Caid Essebsi calls for thorough investigation of allegations of Islamist ‘secret apparatus’

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi was in a combative mood and would not mince his words.
Sunday 03/02/2019
Historic icon. President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) receives Haitham El-Zobaidi. The bust of first Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba is at the top left of the background. (Tunisian Presidency)
Historic icon. President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) receives Haitham El-Zobaidi. The bust of first Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba is at the top left of the background. (Tunisian Presidency)

TUNIS - As we sat down and started fielding questions, it was obvious Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi was in a combative mood and would not mince his words. He was, however, patient with our line of questioning and provided Al Arab and The Arab Weekly with his frank assessment of the situation at home and abroad.

The Arab League Summit

Tunisia will host the Arab League Summit in March. Caid Essebsi candidly admitted that, as much as the summit should be a meeting of Arab reconciliation, it is also the crowning effort of Tunisia to reconcile with many Arab countries.

The question of Syria is expected to be at the centre of discussions of the meetings. Caid Essebsi said the summit, which could help “unify Arab ranks,”  will “take place in the best of circumstances.”

“We do not harbour negative feelings towards Syria or anyone else. We stand with the Arab consensus and we will adopt the resolutions endorsed by the Arab League,” he added.

Caid Essebsi said he was aware of the accumulated sensitivities between Arab countries regarding different issues. He emphasised that Tunisia did not want to be party to these sensitivities. “We will not interfere in some of the sensitive issues in the Gulf region,” he said. “We have invited everyone. The Tunis summit will be the summit for all.” It remains to be seen if Syria will be part of this “all.”

Libya and always Libya

Caid Essebsi said he saw Libya as a determining factor in Tunisia’s regional environment.

“For Tunisia, Libya is very important and even vital,” the president said. “We always say that Libya and Tunisia are one people in two countries. We have special historical relations. There were adverse effects on Tunisia when the state collapsed in Libya.

“We, in Tunisia, wish for the return of the state in Libya and we are working towards that but that has to be a Libyan-Libyan affair, without any external interference because such interference has complicated the situation.

“We have led a tripartite initiative with Egypt and Algeria in order to ensure that. The UN envoy is also doing his best but all of this was not enough and the situation is still unstable.”

Caid Essebsi added: “I say to Europeans: ‘Let the Libyans find a solution by themselves with the help of the United Nations.’”

However, when it was pointed out how the roles of politicians and militias are entangled in Libya, he said: “True but this is a matter of time. When countries interfere, it takes even longer to settle. The situation is still under control since it is under UN management.

“Tunisia was badly affected because it used to have a lot of trade with Libya. It was also affected because of the terrorist threat. As long as the situation remains the same, terrorists, Tunisian nationals and not Libyans, will come from there. For example, the three major terrorist attacks in Tunisia in 2015 originated from Libya.”

Caid Essebsi said many foreign parties were intervening in the Arab region. “It is true that there is a Turkish role, as well as roles played by some Arab countries in addition to the Europeans,” he said.

He also said the position of the United States was intimately linked to Washington’s relationship with Israel. “The US is a superpower,” he said, “and it interferes in everything but, if America does not abandon Israel and does not take a neutral stance, the situation will remain as it is.”

The Tunisian president said he was aware of Russia’s role in the region. He said “today’s world is no longer split like it used to be during the Cold War and Russia has become a major actor. Today, the United States and the West are cooperating with Russia to resolve the region’s problems.”

Asked about the effect of projects pursued by regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey, Caid Essebsi said: “We had hoped that there would be an Arab project but the Gulf crisis affected the Arab world and its balances. This is why we do not want to take a position that opposes or supports one party at the expense of the other.

“We believe that it is in our interest that relations be re-established. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is the most important achievement in the region and we were proud of it. We had the advantage of precedence in the Maghreb but our project stalled and we had rejoiced in the birth of the GCC but the recent crisis in the Gulf has unsettled the situation. Relations must be re-established and the GCC must recover its role and contribute to unifying the Arab ranks. We will work during the summit towards that end.”

