Now, he finds himself at the head of a government of independent technocrats charged with leading Tunisia while preparing fresh elections by the end of 2014.
So far, the country has remained largely stable under Jomaa’s leadership, compared to the widespread political instability that led to clashes between Ennahda and its opponents under the previous government, and despite lingering security worries amid chaos in neighboring Libya, and the country’s first (and so far only) suicide bombing since the downfall of longtime president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in October of last year.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Jomaa earlier this month about his priorities as prime minister, the rumors that he plans to run for president, and the state of the Tunisia economy.
Q: Why have Tunisians, who have had reservations about previous heads of state, welcomed you with open arms? At the very least, there were not violent reactions against you . . .
Mehdi Jomaa: The truth is that I did not have a group to prepare me for the [job] of head of state. But I know my role and my work. Perhaps the problems that I have faced over the previous three years, and which the country and the government have faced, caused the people to look for change and something beyond political affiliations. This may also be because of the people trust in my skills, and because of my youth.
Although I do not have clear idea why people approve of me, I am confident that it is because I am approachable and because I will not hide anything from them. Rather, I will be honest and transparent. I think that my program is clear and it shows where I want to go, what I want to do and how I am going to do it.
Q: How do you envision your role as interim leader of Tunisia, which is facing both economic and security challenges?
Let me be honest with you: I will not be working in any of the parties. I will also not return to the way that I was working over the past three years, other than during my nine-month period as industry minister. Only during that period did I begin to understand the situation closely, and I saw the crises worsen in terms of security, politics, economics and society.
But let me give you the big picture. The one issue that is most important to me, and the one thing that I am looking to accomplish, is [to secure] the reputation of the state. Because I entered the government as part of the roadmap that was brought about by the national dialogue, my priority is also [to hold] transparent and fair elections by the end of 2014.
What my government hopes to achieve as a first step is a stable political, social and security environment, which necessarily requires an adequate economic situation. We are all aware of this necessity, and I do not think that the government is currently able to engage in any experiments.
The second challenge that we face is the presence of certain [outstanding] issues between the [participants in the] national dialogue and myself. I pledged in my first television address to the Tunisian people that I would work on these by listening to different political parties and looking at my options.
The security situation is also very pressing. The situation is unstable, so it is also one of my priorities. I see it as essential, and I started with it in order to guarantee security in all areas. My vision was clear on the fight against terrorism, and the Tunisian people also agreed to fight. I know that a group of terrorists might remain, but we will face them accordingly.
The other issue that is important, and which I am working on, is maintaining social balance.
Q: And what about the economy?
The economy is also important, because when the Tunisian people rose up in revolution, they were looking for or had expected magic solutions and wanted an immediate change in the [economic] circumstances we were in. But I want to make it clear that economic reform is a gradual process—it requires analysis and study.
When I started this process, I saw that things are more difficult on second glance. When I was the industry minister, before I assumed the position of prime minister, I did not have a comprehensive view of the other sectors because at the time I wanted to focus on my ministry. And when I focused my efforts on the interior ministry, it succeeded despite many crises. It was my goal to leave the ministry as stable as possible for whoever succeeded me. I worked until the last day and left the ministry with all matters settled.
When I entered office [as prime minister] the economic situation was truly difficult, but I personally do not like to use the word “catastrophic” to describe it. The economy grew by 2 to 3 percent: this is not catastrophic. Despite all of the security, political and social crises, investment did not wane. On the contrary, there was a small improvement. We must not solely focus on the economic crisis Tunisia is faced with due to the revolution. We must also consider the financial crisis in Europe, which we are affected by due to the fact that up to 80 percent of our business dealings are with Europe. We must also think about the crisis in Libya and its effect.
Yet what has affected the economy most are public finances, which is where we have found a large deficit. This comes as a result of large social pressures and anger, which forced the government in the past to increase the number of jobs within the civil service [in order to create jobs for the unemployed] . . . Previous governments were obliged to pay [civil servants’] salaries, but did not have the means to do so. There was no choice, then, but to borrow. This has now gone on for three consecutive years, but the question remains: How long can we keep this policy going? I think that the time has come to assume our responsibilities.
Q: Why is the opposition quiet now, when it was so vocal about previous governments? Do you think it is because of their preoccupation with the upcoming elections, or because they have faith in your government?
In the beginning there were doubts about whether I was loyal to one party or another, but now I feel that there is a conviction that the government truly runs on the skills [of the ministers within it]. Even the Mouvement des entreprises de France (Medef) told me that they hope the Tunisian government can be an example for their own country.
Q: And do you see your government as an example to be emulated?
I do not. We are not offering ourselves as an example to anyone. We just want to be successful in saving ourselves. We do not want to export the revolution; we want to support investors. We just want to solve our problems. The criticism levelled against us is less sharp than what previous governments faced because we do not take sides in political conflicts. We are convinced that we must work hand in hand with others for the sake of progress.
Q: What are your biggest challenges in government?
Terrorism was one of the most important concerns, and has preoccupied us for some time. But we have made significant progress against terrorism and have caught terrorists operating within cities. We now occupy a position of strength—an advanced position—and are pursuing terrorists in their hideouts. But we must remain vigilant. In the beginning, we were taken aback by regional conditions which allowed terrorism to reach Tunisia, but now we are very conscious of this danger and are working to establish a clear outline and structures to resist and take down terrorism.
Q: It has been said that you are undertaking all of these initiatives in preparation for running in the next presidential elections. Is this true?
No. In every language, I say no. I will not run for the presidency. I first have a mission [as interim prime minister], and then I will focus on my family, and I hope God helps me in this. I hope that the nation moves towards the elections in peace and that a stable government is formed, and that Tunisia moves forward in the field of security with competence.
I want to tell everyone that Tunisia is an open country. It is a wonderful place to live, and today is more secure. It is replete with investment opportunities and has the advantage of being at a crossroads: it is between Europe, which is North Africa’s leading [trade] partner, and the Arab and Islamic worlds. Indeed, it is the ideal place for investment.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.