emerged and controlled mosques to recruit young people and send them to Syria, Iraq and other hotbeds of tension.”

Moussi accused Ennahda-led governments of ineptitude and mismanagement, leading to a rapid deterioration of the country’s economic situation. “They almost mortgaged the country and plunged Tunisia into debt by relying exclusively on foreign loans and mismanaging our national resources,” she said.

The grim assessment led Moussi to assert that “the basic idea is to take them out of the political scene because of the harm they caused and because of our need to search for effective solutions that may allow Tunisia to navigate this critical juncture.”

The PDL suggests a legal ban on mixing religion and politics that would make any Islamist party illegal. She said she considers this achievable but did not say how the PDL would deal with Islamists in parliament if both Ennahda and PDL candidates are elected to the legislature.

For now, Moussi said she wants Ennahda held accountable. “We want judicial accountability for all the wrongs that were committed against Tunisia from 2011 till today and accountability might lead to a ban,” she said. “Of course, we do not advocate excluding them based on a political decision. We demand a fair judicial process that would lead to the implementation of a court’s order. ”

Moussi steered away from suggestions of a crackdown that would victimise Islamists, as happened under Ben Ali.

“We want a public trial to examine evidence and facts,” she said, pointing out that cases involving Ennahda were being examined by Tunisian courts, including allegations of an Islamist secret apparatus and of complicity in political assassinations as well as the use of violence in Siliana in November 2012.

On the United States’ possible designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organisation, Moussi said: “It would be much better to decide here in Tunisia whether to ban the movement or not regardless of the ongoing shift in international positions.”

She said, though, that Washington’s position is “further confirmation of what we have already said about the seriousness of the threat that this organisation represents.”

Moussi’s beliefs, particularly, regarding political Islam, seek inspiration from the ideas of Bourguiba, who viewed Islamists as “obscurantists” with an ideology that planted the seeds of ignorance and poverty and the abolition of women’s rights.

Moussi said the revolutionary doctrines that swept the country after 2011 have been discredited. “We are not part of this ‘Arab spring’s’ network and are not involved in the political system that has given it birth,” said Moussi. “We are a nationalist party as large as life with nearly 100 years of existence.”

“We did not come from abroad with foreign funding and a foreign agenda,” she added.

Moussi heaped scorn on secularist leaders who, swayed by realpolitik, have struck alliances with Islamists to shore up power and engineered a political system that scatters state power among the parliament, the government cabinet and the presidency.

She said: “The core of the crisis lies in the political system that weakens the executive power of the president and fans infighting between power centres.”

The constitution, drafted under a government and legislative body dominated by Ennahda, arguably lends more power to the prime minister than to the president and even more power to parliament. The system has resulted in eight governments since 2011, all of which were unable to solve the country’s high inflation and unemployment rates and widening debt.

Moussi insisted that “the ruling system must be changed to assert the powers of the elected president which would allow him to implement his programme.”

“We propose to bring back the power of the state. With the fraying of state institutions, the lobbies and vested interests, the power of the state diminished and with it the ability to respond to the demands of the people,” she said.

Her party has prepared a draft constitution it said would restore balance.

Moussi rejected accusations that she nurtures neo-authoritarian tendencies, saying the PDL is committed to democracy and the rule of law.

“We are the most able to enhance democracy and foster human rights as our party has held the reins of power during various eras of the country’s history and knows the shortcomings and qualities of each period,” she said.

As presidential and legislative elections approach, Moussi said the PDL has prepared a detailed programme to address the country’s economic and social challenges.

“The Free Destourian Party is the only party that has presented its economic, financial and social programme to the public. That took place April 26 after a thorough diagnosis based on the available figures and data,” she said.

Moussi said the programme focuses on adjusting financial imbalances, supporting the national currency and boosting national production. The PDL has proposed the creation of institutions to control indebtedness, reform public systems and other structural reforms to overcome the crisis. The party also intends to present proposals for the reform of Tunisia’s health sector.