Tunisia’s Challenging Transition: An Interview with Mehrezia Labidi

“No political party, no political actor is able to lead Tunisia alone in this very sensitive and fragile period.”

What do you see as the biggest challenge to the Tunisian transition six years after the revolution?

Six years after the “Liberty and Dignity Revolution” in Tunisia, the biggest challenge is how to improve the economy. How to meet the expectations of our population regarding development, jobs, healthcare, transportation, education, and so on. This includes how to deliver on the promises of democracy, because our newborn democracy came after the revolution. Of the two main claims of the population, liberty was achieved or realized through the political transition and the constitution—through a new social contract in Tunisia. Yet the [government] has still not responded to the other claim—dignity—and this is the biggest challenge..


Many economic reform initiatives were undertaken by the government but have not worked yet. What do you think has been missing from them?

Indeed, we have voted on many legislative reforms regarding the banking sector, the investment law, and renewable energy, yet the capacity of the government and of the administration to implement these reforms is limited. It is limited because our administration itself needs to be reformed and we have an endemic system of corruption. And so, to be able to really implement these reforms, we have to fight corruption. This is what we are doing now. This year especially, our legislative and governmental priority is to fight corruption on all levels.

Moreover, we have inherited a difficult social and economic situation from the era of Ben Ali. And the aid and the support of the international community are conditional on some reforms, for example reducing subsidies for essential products like bread, sugar, and oil. These reforms can be socially destabilizing. And this is why we had a very difficult time passing the budget law of 2017. We have a strong trade union that played a very useful role in the political transition, but as far as the economic transition is concerned, it is one of the hindering obstacles. Yet we have to listen to them, because we cannot pass reforms at the expense of the weakest part of the Tunisian population. The equation is really very sensitive: how to reform our economy without harming the most vulnerable.


There’s an ongoing debate in Tunisia about how to handle returning Salafi-jihadis. Where does the process of creating a coherent strategy stand, and what sort of cooperation is there across institutions and individuals on this issue?

Ennahda is part of the governing coalition, so our strategy is the strategy of the Tunisian government, of the Tunisian state. And the Tunisian government has already developed a comprehensive strategy to face terrorism and the aftermath of terrorism. We have signed UN Resolution 2178 on violent extremism, and point number four of this convention deals with returnees. And I think we will contribute within the frame of the government to find comprehensive answers, not only in terms of applying the law, of guaranteeing first of all the security of Tunisian lives and the Tunisian way of life, but also how to understand the phenomenon: why a considerable number of our youth have chosen to join these terrorist groups. What are the socioeconomic reasons, what are the educational causes, what are the religious causes? How can we address them, how can we remedy them, how can we rehabilitate them? But in any case, we will be firm with those who have committed crimes. And we have enough laws in Tunisia, like the Anti-Terrorism Law, that allow us to punish people who have committed terrorist crimes, even in other territories like in Libya, Syria, or Iraq.


Where do you feel that the unity government is succeeding and where do you feel it is falling short?

Where this government has succeeded: passing the 2017 budget law. It was difficult, but they succeeded in passing it and found agreement with the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the employers’ union. Also in developing a national consensus on terrorism and a comprehensive strategy for security, and we are looking to extend that consensus to address other issues, cultural, educational, and social.

Yet the government is still struggling to bring development to marginalized inner regions or provide jobs for Tunisian youth. In addition, there is an expectation among the population that the state shall provide jobs. But the state—the public sector—is really exhausted. And the private sector has not recovered yet, so now the government is attempting to encourage young men and women, especially those with diplomas, to launch their own initiatives and enterprises. But this means not only giving them capital and loans but also training them how to lead a project, how to be successful. The government is launching an entrepreneurial initiative to encourage youth and women to create projects. And we sincerely have to promote the value of success through work and effort.

How do you view Ennahda’s role in the unity government?

