At the same time, Tunisia is dealing with a resurgence of Salafist extremism that will require not only a clear position from the government, but also broader regional and international cooperation.
Former Tunisian prime minister Hamadi Jebali resigned his post in March over the political violence that resulted in the assassination of leftist politician Chokri Belaid and the growing influence of Islamist extremism in his country’s politics. However, he continues to be the head of the Ennadha party, and there is now speculation that his party is positioning him to be its candidate for the presidency in elections that have been nominally scheduled to take place before the end of this year.
Asharq Al-Awsat met with Jebali during his recent visit to Oxford, where he was seeking partners in a joint Tunisia–Union for the Mediterranean project to promote higher education.
The following interview has been edited for length:
Asharq Al-Awsat: The positions you have taken since you became prime minister have led many to claim that you are the Ennahda Party’s candidate for the presidency. There are even those who saw the issue of the technocratic government as theatrics.
Hamadi Jebali: Really, there is no basis for such claims. We did not address the issue of the presidency during Ennahda’s last Shura council. First of all, this is issue must be carefully considered from all angles. Second, I have not yet decided whether or not I will participate in these elections. I am thankful for all of those who put their trust in me and expressed their confidence and hopes for me. My goal is the service of my country. I certainly have no personal ambitions in regards to any position of power right now. When I left the government, I left with conviction. This is not a personal issue for me. I am not concerned with that position, or any other one for that matter. The issue here is that, wherever and however I can, I will serve Tunisia. It is not important if it is a political position or some other one. What is most important is that it is an opportunity to truly work for the sake of Tunisia. I feel that what I am doing by touring around the world is in the service of my country. These are the standards by which I will determine whether or not I run for office.
However, were that the case—or, should I say, were God to test me again with a position of power—I imagine it will be in service of my country and political harmony. There would be no conflict or clashing, not even between the government and the political parties. Tunisia has grown weary of this fragmentation and polarization. The next stage must be one in which we build the foundation of a democratic nation and pay attention to the pressing economic issues at hand, as well at the more recent security concerns. Addressing violence and the use of weapons requires accord and understanding at the ruling level among leaders and on a national level; addressing this is one of the country’s greatest challenges. This is what we are calling for in the future, for a period of at least 5 years.
We also call for a president for all Tunisians, removed from any political pressure or partisan control. This is what I envision for Tunisia and for the next president, whether it is [myself] or someone else. Clashes between the prime minister and the president, or even with the parliament, do not serve the interests of Tunisia. Tunisia needs to rise up and meet the coming challenges, be they social, security or economic, and there must be harmony between all the political actors.
Q: Was the handshake between Shaykh Rachid Al-Ghannoushi, the head of Ennahda, and Beji Caid Al-Sebsi, the leader of Tunisian Call, a new page in your party’s relationship with the Tunisian Call party? Did it come as part of the concept that in politics there are no permanent enemies or friends?
First, we hadn’t planned anything for this meeting, not even the seating arrangements. I thought it was totally natural that they invited the previous prime ministers—my predecessor, Beji Caid Al-Sebsi, and myself—and the political parties. They started with Mr. Rachid, perhaps because he is the leader of the biggest party, or because he was the closest person to me. He was followed by Kemal Morjane.
I would like to say something here. I hope we can elevate our level of thinking. Is it true that in a meeting between rivals, if I’ve differed with one of them, that I must not shake his hand or talk to him or joke with him? Are we still operating on such a primitive level in politics? These political interactions should be civilized. Even if I disagree with someone, I will still sit and talk with him. We need to get away from such childishness and juvenile politics and put the future of the country at the forefront. If the relationship between the Ennahda party and the Tunisian Call party was not on good terms then that is between their leadership. I hope that Tunisia will not be ruled by anything but harmony and consensus. I have a big goal. Tunisia will not be governed by clashes, especially during the next stage.
I was surprised when people considered the handshake between Al-Sebsi and Al-Ghannoushi a disaster in Tunisia. This is proof that we’re still very far from the mentality of the revolution. I think we must differentiate between personal relationships and respect and bipartisanship and principled political positions. I don’t see any problem in talking with Mr. Beji, or Kemal Morjane, or others. This doesn’t stop us from speaking frankly and disagreeing or agreeing. Meetings and open dialogues are always positive. To anyone who doubts the power of dialogue, I would say that we all are living in a changing world, and remind them that the Prophet Muhammad would address everyone, friends and enemies alike. And I don’t see any enemies now…. Whoever defines himself as an enemy is responsible for himself.
Q: Ennahda’s partners in the government continue to accuse it of misconduct. For that reason, we have seen fragmentation within these parties and resignations from their leadership to form independent parties. How does your party respond to these allegations, and will these internal schisms give the Ennahda party a better chance to win and to rule independently?
