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Civil Society, Constitutions, Elections, Featured, Islamist Politics, Parliaments, Political Parties, Political Reform, Tunisia



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Dr. Habib Kazdaghli is a professor of modern history at the University of Tunis in Manouba, and is known throughout Tunisia as “the dean” after a highly publicized battle on his university’s campus with young Salafis. Dr. Kazdaghli remains a prominent figure and voice for secular democracy in Tunisia, though he, along with many who share his views, has been designated by the Tunisian government as being under constant threat of assault by extremist groups.

In light of the most recent political developments and the supposed start of the national dialogue, Dr. Kazdaghli was interviewed by Fikra Forum editor Lauren Emerson on October 21 to discuss prospects for the dialogue and the future of Tunisia. He maintains that the success of the national dialogue and the formation of a competent government is the only option to guarantee the end of the transitional period in Tunisia and the progress toward stability.

Fikra Forum Editor: How to do you see Tunisia’s national dialogue proceeding, considering that the two sides – Ennahdha and the opposition groups – are divided on fundamental issues pertaining to the constitution and the composition of the electoral body?

Habib Kazdaghli: The opening session of the national dialogue took place on October 5; however, this occurred only because it was preceded by a series of painstaking consultations and preliminary conversations with Tunisia’s various political factions, which was initiated by the quartet of organizations sponsoring the talks, the General Tunisian Labor Union (UGTT), the Union of Industry, Commerce, and Artisans; the Lawyer’s Union; and the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights. Despite the faltering steps that accompanied this opening session – it began three hours after its appointed start time, and one of the parties belonging to the governmental coalition led by the Islamist Ennahda Party (the Troika) refused to sign the dialogue roadmap document – the fact the session was held at all is an important event.  Even if for just a short period of time, the fact that it put an end to the state of political tension that Tunisia has experienced since July 25 is also significant. The mere occurrence of the opening session, despite the accompanying disorder, is an important step in the direction of resolving the political crisis and reaffirms the important place that civil society organizations occupy in Tunisian political life – especially the UGTT, which has on more than one occasion played both a professional and a national role.

FF: Do you believe that Ennahda will abide by its pledge to step down on the agreed upon date, i.e., at the end of the talks that are projected to last for three weeks?

HK: It must be noted that the arrival of Ennahda to this negotiating track was a matter of compulsion, and not a result of conviction. Some of Ennahda’s leaders still consider this government to be the greatest in history; the Minister of Transportation went so far as to say that the rise of his party to power was a divine gift that could not be compromised. The contradictions between statements made by this party’s leaders range from acceptance to rejection, which has become one of the distinguishing features of the political situation in Tunisia. Every time the party leader Rachid Ghannouchi announces his acceptance of the quartet’s dialogue initiative, Tunisian citizens breathe a sigh of relief because this marks a breakthrough in the crisis, but a group of party hawks raises a motion to reject the announcement their historic leader made.

Observers of this issue acknowledge that there is an incredible divide between the leaders of the Ennahda movement that can be described in colloquial Tunisian as “the liar and the fools.” This describes, to a large extent, the duplicity that distinguishes the party rhetoric. For after the long months Ghannouchi and the rest of his crew spent making accusations and mobilizing gangs with haphazard names related to protecting the revolution to attack the former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi and his new party Nidaa Tunis, we see that Ghannouchi has changed his position, agreeing to go to meet Essebsi in Paris. True, it is not the first time that the religious political party has changed its positions in a more positive direction, but every time that this has taken place in the past, it has only been under the weight of external and internal popular pressure.

For these reasons, I believe that it is impossible to be reassured by positive statements, even if they were issued by the highest leaders, or even signatures – these alone are not sufficient. The practical guarantee to ensure Ennahda’s compliance with any agreements that may be reached remains tied to popular vigilance, the unity within the ranks of the parties that make up the National Salvation Front, and the overlapping determination of the four organizations sponsoring the dialogue in regards to the initiative.

