Tunisian president: Arab world is marching to the abyss

Tunisian president: Arab world is marching to the abyss
Exclusive: Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said he remains pessimistic about conditions in the Arab world, during an interview with Salah al-Din al-Jorashi from The New Arab's sister Arabic newspaper.
2 min read
21 February, 2016
President Essebsi's (L) career in politics predates post-revolutionary Tunisian politics [AFP]

Tunisia's secular leader President Beji Caid Essebsi insists he is not the heir of the country's first president, Habib Bourguiba, despite serving in his administration and sharing a close relationship with him.

Bourguiba is known as the architect of the country's independence from France, but also remains a hugely controversial figure practices. Essebsi described the post-independence ruler as his mentor and says he was a proud symbol of Tunisia.

Essebsi too has been heavily criticised in recent months, with many accusing his administration of failing to deliver promises made during his election campaign.

Tunisian youth led mass protests - and some riots - against high unemployment and marginalisation in the country last month, and blamed delays on political disputes between the country's factions.

In such a divisive environment, Essebsi has been keen to lay out his centrist credentials, insisting that he belongs neither to the left nor right.

"I am a Muslim but not an Islamist," he also told The New Arab.

The Tunisian president said reconciliation and cooperation between his secular party Nidaa Tunes and the Islamist-led Ennahda party was possible because his opposition counterparts compromised on several key Islamist policies.

"When we were drafting the constitution, Ennahda started speaking about sharia and undermining women's rights. But when it realised there was opposition to this, [it changed tack]," he said.

He said that this position helped restore stability in the country and stopped it from going down the path of other more volatile post-revolutionary Arab states.

Asked about whether he "trusted" leader of Ennahda Rashid Ghannoushi - currently his partner in a troika government- he replied, "In politics, there is nothing final... but there are accords."

He does, however, take credit for persuading Ghannoushi to enter into a coalition government following protracted negotiations he insists he initiated. 

This was following the collapse of Islamist rule in Egypt following a military coup. This reportedly led Tunisia's own ruling Islamists to feel threatened by their secular opponents and popular resentment against them.

However, compromise is very much the ethos of his party he said.

"We created Nidaa Tunes not to rule alone but to establish balance in the political landscape," Essebsi proclaims.

Essebsi is less optimistic about the rest of the Arab world, and criticised Saudi-led action in Yemen and believes Arabs have no control over events in their own countries. 

"The region is marching towards the abyss," he said.