Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an interview that made waves in the Tunisian press, the country’s former prime minister, Hamed Karoui, said that he is willing to work with any party save the popular Leftist movement Nidaa Tounes as he re-enters the political scene in force ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections.
With his new political party and ongoing interest in his time in the highest ranks of the former government of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, many are suspicious of the lingering influence of officials from the pre-revolutionary era in politics today. And while Ben Ali-era officials have been cleared of corruption charges relating to some of the former president’s alleged illegal activities, rumors and accusations continue to plague former leaders of the now-dissolved Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). But responding to questions from Asharq Al-Awsat, Karoui stressed the need not to discount the experience and political leanings of those who are sympathetic to the old regime—a position reflected, perhaps, in the rejection of clauses in the new electoral law passed just a few weeks ago would have barred former regime figures from serving in government.
Having previously served as Ben Ali’s justice minister, Karoui became prime minister of Tunisia in 1989, only two years after the president took office. He served in that post until 1999, although he remained in his post as vice-chairman of the RCD until 2008. That party, which in its various incarnations ruled Tunisia from its independence in 1956 until the 2011 revolution, has now been banned, but Karoui’s new party aims to bring its spirit back into the spotlight ahead of elections planned for the end of this year.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Did you expect a revolution in Tunisia three years ago?
Hamed Karoui: Certainly. There were indicators and a buildup that would lead to a revolution. However, I had anticipated a revolution in Tunisia in 2013 or 2014 at the latest—at the time when the presidential and parliamentary elections, which were scheduled for 2014, were to take place.
In fact, I believed [then] that President Ben Ali should not nominate himself to run in those elections, and I thought it would also have been unacceptable if his wife, Leila Trabelssi, or his son-in-law, Sakher El-Materi, ran for the presidency. But the youth had already speculated that this would happen, and so the revolution sparked off in 2011. It was not organized by any political party and was not based on political choices or approaches. It was simply a call for a decent life for all Tunisians.
Ben Ali betrayed the promises he made on November 7, 1987, when he ascended to presidency, and through this experience the Tunisian people became more aware and more mature. They had never found Ben Ali to be charismatic in the way former president Habib Bourguiba was, but in spite of all of this the people overlooked Ben Ali’s policies in favor of the economic and social achievements that marked his rule.
In the first decade of his presidency, Ben Ali chose his government ministers and advisers well. However, this was soon overshadowed by the Trabelssi family’s influence over his decisions, and everyone fell into financial corruption. People cannot forgive their rulers for doing this. The people can allow mistakes in national politics, still believing the mistake was done in good faith—but corruption and getting rich at the expense of others is a great sin.
In the later years, Ben Ali became a prisoner of his family. He doled out money and resources to members of his wife’s family, as though collecting money had become a game for him.
Q: Were you aware of that corruption at the time? After all, it was known to many outside the Presidential Palace?
I knew only as much as the rest of Tunisia knew. I didn’t have government officials giving me detailed information about the corruption. Neither I nor the rest of the cabinet had any role in the corrupt financial transactions carried out by President Ben Ali’s family.
Q: But after the revolution, some came out and accused you of corruption . . .
True, there were lawsuits against the symbols of the former regime that accused me, and others, of corruption. The Tunisian judiciary then entrusted five experts with the task of investigating and scrutinizing us, looking for documented sources of corruption whether through banks, the stock market, real estate, property or business. But they did not find anyone from the RCD to have been corrupt, and all of the cases were dropped due to lack of evidence and legal grounds.
I worked at the head of the government at the beginning of the Ben Ali era, and I think we achieved a great deal for Tunisia, especially at the social and economic levels. These achievements have been recognized by many political leaders of the post-revolution era, including [Ennahda leader] Rachid Ghannouchi.
Q: Did you have any information on how they managed the corruption?
We did not have the courage to approach President Ben Ali on the subject of corruption, as there was no corruption in the early stages of his rule—especially when compared with the level of corruption at its peak just a few years before the revolution.
I want to tell you that we had worked against corruption, especially in the privatization of public enterprises, which many within Ben Ali’s circle had been profiting from. But major public transactions, such as dealings related to the oil sector, major sports complexes and state acquisitions, were carried out directly by the president. These transactions were directed through to the High Commission for Investments, and reports on the transactions were then handed over to the president. It was the president who took the final decision on these transactions and dealings, and the winner of the public tender was then announced to the High Commission for Investments. We knew that there was favoritism in the decision-making behind the public tendering process, but no one dared cross Ben Ali, and I am one of the more decent ministers and members of government who knew the details of the transactions.
Q: If government officials had all of this knowledge as well, what prevented them from resigning and renouncing their work with Ben Ali?
We all know that freedom was not in the hands of all Tunisians. Indeed, many members of the government feared a confrontation with the regime, and leaving the government was a very difficult decision to make, as the consequences would have been incalculable.
Q: But there were some government officials who did resign during Ben Ali’s presidency, and did not face any of the consequences you speak of . . .
You are referring to the former minister of education, Mohammed Al-Sharafi, who resigned in the early 1990s in protest against the law on associations. But Sharafi was supported by the Tunisian Human Rights League, so in that case it was Ben Ali who was afraid of a confrontation. Mustapha Kemal Nabli also resigned from his position at the Ministry of International Cooperation, Development and Foreign Investment, due to the investment budget cuts doled out by the government. I personally intervened in these two resignations to convince Ben Ali to accept them, but it was not easy to convince him afterwards with regards to other possible resignations.
Q: You knew Ben Ali very well. What do you remember of his personality?
Ben Ali is a very mysterious man, and his military education and his background in security can be seen in all his actions. He would doubt everyone around him, and feared people and competition in all its forms.
