Interview with Hélé Béji

"Ennahda has an unbelievable capacity to adjust"

Hélé Béji is an independent Tunisian writer and literary scholar. She is related to Habib Bourguiba, the founder of the Tunisian republic and its first president, and is part of a rather progressive intellectual scene. Béji has been watching the Islamists closely since they took power two years ago and is one of the few people who considers Ennahda capable of learning and becoming a major democratic people's party. Christina Omlin spoke to her about recent developments in Tunisia

A few days ago, the Islamist party Ennahda voluntarily renounced governmental responsibility. What does this mean for Tunisia?

Hélé Béji: Ennahda has kept its word. The party has always said that once there is a candidate for the post of prime minister and once the constitution and electoral commission are in place, it would resign. The constitution has not yet been definitively adopted, but the Islamist party has certainly scored points with the population. The Tunisian people no longer accept politicians who desperately cling to power. Now that Ennahda has stepped down, the Tunisians can see that the Islamists put the good of the country before the party's interests. I am fairly certain that this move will work in their favour in the next elections.

The constitution has not yet been adopted; at the moment, the articles are still being voted on one by one. Nonetheless, what is your opinion of the new constitution?

Béji: From what I've seen so far, I think it is a big step forward for Tunisia. The opposition played a crucial role in ensuring the civil character of this constitution. The emphasis on a civil state, the equality of men and women before the law, the neutrality of institutions, the recognition of human rights and the freedom of speech and electoral freedom shows that this constitution was written in the spirit of the revolution.

But religion is still part of the constitution. Islam is mentioned in the very first article.

Béji: Yes, as the Tunisian people's religion but not as a state religion. This article was taken from the first constitution, which was written under President Habib Bourguiba (1957–1987). In my opinion, it could have been left out. It should be viewed in the historical context, as a compromise between two different political camps. At the same time, freedom of conscience is guaranteed in the constitution, as is – and this is just as important – the neutrality of mosques. A lot of nonsense has been spouted in mosques over the past three years, with imams agitating the faithful. The constitution, however, places emphasis on the will of the people and the fact that Tunisia is a state based on the rule of law rather than a religious state. So no matter who comes to power next, Tunisia cannot fall behind again in this respect.

Hélé Béji (photo: Hélé Béji)
"Although the revolution was not religiously motivated but was driven by the fight against social inequality, injustice and dictatorship, it is thanks to the revolution that we now have parties such as Ennahda, which are trying to show that democracy and Islam can be reconciled," says Hélé Béji

Tunisia found its way out of the blockade. Whom do Tunisians have to thank for this?

Béji: Above all the unions (UTTG) and the employers' association (UTICA). The parties had to give in to the combined power of capital and labour. They forced two enemy blocks – the Islamists and the opposition – to sit at a table and re-engage in a dialogue. The opposition made it very clear to the Islamists that Tunisians do not want a religious state. For their part, the Islamists have learned something and have become more pragmatic.

Although things are moving forward now, it still feels as if there are two completely different versions of Tunisia: the country of the conservative Islamists and the country of the progressive opposition. There doesn't seem to be anything in between. Would you agree?

Béji: These "two Tunisias" are very much present in politics, but they are much less distinct within society. Tunisians are more in agreement with each other than it may seem. In daily life, there are no issues with religion, immigration and Western culture. You can see young veiled women walking hand in hand with women with uncovered hair. When I meet tradesmen, bank clerks or female civil servants, I have the feeling that they are far more tolerant than the elites. The elites are the ones who are at loggerheads.

Why are they fighting so bitterly?

Béji: One of the reasons is because they hardly know each other. There is a huge misunderstanding between them, a misunderstanding based on fear. The Islamists are afraid of the modernists, and Habib Bourguiba is the main spiritual, historical and political role model for the modernists. Habib Bourguiba decided at the very beginning of his time in office to completely banish religion from politics. This legacy lives on to this day. The weakness of Bourguiba's system was that it was built on the persecution of Islamists. Building a system on persecution does not work in the long term.

Unfortunately, Tunisian intellectuals are split on this issue. Some defend Islam; others believe tradition should be broken with entirely. Habib Bourguiba blamed religion for absolutely everything: for mistakes, ignorance, the inequality between men and women. In order to progress, Bourguiba believed that all traditional customs and conventions had to be destroyed. However, this form of modernity did not work, because religion is simply not the cause of our economic, social and scientific shortcomings. For over 60 years, nothing has been done to build a modern society like the ones you find in Europe, where the judiciary is independent of politics and social problems are tackled. Policy-makers have failed.

