Tunisia's Jebali on Traumas of Transition

Jun 19, 2013

      Hamadi Jebali was Tunisia’s first prime minister after the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. Often compared to Nelson Mandela, he spent 17 years in prison for his involvement with the Islamist Ennahda movement. Jabali resigned in February 2013 after his party rejected his proposal to form a broader coalition government. The Islamist-led government was under pressure from the opposition after the assassination of a prominent secular politician. The following are excerpts from two interviews with Robin Wright, a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and an appearance at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

            After the Revolution

            “Throwing out a dictator was easy by comparison. Switching from a dictatorship is going to be harder. We had a street revolution. Now we need an institutional revolution.

           "The issue is not Ennahda. It’s the way government has been managed after the revolution. One of the most important demands of the revolution was transparency of the government—good governance. We are a laboratory of experiments in freedom and democracy for all the Arab Spring countries.

           "Polarization has developed in Tunisian politics, which is a disfavor to our revolution. We got rid of the dictatorship. Then the first thing the opposition parties did was fight over politics—and we forgot the problems of the people in our storm of infighting."

The Salafis

            "The Salafi issue is very complex and we should show restraint and honor human rights and not do what [President] Ben Ali did, which was to arrest everyone and then sort it out. We have had one criteria—that we not look at the ideas of any person or put any restrictions on anyone to express their views. We don’t look at ideas as criteria.

            "Our issue, our litmus test, is the rule of law and respect of the constitution. Our problem is with those who pick up arms and use violence against us. The turning point was really using violence. We don’t engage in dialogue with those who resort to arms. You carry arms and I don’t negotiate with you. We fight them when they resort to arms. You must put down your arms and stay away from those tactics and I will negotiate with you. I address the Salafis and others and say ‘Why are you resorting to arms when you have all freedoms’…

            "I said to them, ‘Have you been refused a permit to create a party? Could you not print a newspaper if you wanted to? Have you been prevented from participating in the elections? What made you go down the path of violence? Whatever your ideology is, whoever uses violence breaks the law has no place at the table. We all have to be against them because they use violence, no matter if they are Salafi or not Salafi, they use violence."

Freedoms

            "The Koran states that there should be no compulsion in religion. I believe in a society that is pluralistic and tolerates different beliefs. There are some people who believe and some who don’t believe. We’d like to have institutions that are inclusive, whether they agree with the Islamists or not. We recognize different views. Here, I’m not talking Ennahda, but government. The state must make clear that the value of freedom is recognized and that the state is based on the value of freedom for all people. The state recognizes the freedom of religion and can’t take a role in personal belief. The state should encourage religion through civil society but not by directing their activities. Let civil society express themselves. But civil society can’t impose its views on others.

            "These are not values that we are adopting from the West. These are from the Koran. When the Prophet Mohammed moved to Medina, there was a draft document for all people – Jews, fetishists, Christians – on how to share space. It’s a charter for the city of Medina. We cannot live together unless we have acceptance of our differences."

The Islamists’ Mistakes

            "Those who don’t admit their mistakes can’t progress. We need self-criticism. The Koran recommends begging for forgiveness. Ennahda made mistakes and I made mistakes as prime minister. One of the mistakes is that we did not try to compress everything into a shorter period. We also made mistakes in relations between the state and the party. The state is for everybody. This is learned from our short experience in power.

            “Mistakes were made by the people too. They had expectations of what could be accomplished in a short period with limited resources. We all made mistakes."

Needs of Tunisians

            "On December 17, 2010, one of the slogans we raised was 'dignity for man' --dignity politically and in social rights. This is what the Tunisian people want. They want freedom, they want work, they want the basic necessities of life, education, because this is what preserves one’s dignity."

Sectarianism

            "Shiite, Sunni, Muslim, secular ― all of these classifications hurt our societies, if they are used as labels. And they put us into problems that have no end, we see that in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt, and elsewhere. We have to change that fact by those who believe in democracy and freedoms, and the others who do not, that is how it should be… We can live with each other on this land to build schools, universities, railroads and roads."

Political Aspirations

            "A lot of things have been said about me running for president. I do not need to confirm, I mean frankly, I do not really care or desire the presidency. If I wanted and cared about power, I would have grabbed onto the seat that I already did have. Maybe my resignation, some people saw it as maybe me getting ready to run for president, [but] no. What I care about in the presidency, be it me or someone else, is that the next president be everyone’s president--that it be a tent that covers all of us. We need a president that brings us all together."

Economy

           "We need a revolution in the understanding of the principle of taxation, and what it is…When you pay taxes, you have the right to ask in return. We have to bring down tax rates on companies, on small companies, small businesses, so that we encourage them to grow and to employ. We need what we call the broadening of the base, so that it covers most of the factions of society. And we notice that when we brought down the tax rate, people are encouraged more fairly to come forward and pay taxes…Taxation is the right of the state and the duty of the citizenry."

Photo credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Institute of Peace

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