Tunisia's Islamist Leader Says Party May Eye Presidency in Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Rashid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party Ennahda, said he or another senior member might seek the presidency if a power-sharing deal with the current prime minister can’t be reached.

Fielding its own contender in next month’s presidential elections would be a watershed for Ennahda, a once-banned party that adheres to what it calls “democratic Islam” and has only run for parliamentary roles since the 2011 revolution that overthrew long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed is also considering a presidential bid after splitting from one of the government’s key coalition parties.

Tunisia's Islamist Leader Says Party May Eye Presidency in Vote

The birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings is holding early elections after the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi last week. The passing of the 92-year-old leader of the Nidaa Tounes party, Tunisia’s first freely elected president, has ushered in yet more uncertainty for the country mired in political bickering and economic lassitude.

"We’re on the verge of talks with Chahed, if we find a consensus that would be good,” Ghannouchi, 78, said in an interview in the capital, Tunis. “If we don’t find a consensus, there will be a candidate,” which he said could be either him or Ennahda’s vice president Abdelfattah Mourou.

“One can be a prime minister, and another president -- and there is the parliament,” he said, describing three leadership roles that could be shared out. The party may make the decision as early as Saturday, he said.

Escaping ‘Ivory Tower’

Ennahda already has ministers in Chahed’s government, which has undertaken controversial reforms as it courts the International Monetary Fund for an economic lifeline. Ghannouchi, who was jailed under Ben Ali’s rule, said if he doesn’t make a presidential bid then he’ll run for parliament for the first time.

Party leaders shouldn’t stay in an “ivory tower,” he said.

Tunisia's Islamist Leader Says Party May Eye Presidency in Vote

Ennahda is campaigning on a party platform of encouraging foreign investment and overhauling a bloated bureaucracy in a country that has one of the world’s highest ratios for civil servant wages, according to the IMF.

The IMF said last week that fuel subsidies in the North African country remain too high ahead of a possible review in the fall to approve another installment of a $2.9 billion loan. Ghannouchi said that while a compromise should be reached with the Washington-based lender, economic reforms were necessary.

“Tunisia resembles a plane that wants to take off, but it’s tied down with laws and regulations inherited from previous eras," he said.

Key elements in Ennahda’s economic program:

  • Taking steps to make public-sector enterprises profitable
  • Divide surplus state lands among "youths" to use, and encourage start-ups
  • Change rules that bar Tunisians from opening bank accounts in foreign currency
  • Make it easier to register companies in Tunisia

Ennahda has played a key role in Tunisia’s politics after Ben Ali’s ouster even as other countries in the Middle East such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates waged fierce crackdowns on Islamist movements, jailing their supporters.

Such countries have nothing to fear from an Ennahda leader, according to Ghannouchi.

“We’ve exited the concept of political Islam,” he said at his home, where his library is stacked with volumes of modern and classical Islamic legal and theological treatises.

“Islam here is tied to freedoms. Whatever contradicts freedom is not Islamic. And Islam is here tied to the nation state. We do not strive for a country that represents all Muslims, but one that represents Tunisians," he said.

“I always tell our friends in Arab countries: the Tunisian revolution is not an export commodity,” Ghannouchi said. “It is a commodity for domestic consumption. We don’t export revolution -- we export some olive oil.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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