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In Conversation with Hamadi Jebali | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Hamadi Jebali in Tunis in July 2013. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Hamadi Jebali in Tunis, July 2013 (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Hamadi Jebali in Tunis, July 2013 (Asharq Al-Awsat)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Since Zine El Abedine Ben Ali fled into exile at the beginning of 2011, Tunisians have lived through virtually the full gamut of revolutionary turmoil, spared only the outbreak of widespread intercommunal that accompanies so many revolutions. At the same time, as the birthplace of the “Arab Spring,” it has been the repository of the hopes for political progress held by so many Arabs.

Few people can be more aware of this than Hamadi Jebali, secretary-general of the Ennahda Party, and arguably the first genuinely-elected prime minister of Tunisia. His time in office was marked by the ongoing disputes and tensions that have kept the country just below boiling point over the last two years, and his government was brought down by an act of violence—the assassination of Chokri Belaid, which precipitated a political crisis and his own resignation.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat by telephone, he gave his take on events on Tunisia, the assassinations that have rocked its political system, and explained why he holds legislators, the trade union movement and the country’s political parties responsible for many of the country’s problems, and why a government of national unity is still needed.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Recently, a news outlet reported that Ennahda wants to relieve the Speaker of the Constituent Assembly [Tunisia’s parliament] of his duties after he suspended the Constituent Assembly without first checking with them.

Hamadi Jebali: As far as I know Ennahda is committed to maintaining its alliances and seeing that the troika government continues, and its most recent public statement shows that. Formally Dr. Mustapha Ben Jafar does not have the powers to suspend the Constituent Assembly. I do not see why the troika government should be disbanded seeing how they have been a national success story. Without mentioning any names, we have laid out a clear strategic framework: a broad national coalition. We said prior to the elections that we must form of a national unity government of to oversee the transitional phase, but unfortunately we did not receive a positive response. In these critical times the country needs such a coalition now more than ever.

Q: Reports surfaced that the security forces tried to forcibly disperse the sit-in being held by members of parliament in front of parliament in western Tunis, but they then decided to withdraw. Some of these members of parliament are demanding that the government be dissolved, what is your take on these dramatic events that Tunisia seems to be witnessing on a daily basis?

I personally do not feel that any peaceful protest or demonstration should be dispersed unless it violates the law; it is a constitutional and revolutionary right and has every right to continue.

Q: Do you think foreign entities are behind the current events in Tunisia?

I am not accusing anyone, and I am not saying that there are Western or Eastern forces behind what is happening in Tunisia, but that does not keep me from wondering: Whose interests are best served by what is happening in Tunisia? Is it in the people’s interest? Certainly not, rather it serves personal and factional interests. They want to keep the people confined to a system of dependency and foot-dragging because of what is at stake in the region. I ask that the international and regional powers not look to Tunisia with narrow-minded interests and delusions of dominance, but rather in hopes of finding common interests. International relations are always in a delicate balance, and if that balance falters then there will be repercussions, and that is what we want to avoid.

Q: How do you suggest Tunisia overcome this impasse? Do you think it could realistically work given the continual escalation of events?

I always return to the fundamentals: We are now in a transitional phase. Experience, wisdom, and history show that in such times electoral legitimacy is not enough; it must be bolstered by another type of legitimacy that can only be won through consensus and participation, which will allow democracy to take root and flourish. However the transitional phase has dragged on, and the ruling troika coalition, the political parties, and the unions are to blame for mishandling the transitional phase and squandering consensus building opportunities. Meanwhile demand has increased and production falters which harms the national interest.

Truth be told, the Constituent Assembly and all who were a part of it were responsible first and foremost, and the people know it. I told them when I was prime minister, “Please respect the people and set elections for the summer of 2013.” Their response, and this includes members from my own party (Ennahda), was that the Constituent Assembly is an independent body in which no one can interfere.

Finding a solution now rests with the members of the Constituent Assembly who must listen to the criticisms being leveled against them, and who must also apologize to the people and to pledge to take the measures needed to expedite the drafting of the constitution, even if that means appointing experts. They must finally determine the electoral body, the electoral law, and the transitional justice law, and must also set a binding date for elections.