As part of the responsibilities of my previous position, I would attend the troika and maintain relationships with these parties. I think there is a sizeable portion of these political groups that recognized their ministers and recognized that the government was heading towards real democracy. There were deliberations and consultations, and decisions were made by majority vote. I respected all of the ministers and never considered their political affiliations, and I interacted with all of them in a respectful manner on every issue. Now, the issue here is the appointments. The appointments were made intentionally. They know that we’ve always put ability at the head of the criteria for appointment. They recognize that this was my biggest concern as I looked to the administration and the cabinet. Now, if they say there is misconduct, then they’re exaggerating. True, sometimes I look in circles that I know better, but it cannot be said that there was preplanning or scheming.
There are some who criticize others for working with the Ennahda party, whether in the Ettakatol party or the Mutamir party. They naturally have their own inclinations, which they were aware of when they joined Ettakatol.
Regarding the other part of the question, it is not in Ennahda’s interest or in the nation’s interest to weaken political parties. It is dangerous to have one center of power, to have only one particular party in the political arena. This is part of the fundamentals of democracy, to achieve a peaceful transition of power and keep any one party from taking over and becoming a dictatorship. Single party powers emerge from power vacuums and lead to tyranny. I want what is best for the country and I am certain that it is in the nation’s best interest to have a contest over power. Even in a match between a strong team and a weak team, nothing matters until game time. This is far more important than a game. This is the future of the country. There must be peace and harmony among the people, as they choose who will take power.
Q: Do you believe that a presidential government is best for Tunisia, or do you prefer the parliamentary system?
In theory, the parliamentary system is closer to democracy and popular representation; there is no doubt about that. But this requires considering and meeting necessary preconditions; otherwise, power will break down and be subject to the whims of even the smallest party in parliament. We have a number of examples before us, but they may not be applicable to this situation since they have entrenched institutions. Belgium, like Italy, could go without a government for months, but it has independent institutions in the state, the opposition, the judiciary, the administration and in the security branch. At this point, it would be very difficult to consider this the best model for Tunisian government. On the other hand, our problem has always been going to extremes, so the presidential system looms large over us. We are afraid that the constitution may not be respected, among many other possible violations. Even if a president won political legitimacy through elections and we determined his powers, given the fragility of state institutions and the lack of political traditions we are afraid that this president would take over and lean towards authoritarianism, if not despotism.
So those two systems are unlikely. It is possible that the solution for Tunisia would be system that combines elements of both, but if there were not certain conditions in place it could also be a huge impediment, since the president and the prime minister could come into conflict with one another.
Q: What kind of conditions?
Consensus and balance. If the transitional period lasted five to ten years, the president of the republic should work with the government with as much harmony and consensus as possible.
Q: What would guarantee that harmony?
That is what I just said. The parties in Tunisia must realize that the next stage must be a period of harmony. If I am nominated—and I still haven’t decided if I will run or not—it would be in keeping with that philosophy. I will not be a scapegoat for any party. The president must be for Tunisians, the refuge for all Tunisians. He must be conciliatory; [he must] bring parties together and not divide them. He must work with the government. This is the condition that must be met; otherwise, the political system will face another catastrophe in addition to the security, economic, and social challenges we will be facing.
Q: In Tunisia, there are calls for a law that would protect the revolution, especially from the Ennahda party. However, when Libya passed a political isolation law, Ennahda called the move ‘hasty.’ Isn’t this contradictory?
I won’t judge Libya. This issue concerns them. Politics should have morals and principles that govern them. However, there is no need to say that, in our religion and according to international judicial norms, crimes are individual acts. No one bears the burden of another soul…. This is true on the individual, personal level, but it also applies on the political level. It is true that the Tajamaa’ party [the ruling party under Ben Ali] corrupted the country and isolated the judiciary.
Now, we look at anyone joining that party and wonder whether they have committed a crime—but this should be determined by a fair and independent judiciary. Further, any person who as committed a crime, whoever he may be—even Ben Ali himself—has to stand before the court, defend himself and face judgment. The fundamentals of good and just governance say that there should be a judge, the accused, and the aggrieved party. The accused should have the right to defend himself, and the judge should be independent.
The isolation law at its base harms Ennahda and it will be seen as a politicized law designed to isolate political factions before the elections. I say that everyone who committed a crime should stand before the court, but there is a court called the Tunisian people and the elections. Elimination from the political scene happens through elections and the ballot box. If there is any other crime, then the judiciary should deal with it.
Q: Given the events at Mount Chambi and the conflicting reports around the seriousness and danger of Salafist jihadism in Tunisia, many believe that the government has been evasive and its positions are unclear. Can you comment?
