“Rule of Law,” “Transparency,” “Justice,” “Attracting investments,” “Economic Recovery.” These were Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s slogans during a conference at the Phoenicia Hotel in Beirut on May 4, held parallel to an Arab Economic Forum meeting organized by the Business and Economy Group. While the reality in Tunisia is a far cry from Jebali’s slogans and promises, the prime minister was confident that the Ennahda government seeks “to invest in democracy,” unlike previous authoritarian regimes.
Jebali urged investors to promote economic development in Tunisia, the “country that paid a high price for freedom.” He also played down the significance of ongoing mass protests in Tunisia. He said, “It is true that rallies are still ongoing in Tunisia. But isn’t this the case in Europe as well? Protests are indications of freedom, and we are still learning about freedom. However, we insist on applying the law.”
During the conference, As-Safir asked, “Is Salafist activity in Tunisia since the incident at the University of Manouba considered to be in conformity with the 'rule of law?' Is the Salafists’ presence in Tunisia reassuring for European tourists?”
Jebali described the analysis of Salafist activity as “exaggerated intimidation.” He said, “Admittedly, our country is in the throes of the post-revolutionary period. However, the social unrest and the so-called extremist activity are being blown out of proportion. The Salafists did not come from Mars; they are our people and part of our society. We are not going to throw them in prison like [former Tunisian president] Zen El Abidine Ben Ali did. The solution lies within the framework of the law. We tell the Salafists, ‘You have your own ideas and beliefs, go ahead and try to persuade the people.’ Salafists do not scare us.”
Jebali stressed that his government is trying to “create transparency and independence in the judiciary and to economically recover without any state intervention.” He said that such a measure would “reassure tourists.”
Responding to a question about Ennahda’s economic program and which electoral promises they have fulfilled, he said with a smile that “each electoral campaign has its promises, but now are working from ground up.” He elaborated: “We project 3.5% growth in 2013. The average growth rate has risen from 0.8% to 2%, despite meager potential.”
Regarding the aid promised to Tunisia by foreign and Gulf states, Jebali said that Tunisia and Europe enjoy a long-standing relationship and that European investments constitute approximately 80% of Tunisia’s public investments.
“Billions of dollars were promised to us, and to others. It is true that we had a budget deficit, but we rely on ourselves and on Arab businessmen to invest in development projects, ports and hospitals.” The prime minister also mentioned that his country is ready to abolish the entry visa policy for Arab states, “especially the Gulf states, for obvious reasons,” he said.
Earlier that day, Jebali met with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and said he was pleased to visit Lebanon. “The glorious Tunisian revolution was inspired by the same freedom, pluralism, openness and tolerance which Lebanon enjoys. We feel that the Tunisian and Lebanese peoples are closely related,” said Jebali.
For his part, Mikati stressed the intention of both sides to “promote bilateral relations and to sign agreements that will encourage investment between both countries.”