Q: How did he view the radical opposition parties, in particular the Islamic Tendency Movement, the predecessor to Ennahda? How did he view the Progressive Democratic Party (now part of the Republican Party), Ettakatol, and the Ettajdid Movement?
He was nervous about the opposition and [the prospect of] any of its leaders running against him [in an election]—as I said earlier, he did not want any competition. He also feared entering an election against strong parties, so he made these parties weak in order to control them.
Q: Why didn’t you advise President Ben Ali on these issues, given that you were close to him?
I gave him advice until I left the government in 2000. After this point I did not have any role to play, and would see Ben Ali only on formal occasions. But I’d like to tell you that Ben Ali did not take heed of the opinions of many Tunisians. For example, the political bureau of the RCD met on June 5, 2008, in order to discuss the events of the Gafsa Mining Basin [the site of significant protests inspired by poverty, unemployment and other social issues] five months after the outbreak of the bloody unrest and violence, while a parallel meeting was taking place at the assembly headquarters between the interior minister, the governor of Gafsa, and the secretary of the assembly. No one involved us in that meeting. The events of Gafsa were strong predictors of the extent to which social tension was spreading, and it was possible to cool tempers if they had asked our advice, but the powers at hand did not understand the message behind these small social uprisings.
Q: What have you been doing since the revolution?
Many called me in the first weeks of the revolution, asking me, ‘What can we do?’ I answered: ‘Leaving this government was not a pleasure, but a responsibility. Let us give others the opportunity to govern, and to determine the difficulties and constraints’
We were in need of self-criticism and a firm stance on the errors that were committed before we could return to serve Tunisia. We do not claim that we are now in the ranks of the opposition, but we will not shrink from supporting Tunisia monetarily either.
Q: How did you react to the courts’ decision to dissolve the RCD after the revolution?
Unfortunately, the dissolution of the party caused a great imbalance in the political arena, allowing the formation of dozens of parties that were part of the 2011 elections. It has now become known that political and security stability had been lost. It was the Tunisian administration alone that saved the country from falling into the abyss.
After the elections, senior officials and employees, as well as anyone who had political experience in the previous era, were distanced from politics. But the government will not be able to succeed without relying on Tunisian skills, whether those skills come from members of the dissolved RCD or otherwise. It is also unsuitable to consider the RCD’s supporters as enemies of Tunisia in this post-revolutionary phase. They have the possibility and potential to start anew.
Q: Is this why you established the Constitutional Movement Party—in order to bring together constitutional parties and supporters of the former regime?
Indeed, the parties with constitutional authority were very weak, and attempted to gather their ranks post-revolution. Despite all the efforts made, the attempts for unification failed. We now aim, through the Constitutional Movement Party, to form a strong political front in the Tunisian political scene, and we are preparing to enter the next presidential and parliamentary elections. We have high hopes. I have faith that supporters of the former regime still have a role in building the country, with the help of the energy of the youth who were behind the revolution.
Q: How will you address Tunisian voters who still hold negative feelings about the Ben Ali era during the campaign?
The Tunisian judiciary has revealed that no evidence supports the charges of corruption and destruction against the figures of the former regime; it even brought forth evidence of our innocence. Because of this, I call for supporters of the old regime to return to the political arena, and say, “Lift up your heads!” This has encouraged many of them to engage with the Constitutional Movement Party, and I have great faith in the unification of the nearly 12 political parties that have a constitutional focus.
Q: Is Nidaa Tounes (the Tunisian Call party), led by Beji Caid El-Sebsi, one of these parties?
This is totally out of the question. I am ready for an alliance with all parties, except for Beji Caid El-Sebsi’s party. This is because he did not stand by the Constitutionalists [supporters of the former regime], and instead opened his doors to combative members of Left-wing parties. It is increasingly clear that his party is unconstitutional, to the extent that it announced that “the constitution is dead” in one of its popular assemblies. He also asked the Constitutionalists to stay out of the public sphere, and they did not show themselves until they were called upon to raise their heads [to show] pride regarding what the Constitutional Party had offered for the benefit of Tunisia since its independence.
Q: So what will your main strategy be in the upcoming election campaign?
We will enter with a political discourse that focuses on the purchasing power of Tunisians. This is the key to the Tunisian voter, who does not care much for political speeches.
Q: Did you arrive at this strategy after a period of reflection on past mistakes?
We did consider our past mistakes, the most critical of which was the non-consolidation of democracy, as well as the abandonment of the creation of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), which represents the real lifeline of the Tunisian economy. We will discuss the details of our self-criticism after the elections taking place at the end of this year.
Q: Will you be a candidate in the presidential elections?
The Constitutional Movement Party will present its candidate for the next presidential election, but it certainly will not be Hamed Karoui. It will be one of the energetic young members of our party.
Q: What is your opinion on the phenomenon of political polarization in Tunisia, exemplified by Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes?
I do not consider Nidaa Tounes a constitutional party. The party requires deep internal modifications and repairs in order to qualify for this description. For this reason we will not support the current polarity, and we will work on mitigation to get good results in the upcoming elections.
Q: What about your party’s relationship with the rest of the major political parties, including the Ennahda Movement?
We do not have special relationships with any political party, whether the Ennahda Movement or left-wing parties, but we do know Hamadi Jebali of Ennahda well.
Q: What do you think of the Ennahda Movement’s decision to reject clauses in the new electoral law that would have prevented officials from the former regime from serving in government?
It is certainly a bold step, as it is imperative to move away from the mentality of a dominant, hegemonic party. If we win a good proportion of the votes at the next election, we will call for an agreement on a joint political program based on the principles of respect for the constitution and the preservation of the civil republic. If we get weak results, we will act as a financial support and not as destructive opposition.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.