Our leadership declared—even in 2011, just after the revolution, and even before the election of the constituent assembly—that the transition is a sensitive period and we cannot lead it alone, that no political party, no political actor is able to lead Tunisia alone in this very sensitive and fragile period. So we were [in favor of a] participatory process. During the first government, we worked hard to have partners among other political families like the social democrats and the liberal democrats. And after the election of 2014, we declared that we are not just going to be in the opposition, we are going to be in a coalition. This coalition now is extended to the national unity government, because Tunisia needs all its vivid forces [together] to get through this very sensitive period. In this government, we have about seven political parties who contributed to the Carthage Agreement. And the three main civil society organizations—UGTT, the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishery (UTAP), and the employers’ union—are also included. We have two ministers who were originally members of the UGTT.

Has there been a political cost for the party?

Of course there is a cost for consensus. Our grassroots activists criticized us when we stepped down from the government to allow the technocrat government to lead the country until the elections of 2014. Later on, this choice was more or less accepted when the results unfolded and they saw that our country gained in stability, peace, and even democracy, since the 2014 elections, both legislative and presidential, were a success. And we continue to make concessions. For instance, our representation in government does not reflect our parliamentary majority. After the split of Nidaa Tounes, Ennahda is again the biggest parliamentary group, but we do not have as many ministers as we ought to.

We have also made many concessions in passing some laws. For example the latest concession—and it is not simply a concession, it is also a choice—was on whether we have to delay local elections or accept that military and security forces can vote in them. We discussed it for a long time. We are more or less—a majority of Ennahda are—convinced that we can recognize the security forces’ and the army’s right to vote, but feel they should not practice it immediately. Yet we accepted that security forces and army forces can vote in local elections because we compared the potential losses and gains. If the local elections are postponed, it is the democratic process in Tunisia that’s going to lose its dynamism. And why not entrust the army and security forces more in giving them the capacity to choose on a local level? Haven’t they been entrusted with protecting this new democracy in facing terrorism? So maybe by involving them in this democratic process they will feel more committed to it. So that was our choice. Maybe this will again be seen as a concession by our rank-and-file and our grassroots. So the party has a price to pay for giving priority to the country.

What are your expectations for the communal elections, given not only the concessions you just mentioned but also that this will be the first election since the party shed its religious character? How do you see these two factors playing into the outcome of the elections?

Indeed, with the political transition of the country, Ennahda is undergoing its own transition. During our tenth congress, and after two years of discussion with our activists and members, we made an important decision to focus on governing. To face despotism, to fight for liberty, pluralism, and democracy, we needed to be a comprehensive movement dealing with religious, educational, cultural, and political tasks and topics. Now, through this social contract, we have settled with Tunisians the issue of how and why to govern, and the [nature of] institutions and pluralism. So we had to evolve into a political party specializing in political programs, and let civil society appropriate the cultural and social side of our project. Since we are continuously in connection with our society, I think that our projects for the local elections will focus on programs to address their needs, including housing, health, education, and infrastructure. We will focus on convincing Tunisians that we offer them the best program. We will focus on convincing youth and women to be in our lists, because the main issue of these elections is how to share power between the centralized state and regions, and also between old (over 50) politicians and women and youth. And a successful party will be one engaging more young people and more women on its lists. We have to work on this, and I think that we are ready. Our ambition is not to win the majority of municipalities or regions, but to have a respectable share of these local powers to give us the capacity to achieve and deliver. This is the real test, I think, not only for Ennahda, but for all political parties.


How do you see the future of Tunisian-U.S. relations given the priorities of this administration?

Of course, we are realistic. We know that Tunisia is not the priority of U.S. foreign policy, yet we are quite confident in the American administration in general because there are clear guidelines of establishing relations with countries. And so far, Tunisia is still one of those countries promising to bring or develop democracy, to reinforce the democratic “side” of the world. So we are quite confident that we will continue to have the support of America as a democracy. We will not, of course, intervene in U.S. internal policy, but we will do our best to clarify their vision if needed, to communicate about Tunisia’s experience and to keep our relations on the same level—even, why not, make them better. We cannot be but grateful so far for the U.S. support for Tunisia’s newborn democracy, and we hope that this support will continue.


Mehrezia Labidi is a member of the Tunisian parliament and executive member of the Muslim Democrat Ennahda Party. Intissar Fakir conducted this interview, which was edited for style and clarity.

Carnegie Endowment For International Peace

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