The political crisis in Tunisia continues to escalate despite recent initiatives calling for national dialogue, the latest of which was launched by the interim president, Moncef Marzouki. The details of this initiative were reworked by Najib Chebbi, the head of the political council of the opposition Republican Party, in an attempt to render national dialogue a success this time around and take the country to safety.

Mr. Chebbi, what is the secret behind your fluctuating relationship with the Ennahda Party?

The political crisis in Tunisia continues to escalate despite recent initiatives calling for national dialogue, the latest of which was launched by the interim president, Moncef Marzouki. The details of this initiative were reworked by Najib Chebbi, the head of the political council of the opposition Republican Party, in an attempt to render national dialogue a success this time around and take the country to safety.

Mr. Chebbi, what is the secret behind your fluctuating relationship with the Ennahda Party?

Under Ben Ali, I did not hesitate to communicate with Ennahda leaders inside and outside of Tunisia and I was not afraid of the consequent threats. After the overthrow of Ben Ali’s regime, however, we and Ennahda went on different paths and all communication between us was severed until the 23rd of last October when the Republican Party put forward its “roundtable talks” initiative to all the country’s parties, Ennahda included, in attempt to find a way out.

What sort of agreements did you reach in the first round of the presidency’s national dialogue initiative?

We agreed upon an agenda to end the current transitional period and hold new elections because although the National Constituent Assembly’s main purpose is to draft the constitution, it should also call for elections. The second item of the agenda is to finalize the constitution, without which no new elections could be held, and the third item which is essential for holding the elections is enacting an election law. However, what should exist to ensure free and fair elections is a security situation at least similar to that which was in place before the October 23rd 2011 elections.

Did you address the issue of dissolving revolution protection leagues and Salafists’ violence?

No, but we agreed that the aforesaid four items are a must for ending the transitional period before the end of 2013, which means that the elections should be held in the last third of this year. However, we did not tackle the content of the aforesaid items; we only set a date for the elections and discussed a number of proposals without reaching an agreement because we have been encountered with the problem of whether to hold the presidential and legislative elections separately or simultaneously. The other items on the agenda, like the unresolved issues in the constitution, the country’s political system, the necessary security arrangements, the revolution protection leagues, the Jihadi groups and weapons proliferation, will be addressed during the next rounds of the national dialogue which we consider a big gain, hoping that it will embrace all parties who have formal reservations.

What about the Popular Front reservations, which are sticking to the dialogue initiative launched by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT)?

We wish that the Popular Front could join us in the national dialogue but we have yet to know its final decision. We look forward to expanding the dialogue base to achieve as much political agreement as possible at the first stage. At the second stage we will refer the issues agreed upon to UGTT in order to be put forward to the national organizations as well the parties not represented in the NCA under the second round of the UGTT dialogue initiative, which kicked off in September 2012. The third and last stage will be submitting the agreements’ paper attached to the recommendations put forward by UGTT to NCA in order to become binding decisions.

These stages need a lot of time; does the current situation allow for that?

This must be done quickly because time is against us.

The details you just mentioned suggest amendments to the presidency’s dialogue initiative and validate the news about your launching a new dialogue initiative?

The points I just mentioned are unanimously agreed upon. Personally speaking, I have played an important role in rendering this initiative a success, but the issue here is not to credit the success to this person or that person, because it is an initiative for national dialogue.  Everyone is interested in that and I would like to thank the president for facilitating its launch.

You suggest differences over the fundamental issues in the constitution; do you mean not to explicitly state that Tunisia is a civil state?

The civil nature of the state is unanimously agreed upon by the NCA members, and provided for in the draft constitution. I have taken part in drafting the constitution and I believe that in essence, it guarantees basic freedoms and the separation of powers, which is an advanced step for Tunisia in this field. Personally speaking, I believe this constitution is satisfactory, even though some details are controversial. Besides, the draft will be presented to legal experts to legalize it.

What then are the problematic issues in the constitution?

They are related to the powers of the president because Ennahda mostly wants a parliamentary system while the other blocs want a modified presidential system in which the president has neither absolute power nor is powerless. The debate today is about this particular issue and anything else can be worked out and improved but I believe that the constitution in its present version is satisfactory.

Your opinion that the constitution is satisfactory contradicts some of your allies’ concerns regarding the disguised stipulation of Sharia as the source of legislation?

Nonsense.  Article one of the constitution explicitly states that the country’s political system, official language and religions are the republican system, Arabic and Islam respectively. This has nothing to do with Sharia unless some people are sensitive towards Islam. Besides, the source of legislation in the constitution is not religion.

Article 148 states that the scope of interpretation of article one shall not be contrary to Islam?

I do not agree with you on this reading, which I have also heard from some human rights activists and intellectuals in the media. With regards to its philosophy and wording, this is a modern constitution that acknowledges that Tunisia is a civil state based on a total separation of powers. Moreover, the executive has limited powers and is divided into two institutions: the president and the prime minister where each has specific authorities and each power is supervised by another power. Let us also not forget that fundamental principles embodied in international conventions are included in the constitution and anything else can be regarded as cultural details and ideological particulars that can be improved later on and they must not be considered an obstacle standing in the way of giving Tunisians a modern constitution.

What is your position regarding the revolutionary protection leagues?

I believe RPLs are not a new phenomenon which requires undergoing a practice examination. They have been there for quite a while now and are known for violating individual rights and freedoms, which necessitates taking firm legal measures to dissolve them rather than leaving them on the loose.

After January 14, 2011, you advocated a transitional period to hold presidential elections followed by parliamentary elections to amend the 1959 constitution, following the example of Egypt. Are you today convinced that this is the best option for Tunisia?

Most people think so and they believe that the path we took was not right. Today, there is public resentment over the NCA performance and over failing to meet the deadline set to draft the new constitution. Personally speaking, I believe the NCA performance is as good as it got and if we manage to complete the discussion about the constitution and set an election date we will give others a successful democratic transition model. After all, Tunisia is in the midst of a peaceful democratic transition process and our responsibility as politicians is to go on and complete the journey.

Some blocs have started talking about their candidates for the coming presidential elections, so what about you?

It is too early to announce candidates given that the constitution has not been drafted yet and that no election date has been set.

How do you evaluate your performance after the revolution, and how do you respond to criticisms leveled against you?

I am proud to be part of Al-Ghannouchi’s government, which is the first democratic transition government and the one which took all the measures that paved the way for a democratic transition process and for holding the elections. Being a part of this government was a motivating factor for the Republican Party given that it was only one point behind Ennahda in the public opinion polls. In fact, the opposition boosted its standing with Tunisians and it almost took the lead nationwide. I did not miss the mark with regards to fundamental issues but I did miss the mark in some particulars, which I would have fixed if I had the opportunity; those particulars are basically related to our interaction policy.

What is your position on Ennahda and its source of religious ideology? Do you consider it an enemy, an opponent or a potential ally?

I am not at odds with any Tunisian side and you perfectly know that the Ennahda ideological and political agenda is completely different from my social and liberal agenda. The thing that brought us together during the tyrannical era is my commitment to stand for the rights of my fellow Tunisians regardless of their ideological or political convictions. What brings me together with Ennahda is our homeland and all differences and rivalry should not turn to confrontation in order to protect the country and its stability.

The Republican Party and I want to achieve national reconciliation in the post-election period to enable the country to dedicating its resources to fulfilling all Tunisians’ needs of security, employment, regional development, reduction of the cost of living and achieving social justice. These facts show that the relationship between the Republican Party and Ennahda is courageous, transparent, based on principles and not subject to any political calculations as some opponents like to imply.