''The Old Regime Is Still Not Dead''

In an interview with Moncef Slimi, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamic Ennahda Party, appeals to the Tunisians to defend the achievements of the revolution against the return of representatives of the old regime in a new guise

By Moncef Slimi

A good year after the new government under Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali took office, a government in which your party plays a leading role, its track record is drawing widespread criticism. Doesn't your party inherently have a hard time dealing with the still unaccustomed business of government?

Rachid Ghannouchi: The difficulties cannot be denied. But we are currently in a transition phase in which governing is no easy business, and certainly not leading a coalition government of national unity that combines one Islamic-oriented and two secular parties.

The transition from over 50 years of dictatorship to a democracy and a whole new way of exercising freedom confronts us with major challenges. We are after all dealing with a people that has been oppressed for half a century. That's over now, and everyone can express his opinion freely.

Protests against poverty and miserable social conditions: On 17 December 2012, the anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, head of state Moncef Marzouki and parliamentary president Mustapha Ben Jaafar were greeted with catcalls and stones in the city of Sidi Bouzid

​​The barriers have fallen, and all the pent-up demands are being made public at once. This is why the exercise of freedom requires a period of adaptation, because only then can this new freedom be used responsibly. The question we must ask ourselves in the current phase is: How can we bring the imperative of greater freedom in line with the need for law and order?

In many parts of the country, demands are being voiced that recall the slogans of the revolution, including in particular complaints about the career prospects for university graduates. The government and your party are being blamed, for example, for the nepotism that still prevails in appointments for posts in the education field. How would you respond to such allegations?

Ghannouchi: Governing parties are by their very nature exposed to some wear and tear. But they can learn from their experiences and correct their mistakes. The members of this regime – both the Islamists and the secular parties – brought absolutely no experience with them to their new task. The only ones with experience are the forces directed against the revolution – experience with looting, with manipulating elections and with deceiving the public.

Our government by contrast acts responsibly. Its members are highly educated, they have academic degrees, but they are learning new things all the time. The Tunisian state apparatus did not collapse, nor was it dissolved completely; its many experts as well are in fact still at their jobs. Without their experience in the administrative area, the political executives, i.e. the ministers, would not be able to guide the fortunes of the state.

Certainly, there are still some difficulties to be surmounted, but experience is also being gathered. We are confident that better days are ahead than we have seen in the eleven months the government has been in office so far. Development programmes have been set up, and now it will take some time until their effects are felt locally. I assume therefore that the problems will be easier to solve in future. And that the development programmes will have an impact on labour market data, and more graduates will find employment in the public service.

Why has it been so difficult up to now to solve the problems on the job market?

Ghannouchi: Unemployment is in fact a problem that has already been rampant for a long time. It may be that the unemployment rate under the old regime was officially reported as 14 to 15 per cent, but the actual figures were probably much higher. The rate was 18 per cent the first year after the revolution, and now it has dropped to 17 per cent. So unemployment is not on the rise, but is actually decreasing.

Winds of political change after decades of disenfranchisement: In October 2011 the first free elections took place for the constituent assembly in Tunisia

​​A special problem we are facing is without doubt unemployment amongst university graduates, who are trying to make their way into the public administration. In contrast, we are experiencing a major lack of workers in other areas: hundreds of thousands of workers are needed across the country, for example for the olive and date harvest, as well as for jobs in the construction industry, which has been hiring more and more workers from sub-Saharan Africa.

This means then that the education system that for a long time has been Tunisia's pride and joy is in need of reform to ultimately be better equipped to meet the demands of the labour market?

Ghannouchi: Absolutely, that is indeed the root of the evil. We have an education system that does not meet the requirements of the labour market. These have up to now been two totally different animals, and it will take time for the education system to be brought in line with the need for workers and the economic situation. Currently, we have to bring in hundreds of thousands of workers from sub-Saharan Africa, Morocco and Egypt.

What is the background behind the current conflict between the government and the trade union "Union Générale Tunisienne du travail", UGTT? Does the call for a general strike indicate a confrontation between your party and the large sections of society that are represented by this traditional trade union?

Ghannouchi: Differences in opinion between trade unions and government, or between unions and employers' associations, are not a problem specific to Tunisia. If the unions' freedoms were suppressed over the past two decades and there were no real strikes during that time, this can be attributed to the efficiency of police repression and to the fact that the unions were more or less forced to make common cause with the authorities. There were in fact some partial strikes under Ben Ali's dictatorship, but there was no general strike for 23 years. The first strike in the history of independent Tunisia was in 1978, when the crisis between the government and UGTT was at its peak.

Now we are part of the revolutionary government. Freedoms are no longer suppressed, people can openly express their opinion, and the trade unions can strike without fear of reprisals. This is the norm in a democracy.