I don’t see any need for such talk. Some groups think that the government bears responsibility for every event in Tunisia. Would it be in the government’s interests to hide such serious issues?
However, there are security issues that cannot be disclosed or discussed. This is a serious matter as it has brought Tunisia to a dangerous position—the use of weapons. There used to just be discourse, demonstrations and the like. This represents a tectonic shift in Tunisian political life and in Tunisian society. After these dangerous developments, the government’s position was clear. They would use all of their resources to deal with these elements, their organization, and their leadership. No government in the world can stand idly by while others take up arms, hesitating and trying to open talks. There is no dialogue or discussion with armed parties until they lay down their arms. Anything else would be destructive to our society and lead it down the wrong path.
Q: President Ali Al-Areed recently said that the care taken to protect human rights led to the expansion of Salafist extremism. Will the government be forced to use the tactics employed by the Ben Ali regime in dealing with Salafist extremists?
There is no comparison with the previous regime. We never took up weapons against the government. We used the pen and the word to get our rights. Our lives and our families were put at risk. We toiled away in prison, out of prison, and abroad; we never took up arms. We didn’t refuse to take up arms because we were unable to: we refused based on our convictions. We had also learned a lesson from other experiences: we should not use weapons to resolve the internal affairs of society. Ennahda was never involved in such activities, whether in Tunisia or abroad. There are instances of political violence which must be dealt with on a societal level through open dialogue.
Q: Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi once described the Salafists as ‘our sons.’ Has Ennahda since turned its back on the Salafists?
Ennahda should have clarified this issue. The line you do not cross is using weapons. As a party, the movement should believe that it must separate itself from those who would take up arms. However, people have a right to form parties as long as they respect the law. Anyone who challenges it will be met with the full force of the law.
It is no longer acceptable for these groups, religiously influenced or otherwise, to undermine the security of the nation. Individuals, organizations or groups cannot take on the role of protecting security by claiming that they are enjoining good and forbidding evil. This goes for all organizations, militias and councils that want to take the role of the state in defending its citizens. This must be clear, and Shaykh Rachid’s statements were meant to clarify that.
Q: There has been some hesitation by government officials over statements from Algerian officials that they are going to help Tunisia. Is this an insult to Tunisia’s security forces and the army’s ability to maintain security?
On the contrary! We have waited too long for political and security coordination with Algeria. This doesn’t mean that we are weak and calling on other powers for help. Rather, the nature of the problem is border crossings; this affects the whole region. By its nature, terrorism knows no borders or sovereignty. For instance, these elements move from Mount Chambi in Tunisia to Algeria, and on to Mali and Libya. Dealing with this requires coordinating efforts of these countries.
Q: French foreign minister Laurent Fabius visited Tunisia before President Hollande. Did he set down terms that would determine relations between the two countries?
When it comes to cooperation and coordination, the nations of the region alone are not enough: terrorism is an international issue. Naturally, France and America have their interests, but they know that we will not allow any terms or conditions to be placed upon us, especially since the revolution. I don’t think there are any French conditions. France is smarter than to lay down terms. This is simply cooperation and coordination; these visits complement our efforts. We think it is natural to support these relations. Also, our cooperation with France is strategic. Anyone who says something to the contrary doesn’t understand the relations that connect us to France and Europe. They are relations of common interests—social relations. We want clear relations that respect our sovereignty, but that does not conflict with building good relations with European nations. We don’t want to fall into the politics of blocs.
Q: Why doesn’t Tunisia widen its relations with Arab nations, specifically in the Gulf. We see a lot of focus on Qatar, to the point that there is talk of a “Qatari colonization.”
There are relations. I have visited Saudi Arabia twice, once in an official capacity and once unofficially. The current head of the government, Ali Al-Areed, will visit Saudi Arabia. We have an open policy. We want to build relations with all of our neighbors and friends. We are not subservient to any regime. We are open and want to support our relations with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt and all other governments. The cornerstone of our foreign policy is these relationships. However, we cannot fall into the trap of political whims. Unfortunately, they accuse us of being subservient to Qatar and Turkey. They want to isolate the government and cut off relations with all parties to expend our physical and political resources and undermine the government.
Q: What about the role of the US in Tunisia’s experience with democracy?
America was clear about its support for democracy. In service to my country, I will visit Washington as soon as possible to reiterate the fact that Tunisia needs social, economic and political support. This is not support for a government, but rather support for democracy. President Obama was clear and has understood from the very beginning that supporting Tunisian democracy serves American interests first and foremost, but also the interests of the region as a whole, and the basic political principles the democratic world shares. I’m proud of the relationship with America because it is built upon common interests.