FF:  What is the cause of all of the fear, especially since the leader of Ennahda signed the roadmap document in front of everyone in the opening session of the national dialogue?

HK: Public acceptance of an issue, then later circumventing it has become one of the hallmarks of the relationship between the Ennahda movement and its opponents and allies alike. This is a feeling that has become shared by a large part of those who voted for Ennahda in the last election. Many of those people voted for Ennahda on the grounds that its members were imprisoned and oppressed [by the former regime] and that they are “God-fearing people of principle.”

However, it has become clear that they abandoned all of their promises and that security and social conditions have become worse. In this regard, one can recall the previous events in which Ennahda wasted a great deal of time and caused a great deal of stress: after it had clung to the idea of including Sharia in the text of the Constitution for many long months, it formally abandoned the idea. The same thing happened in regards to their final position about the principle of equality between women and men in the Constitution: the movement was forced to retreat before the mass female uprising and the huge protests in the summer of 2012 that took place in order to express opposition to the idea of complementarity between men and women instituted in the Constitution.

It is possible to interpret the latest change in position by the Islamist party -- i.e., its acceptance of the solution suggested by civil society -- as part of the same trend.  This change in position also took place in light of finding who caused the political assassinations and who was behind the ongoing terrorist operations in the Chaambi Mountains, or the ambushes and killing of soldiers that led to the slaughter of nine members of the Tunisian army.

FF:  With the lack of trust between the Islamist Ennahda Party and its opponents, how is it possible for them to arrive at a specific agreement?  Have there been any efforts made by any of the parties to establish trust between the interlocutors?

HK: Yes, it is indisputable in Tunisia today that the lack of security has created feelings of uncertainty and fear of the other. This is a feeling that divides society and generates many fears surrounding negative developments that could occur after the emergence of negative indicators, some of which have been listed. There is no doubt that the national dialogue remains the only option for the country to be able to overcome its crisis and that success has become an urgent necessity. It is possible to consider it a national duty incumbent upon every political party and social organizations to persevere in order to lead the country out of the political, economic, and security dilemmas that it has experienced since the Islamist party came to power in October 2011.

Fortunately, Tunisia contains, and has for a long time, social organizations like the UGTT, the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, and other organizations that still enjoy substantial credibility and impartiality. That is what makes these four organizations capable of playing a mediating role to convince all of the parties of the need to understand the rules of the democratic process and accept its conditions. It is these organizations that can force all of the parties to change their tone of speech, debate, and accusations when points of contention come up, or what the Secretary General of the UGTT Hussein al-Abassi describes as the necessity to “distance [ourselves] from involuntary speech.” No wonder these organizations sponsoring the dialogue have succeeded in convincing the different political parties to discuss the necessity of practical steps toward implementing its provisions starting on October 23. This announcement came just one day after the country witnessed a new terrorist attack on the evening of Thursday, October 17, in which a group of men from the security forces were killed in the Goubellat region, about 70 kilometers from the capital.

FF:  What are the goals that Ennahda seeks to achieve through the talks?  What are its opponents’ goals?

HK: The objective of the talks was specified in the initiative that was announced by the quartet and presented to the political parties during the preliminary consultations that began in late July.  The timing of these talks also relates to the events of the most recent part of the transitional period, in which two successive governments (the al-Jebali government and the Laarayedh government) failed to complete the tasks that had been entrusted to them, the first of which is the completion of the long-awaited Constitution. The other tasks included the passing of an election law, the formation of an independent electoral commission to oversee elections, and the setting of a date for these elections that had been agreed upon by all parties. Given the stifling crises that the country is experiencing, the duty presented to each of the organizations is to assign these tasks to a competent, nonpartisan government whose members will not run in the next elections, but all political parties and organizations will gather around it.

Throughout the preliminary consultations and the statements that followed, we noticed the interest of the opposition to make reasonable concessions in order to hasten the start of the dialogue. The opposition abandoned their demand that the Constituent Assembly should be dissolved and said that the government could resign after three weeks, even though it had previously demanded that it resign before the start of the national dialogue. What is important to the opposition is harmony with the initiative of the sponsoring organizations.

