"Of course we made mistakes" isn't something you hear very often these days from Arab (or any other) political figures. So I found it refreshing to hear that frank admission from Hamadi al-Jebali, former Tunisian Prime Minister and current Secretary-General of the Ennahda Movement, during a small group conversation and subsequent private chat in Washington DC today. I've always found Jebali to be one of the more thoughtful of Ennahda's leaders, so I looked forward to seeing him for the first time since he stepped down as Prime Minister in February.
Jebali painted a sobering but still optimistic picture of a Tunisian transition facing tremendous economic and social problems, as well as what he termed an artificial but nonetheless dangerous political polarization. I had been pressing Jebali to reflect on the prospects for the Tunisian constitution, the final draft of which is finally being circulated, to ultimately command a real societal and political consensus given the level of political polarization in the country. He insisted that it could, and indeed already did. He emphasized all the areas of broad national consensus which the constitution would reflect: political freedoms, the peaceful circulation of power, mutual respect, a civil state, an independent judiciary, and the rejection of state hegemony or violence.
Jebali of course acknowledged and expressed deep concerns about Tunisia's political polarization, but described it as "manufactured" and superficial, driven by a small political elite and mostly manifesting in very small, extreme elements on the fringes of the political spectrum. That, of course, made it no less potentially dangerous, especially given the deep, unresolved economic and social problems driving discontent. But despite those mistakes, and polarization, he repeatedly rejected the idea that it was too late to achieve a national consensus and a real Tunisian democracy rooted in political freedoms, mutual respect and social justice.
What mistakes would he acknowledge on behalf of Ennahda? He ticked off three, specifically. First, he pointed to the extended length of the transition process and the failure to focus efforts on achieving consensus on the constitution, which allowed the polarization and fragmentation to take root. Second, he noted the problems caused by the failure to resolve the ambiguous relationship between the state and the Ennahda party, and between the party and the broader Ennahda movement. Finally, he acknowledged that the new political elite collectively had raised expectations of rapid improvements in the quality of life too high, well beyond the ability of any new government to realistically deliver.
Of the wide range of external challenges which Jebali discussed, three points in particular jumped out at me. He presented Egypt as a challenge for Tunisia because of the example which a Muslim Brotherhood government might set for the rest of the region; while he wouldn't get very specific, let's just say that he didn't show any signs of viewing the Egyptian MB's model positively. More surprisingly, he expressed serious concerns about Algeria's political future after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's inevitable passing, describing Tunisia's neighbor as on a path with no clear exit. Finally, he spoke strongly about the need to confront dictatorship in Syria -- and everywhere -- but also fretted about the risk posed by Tunisians fighting there who might someday return with their arms and jihadist fervor.
Hopefully Jebali's visit, along with last week's more publicized appearances around town by Ennahda leader Rached al-Ghannouchi, will refocus some American attention on Tunisia's transition beyond its salafis and jihadists. I remain optimistic about Tunisia's prospects, even if everybody's early optimism has faded, especially if the constitution can be finalized with reasonably wide consensus and some progress can be made on its deep economic crisis. Finding ways to help with that transition shouldn't get lost in the maelstrom of the region's other problems.
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