Tunisia's Arab Spring

An interview with Hamadi el-Jebali, Tunisia’s first democratically elected prime minister, about his country's transition to democracy
By: /
June 3, 2013
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Hamadi el-Jebali knows what it is to be denied justice: Targeted by the Ben Ali regime for his membership in Tunisia's Islamist movement, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1992. He spent ten years of his sentence in solitary confinement. He also knows what it is to have justice served: In January 2011, the regime that imprisoned and tortured him was overthrown. In December of that year, he became Tunisia’s first democratically elected prime minister. And Mr. el-Jebali understands what it takes to create a just society for all: In March 2013, he resigned as prime minister when his initiative for a government of national competencies did not get the support of his moderate Islamist Ennahda Party. He now serves as Secretary-General for the party. The Munk School at the University of Toronto recently hosted Mr. el-Jebali, where he spoke about Tunisia’s experience of the Arab Spring and the challenges it faces today. OpenCanada asked Mr. el-Jabali to evaluate his country’s ongoing transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Tunisia faces many challenges today, particularly the growing pressure from radical Salafist activists and increasingly violent clashes between those individuals and Tunisian police. Labour disruptions have also been making headlines.  But there are also positive developments – new investments in alternative energy projects, a strengthening relationship with Turkey, and the promise of positive ripple effects as the eurozone’s recovery continues. What are your hopes and fears for Tunisia today?

My hopes were the hopes of the Tunisian people, and this has been true from the beginning of the national struggle to the end of the revolution. Our greatest hope is to live as free people, like other peoples of the world – to live with dignity, to have jobs, public transportation, public health services – these are the things we want, the things we hope for. This is basic, but also very profound – it’s what every person wants.

Right now, I think we do not have fears so much as realistic concerns. The dictatorship is gone, but it left behind a terrible legacy: there are thousands and thousands of unemployed people in Tunisia – there are 200,000 university graduates with nothing to do – and all of these people now want jobs, they have ambitions. The dictatorship also left behind huge areas of underdevelopment – mainly in the interior of the country – that lack even the most basic infrastructure. The people living in these places want access to the same things that people in the more developed coastal areas areas have. Finally, the dictatorship created a society filled with corruption, theft, and graft. People want a new society based on social justice.

People are in a great rush to get what they want. They have big ambitions for themselves and their country and are in a hurry to move forward. But Tunisia doesn’t have an endless supply of petroleum that we can use to give our people everything they want right away. This is what concerns me: the gap between what the people want – jobs, better services, security – and our ability to give it to them. The regional and social fissures will not disappear if we cannot fix problems of underdevelopment. But we know that democracy, development, and social justice are the basic pillars of economic progress, are we are working on all of those.

You’ve described socio-economic underdevelopment, specifically in the Tunisian interior relative to the coastal areas, as the major issue confronting Tunisia today. Is there consensus that addressing economic inequality within the country and improving development overall should be the governments chief priority?

Almost all of Tunisia’s political parties are in agreement about the problems we face today. The extreme right and the extreme left parties are the exceptions. I don’t want to label the extreme right parties as the religious right parties, but they do not believe in the same kinds of personal freedoms that the majority of Tunisians believe in, or the importance of an economic and social contract between the government and the people. They don’t believe in democracy or freedoms for women. And they benefit from poverty and backwardness because that gives their movement strength. The extreme right knows this and they exploit it – they use people’s frustrations with their poverty to fulfill their political aims.

The same thing can be said about the extreme left, really the Marxist left as they seem to think we are still in the days of the Bolshevik revolution. Like the extreme right, they also see underdevelopment and all the problems it creates as good for their political party.

Most Tunisians and Tunisian political parties, however, are moving toward the centre. Tunisians do not want to be told whether or not they are good Muslims or bad Muslims – they want to be free, free to practice their religion, free to speak their minds, free to form political parties. Of course, there are differences in the detailed programs of each of the centrist parties, but there’s no basic disagreement on the idea that Tunisia must have democracy, development, and social justice.

Tunisia is situated in a volatile regional environment, but nonetheless seems to be moving ahead with developing productive bilateral ties with other countries in the region such as Turkey. How would you describe Tunisia’s foreign policy today?

We are developing a policy that is principled and realistic – one that is open but at the same time faithful to our civilizational history. We want to have good relations with everyone in the world. We have a special relationship, without a doubt, with Europe. But we also want to expand our relationships with North America, Canada, and Asia, not at the expense of our relationship with Europe, but in addition to our relationship with Europe. However we must be realistic, and focus closer to home first.

Tunisia has a lot to offer the world. Our successful revolution means we have the potential to be a truly exemplar nation. I do not mean that we believe our revolution can or should be exported to other oppressed peoples in the region and beyond. Exporting revolution does not work. But I do believe that other countries should look to our values, to our emphasis on freedom, democracy, and social justice, to our efforts to broadly distribute powers within government and strengthen the rule of law, if they want to understand how a country can be liberated. It took much more than one party – Islamist parties cannot claim to have liberated Tunisia. But now the dictatorship has fallen, and Tunisia's experience can be an example to the world.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.