We are optimistic that the current crisis is approaching a solution. It is after all not a social crisis. Rather, on the same day that an agreement was announced on a social pact between the trade unions, employers and government (December 4, 2012), the UGTT called for a general strike just a few hours later. The wage increases of six to eight per cent gained by workers are higher than any in recent history.

Difficulties are also being experienced by the governing coalition. Your coalition partner the Congress Party, CPR, has threatened to withdraw from government should its suggestions for the formation of a national government of experts not be considered.

Ghannouchi: Nowhere in the world will you find a coalition that is not plagued by difficulties, problems and compromises between the different positions and programmes; this is only normal. There are even differences within each party.

Test of strength with the government in the North Tunisian provincial town of Siliana: The social protests in November 2012 were supported by the UGTT trade union. The Secretary General of the regional office of the UGTT called on all residents of the region to take part in a symbolic two-kilometre march on Tunis

​​The current government troika is a project that brings three parties to the table. They are united by the belief that this kind of coalition and the overcoming of traditional divisions between Islamists and secularists are in the national interest. The leaders of the governing parties are still determined to make this coalition work – for the sake of the country and the revolution, and in order to help the democratisation process succeed. I therefore assume that the coalition will continue and that the individual partners are perhaps only trying to improve their respective starting positions, which they certainly have every right to do.

What do you mean by "Improve their starting position"? Are you referring to the upcoming elections?

Ghannouchi: Yes, with a view to the upcoming elections and with respect to the balance of power within the government. In politics, that is a legitimate concern. As long as all sides recognise the necessity for the further existence of the coalition, it will endure, and perhaps even be expanded. The respective party leaders have made this clear. But that does not prevent us from reorganising the administration. Some departments, such as the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry for Administrative Reform, need new blood.

The draft law on the so-called "immunisation of the revolution" has provoked a great deal of criticism, even from quarters or figures close to your party. Why do you then continue to persist in trying to push it through?

Ghannouchi: The constituent assembly is still conferring on this bill. Throughout history, revolutions have risked being reversed through actions directed against them. In this respect, such a bill is thoroughly justified, because the old regime is still not dead.

Where do these vestiges of the old regime still appear, where has it been able to survive?

Ghannouchi: The old regime is still present in the administration, in the media, in the world of finance and in politics. All those who participated in the revolution are called upon to defend it and to prevent the old regime from returning, even in a new guise. This is about a kind of political fortitude and not about indiscriminately stamping anyone a criminal, because crimes are inherently committed individually. There is a Ministry for Transitional Justice ("justice transitoire") whose tasks include calling to account those who have done wrong – but individually, not collectively.

Why is your party the only one supporting the "Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution", which are being criticized elsewhere?

Ghannouchi: Not only we, but also the Congress Party, CPR, and the Wafa Party are still standing up for the "Revolution Protection Leagues", the latter with even greater vehemence. The same applies with regard to the law for "immunisation of the revolution". These things cannot easily be boiled down to an ideological divide between secularists and Islamists, even if some people are trying to portray the situation that way. The truth is that the front line really runs between those who want democratic change and those who would like to see the country return to a dictatorship.

We are talking about the question of who is for and against the revolution. With regard to the "Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution", many different protagonists were involved in their founding, among them the trade union federation UGTT. This happened while the revolution was still on-going, when the government in power suddenly disappeared from the scene, and people saw their assets, their belongings, their livelihoods in danger.

At first intended as a way to ensure security in the city districts, the leagues soon played an important role in the demonstrations in front of the Kasbah that led to the overthrow of the government. As a result, they acquired undisputed legitimacy. Moreover, these are not armed groups, but a part of civil society in which young revolutionaries can take action within the framework of the law.

But why is no noticeable progress being made in the area of transitional justice, which is in the remit of a minister who belongs to your party? Why is it taking so long for the victims of the former regime to receive compensation, for those who were responsible for all the wrongdoing and the deaths during the revolution to be brought to justice?

Ghannouchi: We are dissatisfied with the progress made up to now in this matter. However, this was also to be expected. This ministry is after all new and was initially faced with the task of consolidating all the experience gathered in the field of transitional justice in countries such as Chile and South Africa in order to learn from it. Files were reviewed and a bill was drafted for submission to the constituent assembly. It will be debated there soon.

We would have preferred things to move faster, but the fact is that many small steps were necessary to get to this point. Of course people do not appreciate seeing the perpetrators roaming everywhere in the country with impunity.

Our revolution is a peaceful one. So far, only a dozen offenders are in custody. And what about all the others who fought against the revolution? Who plundered, oppressed and falsified elections? They are still at large, because the Tunisian people are ready for reconciliation. The victims have exacted no revenge on their tormentors. Society is learning to be patient until the judiciary does its duty and calls to account those who have tormented and robbed others.

Interview: Moncef Slimi

© Qantara.de 2013

Translation: Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de