Noureddine Arbaoui, a political relations official and a member of the Ennahda movement’s executive bureau — the highest regulatory authority in the Tunisian Islamic party — asserted that the shaky security situation in Tunisia is the main cause behind the slowdown in economic growth, which they have improved in certain respects. Moreover, he pointed out that Ennahda achieved a growth rate of 5% last year.
Arbaoui, who is one of the most prominent leaders of Ennahda, denied during an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor at the Al-Mashtal Hotel in Tunis that Tunisia is a stronghold for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) for several political, military and security-related reasons, especially given the country’s long border with Libya, Algeria, Mali and the Sahara.
Here is the complete interview:
Al-Monitor: The security issue is a source of growing anxiety in Tunisia, with the rise of armed Salafists and Ansar al-Sharia, and Ennahda has been accused of allowing them to amass in the country. However, new reports indicate that you are working hard to contain this spread of Salafism. Can it be said that Ennahda made a mistake when it permitted Salafist activity to expand unconditionally?
Arbaoui: We cannot quickly jump into blaming Ennahda this way, because it is part of the ruling power in Tunisia, and it has been working with the ruling parties for a year and a half. There were two choices to deal with Salafism. [The first option was that ] Ennahda could violently pursue Salafists and restrict their activities, while leaving Tunisia to suffer the possible security repercussions on the ground. We should not forget that the country has just emerged from a revolution that has not died yet. The second option was to treat them in a way that is in line with the so-called “revolutionary movement” that Tunisia is undergoing, knowing that Ennahda constitutes an integral part of it. The intention here was to steer clear of oppression.
A large part of the anxiety stirred by Salafism, as the question states, stems from the weakness of the Tunisian state and the decline of the role of its security system after the revolution. For this reason, some Salafist extremists have adopted “thuggish” behavior and have caused security disarray, alongside some criminal groups that took advantage of the state’s weakness in its security and on-the-ground aspects.
Ennahda believes that as soon as the country regains its political and security stability, it will be easier and less worrying to deal with Salafism. Therefore, some clashes between Salafists and security forces can be explained by the former’s desire to challenge the state and breach the law. Consequently, that was the best way to deal with them.
Al-Monitor: What is your take on classifying Tunisia as a stronghold for AQIM, and what about Ennahda’s ability to ensure the country’s security?
Arbaoui: No, no, this is not true at all. It is far from being accurate, due to many reasons and factors. First, Tunisia’s geographic surface area does not allow for such a thing. Moreover, the political geography of the Arab Maghreb, the Sahel region and the various large countries surrounding Tunisia (like Mali, Libya and Algeria) make it less of a priority for al-Qaeda in terms of classifying it as a stronghold for the organization.
Another important point that cannot be ignored is that the appearance of al-Qaeda in Tunisia was not related to the revolution and the subsequent political incidents. The proof is that the year 2007 witnessed violent armed confrontations between the government and al-Qaeda members. This pushes us to believe that a main factor behind the emergence of al-Qaeda’s line of thought and religious ideology was related to the former dictatorship, which suppressed the thoughts and beliefs of Tunisians. As a result, violent groups emerged to respond to the pressure exerted by the regime.
Moreover, neighboring Libya has just come out of a revolution, and arms — some of which reach Tunisia — are erratically spread in an unprecedented way. This constitutes yet another factor behind the presence of al-Qaeda in Tunisia.
As for the ability of Ennahda to protect the security of the country, it is an issue based on two important considerations: The first is that Ennahda is thinking with its partners in power and governance to find ways to reach the best security situation in the country. It believes that this must be primarily based on the law without disrespecting it. The second consideration is that Ennahda is strongly pushing for the state to receive its political and security responsibilities.
On the other hand, Ennahda believes that a dialogue with all Tunisians is the best way to resolve some of the security problems. The national Tunisian dialogue was the first step, and we have already started to reap, with all political parties, the fruits of this positive start. As for the security behavior and the military solution, it is a recipe for Tunisia to enter a "civil war" that nobody wants and that won’t achieve anything in the end.
Al-Monitor: Several reports indicate that there are Tunisian jihadists who went to Syria to fight the Syrian regime. In what context does this fall, and what is the role of the Ennahda party as far as these militants are concerned: Is it supportive or not?
Arbaoui: The insurgents in Syria are not only Tunisians. They come from many other countries, and the position of Ennahda in this regard is very clear: It publicly supports the ongoing Syrian revolution. Yet still, we were not behind sending young men from Tunisia to Syria and fight against the regime there, and as far as we know, most of the militants who went there are linked to networks that have nothing to do with Ennahda.
On the other hand, the fact that Tunisian militants are going to Syria to fight there is linked to the internal fragility of the Tunisian state. Tunisia is a small country that has a long border with all of its neighbors: with Algeria 1,000 km [621 miles], with Libya 500 km and 1,300 km of coastline, all of which constitutes nearly 2,000 km [of land borders]. This explains the infiltration of these militants. I do not think that there is a country in the world that can totally guarantee the security of its borders.
Al-Monitor: Ennahda has faced criticism during its reign in Tunisia and has faced protests accusing it of seeking to apply Islamic law, controlling state institutions and excluding its political opponents. How do you respond to this?
Arbaoui: This accusation is odd because Ennahda has shown flexibility and moderation that exceeded all limits in its intellectual and political behavior. Some of our regulatory bases protested against this flexibility and objected to it. Therefore, the accusations you mention are not true and they lack any evidence.