When did the fight against the Islamists escalate?

Béji: The situation began deteriorating after the October 2011 elections and came to a new head after the murder of the left-wing opposition politician Chokri Belaid in February 2013. At the time, everyone pointed the finger at Ennahda and branded it a totalitarian party. But the Islamists have developed since then; they have changed. The Islamists of 2014 are not the same as the Islamists of the 1960s. Why have some Islamists become so violent? It is true; they have had radicals in their ranks.

Protests in Tunis following the assassination of Chokri Belaid (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
The wave of outrage that followed the assassination of Chokri Belaid, an opposition politician and lawyer who was vocal in his criticism of the Islamists, brought down Tunisia's first Islamist-led government. The country's political crisis deepened with the assassination of the opposition party leader Mohamed Brahmi five months later

What do you think are the reasons for this violence?

Béji: I think Tunisia missed the opportunity to create space for a conservative party on the political spectrum. There is no society in existence that consists of progressive forces only. In this respect, I will defend Ennahda: a balance of political power is necessary. Is there a country in the world that does not have at least one conservative and one progressive political force?

So the Islamists are Tunisia's conservative force?

Béji: Exactly. The conservatives have never had that kind of platform in Tunisia in the past. If we repeat the mistakes of the past, they will become more and more serious, and injustice will grow, because at the end of the day, the Tunisians voted the Islamists in. Parts of the population have a great affinity with these conservative Islamist elites. The Islamists are an elite that is very adept at taking up and influencing popular currents.

What do you think are the reasons for this?

Béji: I think it is a question of moral vision. In the decades of dictatorship, politics lost its moral compass. Everything – even the gravest injustices – was allowed for the sake of the state. Although the revolution was not religiously motivated but was driven by the fight against social inequality, injustice and dictatorship, it is thanks to the revolution that we now have parties such as Ennahda, which are trying to show that democracy and Islam can be reconciled. This is their vision.

Where do you see changes in the Islamists' agenda?

Béji: When I think back to the Islamists' first appearances after the election, they were so much more extreme than they are today. They have accepted the majority of the opposition's demands with respect to the new constitution. So Ennahda has an unbelievable capacity to adjust to new circumstances. They have understood that they cannot lock themselves up in their own little world. Their actions are more farsighted than those of the opposition.
I think the opposition is finding it hard to accept that you can be both intelligent and conservative. You have got to accept that there are people who are sceptical of progress as something worth striving for.

Ennahda supporters protesting in Tunis (photo: Reuters)
As influential as the opposition has been in shaping Tunisia's new constitution and ensuring its civil characteristics, Hélé Béji feels that it is unlikely that it will be able to stop Ennahda – which has massive support throughout the country – from winning the next elections

What mistakes have the Islamists made?

Béji: Their most significant mistake is that they reacted too slowly. They allowed the Salafists to fly their black flags and for a long time, they did not distance themselves from them. In doing so, they confirmed people's worst fears. They gave blanket amnesty to jihadists, releasing them from prison, and assumed that they would no longer cause any trouble since Islamists are in power.

What chances does the future hold for Ennahda?

Béji: Ennahda has only one chance: the party must disassociate itself from the violent wing within the movement if it ever hopes to become a democratic people's party. I can see from their actions that they have changed. In their last months in power, they adopted a repressive stance towards the jihadists. The party had to break away from its own history. In fact, Ennahda needs to take this even further: religious education in mosques in general has to be completely overhauled.

The next election is due to be held in autumn 2014. What will happen if Ennahda wins again?

Béji: I think this is actually quite likely. The entire opposition will not be able to stop a large part of the population from voting Ennahda again. However, the opposition has played a very positive role. It made clear to Ennahda: we are Muslims, but we will not accept being ruled in the name of religion; religion is a private matter. This is probably the first time that any society in the Arab world has ever made this so clear. For sixty years, a liberalisation of social norms has been taking place, and the Tunisians would like it to continue. Ennahda has had to accept that.

Interview conducted by Christina Omlin

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/ Qantara.de

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