Ennahda Movement controls the government

Everyone in Tunisia is following Caid Essebsi’s positions with attention, as they may be the determining factor in the country’s political equations. Nidaa Tounes, the party he founded in 2012 and which won the 2014 legislative elections, is facing challenges and divisions that have practically reduced it to third place in terms of the number of members of parliament.

Holding the lead among parliamentary blocs is the Islamist Ennahda Movement. Thanks to its internal discipline and because of the splintering of Nidaa Tounes, the Islamist party has the upper hand in parliament even if it had lost the legislative and presidential elections in 2014.

Statistics indicate that there are 216 political parties in Tunisia, many of them are the result of internal party splits, most notably is the case of Nidaa Tounes whose latest splinter faction has constituted its own party, Tahya Tounes (“Long Live Tunisia”), led by Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

However, Caid Essebsi does not mince words when it comes to describing what’s happening in Tunisia: “Ennahda controls the political scene” in Tunisia.

“Most of the participants in the Carthage Document dialogue, which included main political and social actors, demanded that the government and its head be changed but Ennahda Movement refused,” he said.

A new troika led by Ennahda

In Caid Essebsi’s assessment: “Ennahda is the number one party and holds the lead in the People’s Assembly with 68 members. They all, without exception, voted for the new government. Other parties also voted for the new government, including the National Coalition, composed of dissident members who broke up with Nidaa Tounes. Support also came from Afek Tounes and Mashrouu Tounes parties (the latter, a splinter faction from Nidaa Tounes). Together, they formed a majority with 130 MP’s, holding 60% of the total seats.”

Caid Essebsi said that the camp that gave legitimacy to this government — after having previously sought to change it — is “this new troika composed of Ennahda, the National Coalition and Mashrouu Tounes.”

He asserted that there is a new political reality in Tunisia and this reality is characterised essentially by Ennahda’s dominance over the executive branch.

“The Tunisian Constitution stipulates that the executive branch has two heads: the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister, each having his own prerogatives. This is a negative aspect that needs to be modified,” he said.

“However, if the president does not endorse the government or if he is not consulted about it, then the executive branch will have only one head: the prime minister. This is the reality today and it reflects Ennahda’s dominance over the political scene.”

Caid Essebsi said he regretted that, contrary to what was required by the constitution, he was not consulted about the makeup of the last government formed by Chahed.

Asked what has changed since he said, two years ago, that Ennahda was a political entity with a place and a role to play in the country’s political scene, Caid Essebsi answered: “This is now a fact because Ennahda was elected and it is the people who hold the key to sovereign rule.

“Today, the equation has changed. The National Coalition changed the balance. Most of the different components of the coalition were originally elected on the basis of their affiliation to Nidaa Tounes and then they changed course and partook in what we can call “parliamentary tourism.”

Caid Essebsi was referring to MPs changing their political affiliation after election to parliament.

The National Coalition is a legislative bloc that supports the prime minister in parliament. Its members were previously affiliated with Nidaa Tounes.

“This is something that should not happen again,” Caid Essebsi said. “All of this tips the balance in favour of Ennahda, which is running the government. Without Ennahda, this government would not exist. Ennahda has its own policies, agenda and challenges and is now influencing the political scene.”

“Secret apparatus”

A new security aspect that has shaken the political scene and is causing great concern for Tunisians is the issue of Ennahda’s alleged “secret apparatus.”

This alleged clandestine organisation has been described by some as a separate intelligence service at the service of the international Muslim Brotherhood Organisation. Others say it is Ennahda’s security arm endowed with military and intelligence capabilities. Others reduce it to a tool for recruiting jihadists in Tunisia and sending them to various battlefields, including Syria, Iraq and Libya.

In Tunisia, rumours have it that hundreds — some even speak of thousands — of documents concerning the “secret apparatus” have been seized and that the Tunisian security services have briefed Caid Essebsi about the information available to them and that the information could be revealed soon. The courts have started investigating the case.

“From my position as president of the republic and regardless of my personal affiliations, I support transparency,” Caid Essebsi said. “This transparency requires that if there are details backed by documented evidence, we will not fail to reveal them for the sake of safeguarding the transition phase that we are currently in.”