As for the issue of the application of Islamic law, Ennahda never demanded this, neither under the previous regime nor on day one in 1981. As we celebrate the 32nd anniversary [of the movement’s founding] today, you can review all of our political speeches and legal documents, and you will find that our only demand is to achieve freedom for this society.
As for controlling state institutions in Tunisia, it is normal in any democratic political system that the governing authority seeks senior officials to implement its policy. The Western and US model give the president the eligibility to appoint nearly 3,000 high-level jobs, including governors and rulers. Any other political party that succeeds Ennahda is entitled to appoint high-level officials from its ranks and we will not object to this.
Al-Monitor: What are the extra efforts that Ennahda can make in order to allay the concerns over women's rights in Tunisia?
Arbaoui: Talk about women in Tunisia necessarily involves a social peculiarity within Tunisian society. We in the Ennahda party strongly support that women maintain their rights. Unfortunately, however, some leftist and secular forces in Tunisia have begun warning Tunisian women against Ennahda, sparking concerns among them. As soon as we won the elections and rose to power, we proved these accusations wrong, putting those politicians in a state of extreme embarrassment with their popular audience.
On the other hand, some Tunisian politicians launch from time to time what I would describe as a media "storm" against Ennahda regarding women's rights, going so far as to push foreign and international parties to alienate us. But when foreign delegations asked us about the nature of these criticisms, they came to find that they were not true.
Those accusing Ennahda of being prejudiced against women’s rights may be classified in two categories: they are either unaware of our positions and ignore our intellectual and political culture, or they are our enemy and are deliberately making direct accusations against us.
Al-Monitor: Two years following the outbreak of the revolution, the Tunisian economy is still suffering from an unemployment rate of 17% and objections are raised at the lack of any economic progress. What are Ennahda’s plans for promoting the economy?
Arbaoui: Ennahda exerted unremitting efforts to improve the economic situation in Tunisia, but it is worth mentioning that the former regime left us with a poor economic situation with a growth rate of -2%. Since we came to power in early 2012, we have been able to achieve an economic growth rate of 3.5%, representing an overall increase of 5%. This is a significant percentage to be reached during such a short period of time, as confirmed by the Tunisian Institute of Statistics and the Central Bank governor.
Yet, this progress and growth are not enough for Ennahda, since we have development plans and economic ideas relating to the situation of Tunisia, and we are trying to reduce unemployment. We are sure, however, that this growth will never become a reality as long as political and security stability is not established in the country.
Moreover, it is no secret that Ennahda has made contacts and received promises from several investment entities abroad which are awaiting this stability in order to inject funds and implement development projects in Tunisia, a country viable for investment.
The fact of the matter it, however, that Ennahda, during its short ruling period, achieved some of its economic plans, but stumbled at times and faced obstacles, in light of the security and political problems in the country.
Al-Monitor: A recent poll showed that the popularity of Nidaa Tounes exceeds that of Ennahda, since 70% of the respondents expressed their dissatisfaction toward the latter’s management of economic affairs and the security situation in Tunisia. Are you worried about the decline of your popularity?
Arbaoui: Ennahda is accustomed to such figures and results, which have been issued by polling institutions for years now. We believe that they lack credibility and accuracy. Moreover, these institutions receive bribes and want their results to satisfy those offering the bribes, since Ennahda still enjoys a strong influence among Tunisians.
On the other hand, the reshaping of the political map in Tunisia was only natural following Ennahda’s great victory in the previous election. A major Tunisian coalition was formed between all other political forces to face and compete with Ennahda. This coalition includes Nidaa Tounes and other parties.
On a different note, Ennahda does not believe that it will remain the only major force in Tunisia, since this is the nature of partisan work: major political forces may become undermined while other small forces may emerge. Moreover, Ennahda conducts ongoing internal audits to measure its popularity.
It is not surprising that Ennahda obtained 30% in this poll. We are not satisfied by this ratio and we strive to increase it more and more.
Al-Monitor: The United States expressed its discontent regarding the judgments rendered against 20 persons involved in the attack against its embassy last year. How do you guarantee to foreign states that their missions will not be exposed to any future attacks, given these relatively lax judicial decisions?
Arbaoui: This subject is sensitive and delicate. You are asking about judgments rendered by the highest authority in Tunisia, the judicial authority, which is an independent authority that no other power may intervene in its decisions, even if some of these decision were unable to satisfy certain parties, whether locally or abroad.
Ennahda will not interfere in judicial decisions, since we are not actually going to repeat the acts of the previous regime, which used to interfere and impose its decisions on judges.
On the other hand, I don’t think there is a direct relationship between the judgments rendered against the defendants accused of attacking the US Embassy and preventing future attacks against embassies and diplomatic missions. On the contrary, the perpetrators of these attacks, most of whom probably espouse violent ideas and extremist ideologies, might be driven by stringent judgments and harsh decisions against them to commit other attacks out of revenge.
Adnan Abu Amer is dean of the Faculty of Arts and head of the Press and Information Section as well as a lecturer in the history of the Palestinian issue, national security, political science and Islamic civilization at Al Ummah University Open Education. He holds a doctorate in political history from the Demashq University and has published a number of books on issues related to the contemporary history of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict. On Twitter: @adnanabuamer1