Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s interview on Wednesday [May 30] with two Tunisian public television stations created a stir among all the parties that are involved in Tunisian public affairs. His targets included the presidency of the republic, political parties, unions, the Central Bank of Tunisia (CBT), as well as others. Mr. Jebali’s “yes, but...” response to every issue, his direct and veiled threats and his smiles — which we are no longer sure if they are sincere, sarcastic or a simple tic — angered almost everybody.
As he discussed the first four months of his government, Jebali gave the impression that everything was going well. The best evidence for that, according to Jebali, is the 4.8 percent [economic] growth rate, which is higher than all neighboring countries and even some European countries. “I did not make up these figures,” he asserted, “this is the data published by the National Statistics Institute (INS). Do you question the honesty of the INS?” It should be noted that since the INS has had a new boss, its figures have become positive across the board, as if by magic!
As for the rest of the interview, it can be summarized by: “we will do... we will create... we will launch projects... we will help the disadvantaged regions... etc.”
Jebali admits that he and members of his government are still learning and that they are beginning to gain experience in managing different departments and sectors. This is a serious admission. The head of the provisional government recognizes that his ministers were, at least initially, incompetent and have nothing to do with the positions to which they were assigned. This is like our famous proverb: learning how to be a hairdresser by cutting the hair of orphans!
It should be said that since the Tunisian people are coming out of a seismic political and socio-economic revolution, they needed proven leaders who were able to get down to work immediately upon appointment. They did not need ministers who were appointed as a reward for their activism and their years spent in prison! All indications point that this is precisely what happened.
The other point to emphasize is the public rivalry between the presidency and the government. Jebali responded to the scathing criticism from three presidential advisers last week with unambiguous threats. Despite the denials from the presidency through unnamed sources, there is indeed a media war between Carthage and the Kasbah.
However, we wonder, why has the presidency publicly aired its dirty laundry with the government? Why would the head of government wait a week before answering? And in an unscheduled interview? Why did the government just warn its advisers who question its competence instead of sacking them? One of its advisers demanded the resignation of the entire government team!
Regarding the CBT, Jebali said he had no problem with Mustapha Kamel Nabli. However this was before stating, unequivocally, that replacing the current CBT governor is on the table!
This brings us to the letter by the international rating agency Standard & Poors that was sent to Tunisia [which downgraded their credit rating to BB]. Regarding the downgrade, Jebali only had to say that this agency (which he called an “association”) had given high marks to the Tunisian economy in the era of Ben Ali’s dictatorship! He permitted himself to give lessons to S&P, which, according to him, should be boosting post-revolutionary Tunisia instead of sending such discouraging letters.
While we are on that subject, we notice how the head of government and many of his ministers are obsessed with constantly recalling the aberrant and dictatorial practices of Ben Ali’s era. This is simply to justify the current regime’s inadequacies.
Regarding the social movements, strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest, Jebali insisted that they are useless in the current context. He repeated the argument that the government has no magic wand, that its resources are transparent. Therefore, he argues that the government should not be criticized because it was born out of elections by the people, and it understands the citizens’ concerns.
Jebali implicitly threatened the Tunisian General Labor Union (TGLU) to “not overstep its role as a trade union.” This is not likely to ease the already high tensions between the two parties.
His remarks concerning judges were in agreement with the comments of his justice minister. He spoke about the need to clean the judiciary body while giving each judge the right to file an appeal if he feels that he was unjustly removed. But how can you pass judgment against someone without giving him a hearing first and telling him to defend himself after the decision has been carried out? This is upside down justice. Following this logic, all of the accused will be tried and sentenced in their absence on the basis of a simple report by the prosecution. Then they will defend themselves afterward! In any case, Jebali’s arguments seem to have been made before the latest developments on this issue and the justice minister’s backtracking.
For Jebali, every sector is wrong: education, health, municipalities, law enforcement, the unemployed, the judiciary and the media. According to him, they should acquiesce to government action and be quiet, since the government is doing what’s best for them!
Regarding wages, Jebali sides with the media and says it is indecent for National Constituent Assembly members to demand a wage increase. He said, “Anyway, I did not and will not sign anything that increases their compensation. Instead, I want to lower their wages.” These are fine words, but we are awaiting action. We would like to remind Jebali of the proposals of Sahbi Atig, the head of the Ennahda bloc who defended tooth and nail the high salaries of the assembly members. He even went so far as to say that their salary is lower than the deputies under Ben Ali.
The other reassuring point in that interview was his clear position on the Salafists. This is the first time a high-ranking government official and Ennahda member took a harsh position regarding the Salafists. “They are no more Muslim than we are. They have no right to treat others as non-Muslims. They have no right to impose their lifestyle on Tunisian society, which has its own traditions and way of life.” Such words are reassuring, but again, we are awaiting concrete actions.
The prime minister was surprised about the widespread anti-government protests because he is ignoring, or pretends to ignore, certain facts. Just as under Ben Ali, there is a climate of mistrust between the government and the citizens.
There is a desire to control all aspects of national life by appointing officials at every level, based on their party affiliations. Only four months after taking power, scandals are coming to light. Public opinion is being deceived by the claim that the rulers are the product of the October 23 elections, while in fact those elections were to select the representatives of the National Constituent Assembly and not the government ministers.
The reactions to the interview were immediate. A few minutes after it was broadcast, a TGLU member severely criticized the prime minister. This morning, the leaders of several political parties did the same.
In summary, Jebali was firm and raised his voice but he did not provide concrete and immediate solutions to calm the various sides. He actually did quite the contrary!