Q: How is the government to blame and what is its role going forward?

The government, the political parties, and officials from various institutions must be committed to creating an environment in which expeditious, transparent, and fair elections may be held. The first step towards that is by forming a neutral government because that will reassure all parties; I have proposed this previously. As for the government’s composition, I have made my position clear from the outset: The government should be composed of independent technocrats with a clear platform who cannot be nominated for election or backed by any political body. This is especially needed regarding the security, economic, and social sectors. These technocrats will also support the independent electoral commission. As for professional organizations and trade unions, they must be included in the society-wide rapprochement, support developmental efforts, and avoid political allegiances. The business elite and media moguls must be committed to unbiased reporting and ethical behavior as well.

Q: How has the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi affected Tunisia’s progress?

The parliament must draft the constitution and find a compromise regarding the composition of the Supreme Electoral Commission and the Commission for Justice and Media. The constitution might have been finalized before October 23, 2013, but then the assassination of the martyr Brahmi disrupted the process. The question remains: Who benefits from this crime? I believe it is to the benefit of those who want to abort the democratic process and all those who fear elections, and they are many. They are those with large interests at stake and ideologues who live only for chaos.

Q: Can you foresee, given the daily escalations, that it is possible for the Constituent Assembly to complete its work, ratify the constitution, and then move towards holding elections?

The country can get back on the right path if there is enough political will. I think that the people are tired of slogans, speeches, and initiatives. The focus now is on determining the electoral bodies, drafting the constitution, and conducting inclusive, internationally verified elections.

Q: Despite the Tunisian security sector’s statements that MP Brahmi was assassinated by terrorists, many believe that it was politically motivated and point to the timing of the assassination as proof of that. This issue has confounded public opinion, what is your interpretation?

We must take a step back and look at the big picture: Why did this crime happen when it did? The bullet was not aimed solely at the martyr Mohamed Brahmi, but also at the transitional process and at the revolution. This plays into the hands of those who want to hijack the revolution and undermine the transition. There were triggermen and there were those who planned it, and the latter is the more dangerous.

Q: Some in the opposition called on the Tunisian Army to intervene and resolve the crisis. What do you think of this? Could the Army intervene if the situation does not improve?

Those who wish to imitate the Egyptian coup are mistaken because that coup was setback that brings them closer to a new dictatorship and farther away from the spirit of the revolution. Some parties wish for this to happen by appealing to the Army and the security services. One among them said, “We are not calling upon the Army, rather we are calling upon them to support the people.” My question is: Do you yourself support the people? The people make their voice heard through the ballot box, and as long as this is the case then there are no other means.

We can see that there are two sides, one that wants a backwards, Bolshevik-style revolution, and another that believes only in ruthless capitalism, and the only thing they have in common is that they desire chaos. After the people rejected these two groups, they tried to co-opt the security services. The Tunisian Army and the Tunisian security services are composed of intelligent people who are committed to the republic. Tunisia is not governed by a single party and will not be ruled by coups. The military is charged with protecting the country, just as the security services are charged with protecting the citizenry, and neither will interfere in politics. The burden rests squarely with the government and the political parties because the issues that need resolving are inherently political.

I am confident that the path of the revolution will inevitably lead to success because our people will never be satisfied with failure, and they will fight against anything that impedes them. The road ahead is long and hard. There are subversive forces at home and abroad, but the struggle to progress will continue. To those who dream of ruling, I say, ‘Stand for the sake of freedom and democracy, and do not be tempted by the seat of power.’ To my party and the ruling parties, I say, ‘Listen to the people. We do not want chaos or coups, but to emerge from this crisis and move swiftly down the path of democracy and transparent elections.’

This is what the people want: safety, security, a thriving economy, and social development. They want freedom, yes, but they also want solutions to the issues surrounding unemployment, health, education, transportation, and purchasing power. These are the concerns of our people and they were expressed in the revolution. It is a revolution of dignity, but also, and this is directed to Tunisia’s various groups, it was a revolution of values, led by the values of hard work, perseverance, and creativity.