His opponents describe him as a politically stubborn and argumentative dinosaur afraid of becoming extinct, while his supporters call him Tunisia’s wise man and its saviour from collapse after the revolution. He is Beji Caid el Sebsi, veteran politician, the last Tunisian prime minister before the revolution, leader of the Nidaa Tounes (“Call of Tunisia”) party, and according to current opinion polls the presidential candidate with the best chance of reaching the Palace of Carthage.

He only returned to politics two years ago, but consistently stresses that he never got bored of it. His eloquence and intuition, sometimes surprising given his age, has made him the most popular politician in Tunisia as well as the most experienced. He has been able to avoid many of the “traps” his opponents have set for him, but he has also made a mistake that may have cost him the unity of Nidaa Tounes when he fought an internal battle to make his son his legal heir in the party he founded. He does not admit these mistakes explicitly, but he does not deny them.

Although he is one of 27 candidates in the presidential election, scheduled to take place on November 23, and he sees himself as the most deserving candidate, he also insists that he will accept the result. 

Beji Caid el Sebsi, you seem confident of your chances of entering the Palace of Carthage as the next president of the republic. Is there any competitor standing in your way?

It was only natural that we [as the Nidaa Tounes Party], nominate ourselves because we have submitted an integrated social and political project for Tunisia. My presidential candidacy gives more credibility to this project and puts our commitment to it to the test of public opinion. These democratic elections give Tunisia a historic opportunity and they came as one of the commendable consequences of the Tunisian revolution. We accept this and are not afraid of democratic competition, regardless of the very negative impact of the high number of candidates, and regardless of all the flaws in the electoral process.

Your competitor in the elections, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi of the Democratic Progressive Party confirmed that if he does not enter the presidential palace, he will retire from politics. Are you thinking of something similar?

I retire from politics! I started to practise politics 60 years ago and the result of the election will not stop me practising it. We competed in these elections and we were aware of all possibilities, including the possibility of losing.

If you become the next president of the second republic, what will be your first decision?

The president, as everybody knows, has limited powers because the real executive authority is in the hands of the prime minister and you should ask him this question. However, I believe that peoples’ aspirations can be summed up in a number of priorities. First and foremost is security, second is employment, and third are social and economic conditions.

But you once said Tunisian diplomacy has been extremely damaged during the last three years, and diplomacy is part of the next president’s tasks.

This is true, but I share this task with the next prime minister. Our policy today as Nidaa Tounes is to regain the prestige of the Tunisian state inside and outside Tunisia. By this I mean the rule of law – the deterioration witnessed during the last three years was a result of the weakness of the state.

After the legislative elections in October, and if Tunisia’s fate takes the form of an alliance, with whom will Nidaa Tounes ally itself?

No decision can be taken on this before the announcement of the election results. It is for this specific reason that we have decided to compete in the elections in the form of individual party lists, but this does not mean that if Nidaa Tounes wins the absolute majority, it is committed to ruling by itself. This is because we consider it in the interest of our party and of Tunisia to rule in the framework of a consensus.

Would it be a pragmatic or an emotional alliance based on ideological backgrounds?

No, in politics there is no place for emotions and demagogy. I mean that it will be a pragmatic alliance. In principle, we will enter into alliances with those who belong to the same political and democratic family, such as the Union for Tunisia, but answers to all these assumptions will remain suspended until after the elections. 

Your main competitor, the Islamist Ennahda Movement, is acting as if it is guaranteed to win the parliamentary elections and as if it holds the keys to the presidency. How would you comment on this?

“Man does not attain all his heart’s desires for the winds do not blow as the vessels wish.” Thus, Ennahda, or any other party, will not attain all that it wants. Everything depends on the results of the elections which nobody knows. If it wins, it can do what pleases it, and if Nidaa Tounes wins, our party knows what it should do.

In all of his recent statements, the current President Moncef Marzouki sounded tense. Do you think he actually feels that his days in the Carthage Palace are coming to an end?  

We do not know the source of tension precisely. Is it related to health problems or to other things? But his latest statement shocked me because it was unexpected for him [in his election campaign, Marzouki gave an angry speech in which he attacked some of the parties as well as the media – ed.]. He also attacked me personally. I personally respect the person who occupies the highest post in the state, although I have my declared reservations on the person currently holding this position. For this reason, I do not wish to comment on what the interim president said about me.

What is your reaction to his statement that the Tunisian media lies and is corrupt?

This is improper and it is something inappropriate to be said by someone who holds the president’s post.

Just a few days before the parliamentary election on October 26 voices warning against fraud have started to be heard. Do you agree with those who are raising these doubts?

I think that the Independent Election Commission [ISIE] was formed hastily under conditions known to everybody. It was formed according to the will of the majority in the constituent assembly. Thus, the very short period of time taken for its formation did not allow for the best organization of the electoral process. But I personally do not believe that things will go as far as forging election results.

I also met the president of the commission Chafik Sarsar and I trust him and I don’t think that he is biased to any movement. But the electoral process is a difficult one and it requires the support of all the people in order to make it succeed in a fair and transparent manner. For us, we have no choice other than to accept the results of the ballots, despite some gaps and weaknesses in the electoral process.