As for Ennahda and its allies, especially the Congress for the Republic Party (President Marzouki’s party), they announced their approval of the roadmap document and the national dialogue in order to reassure the foreign influences following Tunisia, while seeking in practical terms to undermine all of the points contained within the roadmap.  During the formation of the new government and the completion the Constitution’s revision, in an attempt to gain time and extend the negotiations, it drowned the processes in details in addition to fully exploiting the time period to appoint loyalists in order to ensure their continued control of government organizations and intersections of the state, both central and regional. These actions embody a will to derail the dialogue and a desire to change its contents in order to tie its initiatives and goals in such a way that it allows it to remain in control of the spoils of rule in the event that the transitional period does not extend beyond the end of the year. This timetable has been the goal from the beginning, in which the most important task was drafting the Constitution and the various legal measures necessary to organize democratic life.

FF:  Are you optimistic about the possibility restoring stability in Tunisia through the ongoing talks?  How do you see the position of Tunisian public opinion not only toward Ennahda, but also toward the political system as a whole?

HK: As I mentioned before, I believe that the national dialogue is the only option for this country to be able to overcome its crisis. Fortunately, Tunisia contains professional organizations such as the UGTT. In all of the talks that take place in this atmosphere of crisis, it is necessary to give priority to the greater interests of the country as a whole, and to give them greater importance than the narrow interests of any one faction. In situations like this, we must be convinced of the need to make concessions that may seem painful, but are small when measured against the goals that they seek to fulfill, which is to uproot the transitional path from the impasse that threatens all of the hope that emerged since January 2011. The success of political groups in arriving at compromise solutions will distance the citizens from a state of injustice and pessimism, which is currently being expressed in large numbers by public opinion.

This is clearly manifested in opinion polls, which reveal that half of eligible voters have not decided if they will participate in the coming elections or not. The increasing popularity of abstaining from voting demonstrates the citizens’ lack of trust in in the instruments of democracy and the political class as a whole. This lack of trust creates fertile ground for desperate projects and gambles. One of the conditions of success for the dialogue is that the street and the civil society organizations must always remain vigilant in order to push the opposing sides to search for solutions to overcome the crisis. As long as the life force of society is alive and vigilant, hope remains present and optimistic. Perhaps with an awareness of all that has happened, it will not be easy to rebuild trust and change the government, though it is necessary. This may not be enough to regain the trust of the citizens because their doubt has loomed larger, especially among domestic and foreign investors, in the ability of the political class to effectively administer the transitional period.

FF:  In the event that the dialogue stops or is postponed, what would be the most significant potential effects that could harm Tunisian society?  What are the concerns that will worry the average Tunisian citizen in the event that the political stalemate continues?

HK: We are in the middle of a boat that is being rocked by the waves and we must do all we can to reach the shore of safety, no mater how intense the wind or how many the storms.  I believe that it is imperative that the political and intellectual elite – of which I am a part – however different their frames of reference might be, reproduce the hope and the confidence in the future of the Tunisian citizen in this critical juncture.

The great transformation that our country experienced in early 2011 caused us to have great expectations of greater social justice, overcoming marginalization, and restoring individuals to their rightful place in society.  However, the persistent tension and endless drawing out of the dialogue will increase the state of injustice, the loss of confidence, and the stalemate, exhausting society and opening the door to advocates of violence, risk taking, and desperate solutions.

Talk of terrorism can no longer be used as a scarecrow to spread fear because it has become the reality; political assassination has become part of the daily vocabulary. According to the Interior Minister, there are more than 50 political figures and groups threatened with assassination – I am one of them. After the security forces confirmed that there is a possibility that harm might happen to them, these people now live and move under armed guards that the state has put in place to protect them. Remaining filled with the hope that burst forth after the fall of Ben Ali is still possible, and the success of the national dialogue represents the first stage to overcome on this long road of dangers and fears.