“We must make certain whether Ennahda has a secret arm or not,” he added. “Ennahda denies its existence but many political observers and lawyers following up on the martyrs’ assassination cases say that it does exist. A country like Tunisia that wants its revolution to be fair must verify if such an apparatus exists or not. We do not accuse without proof.”

The Tunisian president was referring to the 2013 political assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in circumstances that remain unclear. There have been allegations made by a leftist coalition that the so-called secret apparatus was linked to the assassinations.

Caid Essebsi added: “Talk about the international connections of Ennahda movement is true insofar that Ennahda was part of the Muslim Brotherhood. But, we do not deny that Ennahda took steps to morph into a normal political party. This effort, however, is not sufficient.

“I attended the opening session of Ennahda’s last general congress to encourage its transition to a real political party but it became clear that this effort was not sufficient because it was solely based on the idea of separating political activity from preaching and religious activity and this is not possible and not what is required.

“In any case, what is for certain now is that we need to ascertain first whether this secret arm exists or not, for the sake of safeguarding stability and then check whether this secret arm had a hand in the assassinations or not. We need to do that despite the wish of certain parties to cover up the issue in order to ensure Ennahda’s support during next elections.”

The topic of political assassinations is a complex and sensitive issue in Tunisia but this topic is no less important than knowing the exact nature of this “secret apparatus” that has recruited jihadists and sent them to join jihadist groups abroad. Caid Essebsi said he was keen on getting to the bottom of the matter.

“We need to check that out,” Caid Essebsi said. “If I were in Ennahda’s shoes, I would have made sure to demonstrate that this is not true. In any case, we do not hold hostile or enthusiastic positions towards this or that. We are only seeking the truth because that would be beneficial to all.”

Ennahda, however, is part of the current government and is its major supporter. The president sees the Chahed government as “Ennahda’s government,” noting that 60% of the deputies (130 out of 217 votes), among them Ennahda and other members of the new “troika,” had cast an easy vote for it.

“That’s why it is Ennahda’s government,” he said. “If Ennahda withdraws its support, the government would fall.”

Because of this reality, Tunisian analysts say keeping Chahed in his position as prime minister depends on Ennahda’s position towards him, even if, as is the case now, the members of government with declared affiliation in Ennahda are a minority in the current cabinet.

Tunisian General Labour Union, more than just a labour force

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is the major force in the country locking horns with the government and Ennahda. The UGTT has become a political force with a trade union face. Caid Essebsi noted this aspect but did not show any reservations about it.

He said: “The Tunisian General Labour Union has always been, since its foundation, a nationalist organisation that does not solely advocate for workers.”

He recalled, however, the rift between the UGTT and the ruling party after independence.

“On the 26th of January 1978, there was a general strike in the country that was met with violence, arrests and killings and national unity fell apart,” Caid Essebsi said. “This is what we want to avoid today. We have warned the involved parties that we have had a bad experience in the past and that we must engage in dialogue whether we like it or not. As long as we remain patriots, we can reach a common ground but we have not yet reached the desired level of discourse.”

So, is the UGTT a future political party in the making or is it just a force that lends its weight to other political parties?

Caid Essebsi said there were many reasons why the unions could turn into a political party. In other words, it stands as the one force in the country likely to engage a showdown with both Ennahda and the government but, where is Nidaa Tounes in all of this?

Caid Essebsi explained: “Realistically, Nidaa Tounes has indeed regressed. Tunisians are drawn to power, politicians and citizens alike but the real power, according to the constitution, lies in the hands of the prime minister and not those of the president of the republic. The prime minister now receives great backing from Ennahda.”

Contrary to the widespread notion that the tense relationship between Nidaa Tounes and Chahed is due to an ongoing political disagreement, Caid Essebsi said the matter was instead related to Chahed’s desire to remain in power.

“Since Chahed wanted to stay in power, he said that he had a falling out with Nidaa Tounes but I don’t think this is the root of his problem,” Caid Essebsi said. “Ennahda understood his ambition and dealt with him intelligently. It pushed him to form a new party that would be its partner in power after the 2019 elections. [Ennahda President] Rached Ghannouchi will secretly back Chahed’s candidacy for the office of president of the republic. This is no longer a secret for anyone in Tunisia.”

Does this mean that Caid Essebsi holds views that are personally hostile to Ghannouchi?

“I’m not opposed to Ghannouchi,” he clarified. “My relationship with him is like with any other Tunisian. We had excellent relations and I respect him. I think that Ennahda party members have the right to be part of political life in Tunisia because they had lived through persecution and imprisonment but I don’t have a particular relationship with Ghannouchi. When he gets in touch with me, I respond as I would with anybody else.”

Caveats to presidential candidacy

The political polarisation in Tunisia is predictable in view of the upcoming elections. Caid Essebsi said that “the constitutional deadlines must be respected. This is what we did in the municipal elections despite many reservations and political sensitivities.”

Caid Essebsi noted that “the upcoming elections face some obstacles, including the fact that the makeup of the commission overseeing the elections is not complete.”

In Tunisia, it is not the Ministry of Interior that organises the elections but an independent body. The Elections Authority must replace some of its members and its chairman has resigned.

“I think that all the party blocs within the assembly have agreed on a replacement list. Still, the list needs to be ratified by the general assembly of the parliament and by the president. If that happens within reasonable dates, the elections can be held within their due dates. I am keen on that,” Caid Essebsi said.

On January 30, parliament picked a new president for the independent electoral commission and filled three of vacant spots on its board.

The Tunisian president, who had to leave Nidaa Tounes to devote his efforts to his duties as president, is set to play a pivotal role in the forthcoming elections. He said he was optimistic that “the elections will fix matters,” provided Tunisians vote in large numbers.

“God willing, there will be a reawakening. I will call on all Tunisians to participate massively in the elections and choose whom they want,” he said.

“Tunisians are aware and assume their responsibility in exercising their right to vote. When I was running for president, I had a clear choice: It was either me or Ennahda. Today, I can no longer do the same. I will, however, invite voters to choose whom they consider the most competent.”

But will Caid Essebsi run for president during the coming elections?

Many Tunisians would like to see Caid Essebsi run for a second term because he remains a political safety valve for a country in the first phase of the democratic transition.

Caid Essebsi knows that but notes: “No one is able to serve in all time and in every place. I have done my duty but that does not mean that I must present myself as a candidate for the elections even if the constitution allows me to run for a second term. I have the liberty to exercise this right or not and I assure you that I will exercise it only for the benefit of Tunisia.

“I’m not in favour of the idea of presidents for life. I am against it. It is not my ambition to remain president for life.”

The matter, however, seems at least in part to depend on the internal dynamics of Nidaa Tounes. Caid Essebsi did not hesitate to highlight this connection.

“It is true that I was invited to nominate myself, especially by Nidaa Tounes, the party that I formed but had to leave since I became President of the Republic,” he said. “Some Nidaa members came to see me and I told them I would not respond to their appeals for now. Once you organise a new party congress and when you inject new blood in Nidaa Tounes, then I will see.”

Caid Essebsi, however, keeps his options open as to the possibility of running for a second term. “The day I decide to run or not,” he said, “my real motivation will be Tunisia’s interest. If the interest of Tunisia requires someone else that we can help, then so be it. If the country’s interest requires my presence, then I will think about running. I have nothing personally that would prevent me from doing so but it is the public good that will decide.”

At the end of our meeting, I asked the president for a photo with my portable phone. He stood next to Bourguiba’s bust and smiled. We took the picture and I left his office.

Off the corridor that leads to the exit, a large reception was barely starting where I was able to distinguish a large number of Tunisian politicians, ministers and a number of foreign dignitaries mingling. No doubt, they were there for some ceremony to be attended by the president.

The crowd and the nature of the audience reminded me that Tunisia expected a lot from its president, who also will be the focus of attention of the entire region during the Arab League Summit in a few weeks in Tunis.

Shifting  balance. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef  Chahed (R) attends a plenary session at the Tunisian parliament with his government formation. (AFP)
Shifting balance. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) attends a plenary session at the Tunisian parliament with his government formation. (AFP)