Hamma Hammami, secretary-general of the Tunisian Workers Party and spokesman for the opposition Popular Front, is one of the key leaders of the Tunisian opposition. Indeed, he represents one of the faces of this opposition for the Arab public opinion.
Hammami has had a long journey of struggle and political action. In short, he started as a leftist fighter in the 1970s in the student movement and in the Tunisian Worker Prospects Organization. He then participated in 1986 in the establishment of the Communist Workers Party of Tunisia. During his struggle and political life, he was imprisoned and detained for a total of almost 10 years, during which he was engaged in covert action. His last arrest by the Tunisian security forces was two days before the departure of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power on Jan. 14, 2011.
At the end of 2012 he participated in the establishment of the Popular Front for Achieving the Goals of the Revolution, and later faced, just like the Tunisian opposition in general, a great loss following the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid on Feb. 6, 2013.
His position on the political map, as well as the ability of his outstanding rhetoric to mobilize people, prompted us to interview him to ask his opinion on the latest developments in the Tunisian political arena and his interpretation of the next stage.
As-Safir: A new prime minister has been nominated, or rather imposed, to lead the next phase, according to the initiative of the Quartet sponsoring the national dialogue. This will definitely have repercussions on the political landscape of Tunisia. The first question that arises is: In your opinion, what kind of future lies in store for Tunisia under such circumstances?
Hammami: The coming days, or the coming weeks to be more precise, will shape Tunisia’s future. There is no doubt that, despite our dissatisfaction with what happened last Saturday (Dec. 14, the selection of the current Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa as head of the next government) in the last moments of the national dialogue, and despite the fact that we consider this a coup against the mechanism of consensus that was proposed, there is one guaranteed result: Mr. Ali Laarayedh’s cabinet will inevitably leave. This, in itself, is a positive and significant step and a key demand.
What will happen? This will be linked to the composition of the next government. Will the road map be respected, knowing that this roadmap requires independent and skilled ministers? In other words, they cannot be from the current government, which is responsible for the failure. One of the reasons behind our rejection of Mr. Mehdi Jomaa is that he stems from the failed government.
The second issue concerns the relationship between this government and the content of the Quartet initiative. The government has a program to be implemented. It includes security-related dimensions — i.e. fighting terrorism and reforming the security system. These are matters of urgency. Also, there is the issue of disbanding militias, especially the so-called Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, as well as the question of neutralizing mosques and no longer converting them into platforms that call for violence or sometimes even murder and for the division of Tunisians into infidels and believers, Islamists and secularists. Add to this the decisive investigation into the assassinations, the set-up of the necessary conditions and climate for carrying out free and democratic elections as per the constitution, which must reflect the aspirations of the Tunisians toward a building democratic republic…
The economic and social aspect will also be used to judge this government. In this regard, the position towards the current budget drafted by the current government will be crucial as far as this judgment is concerned, because Tunisians have not only revolted against tyranny in its political dimension but also in its economic and social dimensions. They revolted against poverty, unemployment and marginalization. The current budget is, according to experts and most of the political and social forces, catastrophic and will specifically affect the middle class.
Therefore, judging this government will be based on how much it will be or will not be committed to the application of the Quartet initiative and the roadmap.
As-Safir: This question is about the transitional period. Amid developments that occurred during the last period and which coincided with the several successes of the Ennahda Movement in imposing their conditions, do you think that the transition period is over and that we have entered into a new political era?
Hammami: No, we are still at the stage of democratic transition, and it is only normal at this stage that we face many difficulties. The origin of these difficulties must be pointed out.
What happened in Tunisia was a revolution, not just an uprising or just a spontaneous popular movement. It was a revolution because the people, who heavily participated in this revolution, targeted the regime. These popular movements were led by general principles and objectives: job opportunities, freedom and national dignity. That is what made it a revolution.
But the strong deficiency that plagued this revolution was the absence of a centralized national leadership that was supposed to take over after the fall of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The absence of this leadership is what left us stuck in the middle of the road. In other words, the head of tyranny fell, but the system continued as is, and we have been in conflict with this system ever since. The Constituent Assembly was imposed, the dissolution of the ruling party was imposed, the dissolution of the political police (security) was imposed, and freedom, freedom of political parties, freedom of the press and freedom to demonstrate were all imposed, but the process did not take place.
As-Safir: What hindered this process?
Hammami: The remnants of the old regime in the first place, but also the Ennahda Movement and its allies since the Oct. 23, 2011 elections. The Ennahda Movement and its allies are neither democratic forces nor revolutionary forces; they did not even participate in this revolution. Even if they were part of the opposition, they did not participate in this revolution. Intellectually, they are conservative forces. Politically, they are forces that are not looking for the establishment of a democratic republic, but rather for the establishment of a new authoritarian regime based on the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, to avoid saying Islamic ideology. Socio-economically, they are liberals or neo-liberals more than Ben Ali. They want to sell the country, its wealth and its institutions. In other words, they sought, with whatever means they had, including militia violence, to deviate the revolution from its course and lay the foundations of a new dictatorship. People and democratic forces resisted, and what we are experiencing today is a product of that resistance.
There is word spreading in media today that Ennahda has triumphed. We believe the opposite is correct. Despite the limitation of the national dialogue, Ennahda has been defeated. We need only look at the situation in Tunisia a year ago. Were there any parties able to freely assemble? Militias used to intervene, prevent the assembly, and make abuses… Assassinations were planned, mosques used to represent a platform to call for violence and Ennahda talked about legitimacy and about an absence in political weight when referring to the opposition. Today, Ennahda is forced to leave power, even though it was trying to survive through different means. The balance of power is much better today compared to last year, and we are at the third phase of the transition period.
What is going to happen at the end of this transition period? Will it be [a win] for democratic forces or will it be a setback? This will be determined by first a unified opposition, and second the ongoing popular mobilization and a maximum involvement, with all popular strength, in this battle. I'm optimistic at this level. I think that we are gathering forces that would lead us to a constitution with democratic foundations, to representative institutions, and to a democratic system eventually. However, the end will not be when an economic and social change in Tunisia is put forth in the interest of the people. This revolution was carried out by the poor and it should return to the poor.
As-Safir: Under your interpretation of the Tunisian scene, where is the Popular Front positioned during the next phase, and what is its future?
Hammami: The Popular Front is one of the most important wins in the Tunisian political arena, because when leftist, socialist and nationalist parties took part in the Oct. 23, 2011 elections, they were scattered. Had their votes been added together, they would have become the second force on the political map. The number of votes the scattered leftist parties won would have resulted in between 32 or 34 seats. However, since we were scattered, the votes came to nothing and we only got six or seven seats in the Constituent Assembly.
Our unity within the Popular Front has created a new political atmosphere. The Popular Front now is the third force in the country, after Call for Tunisia and Ennahda. In general, it is still consistently representing the third force. Since its inception on Oct. 7, 2012, the Popular Front showed that it was cohesive, and despite all of the setbacks and attacks it remained a united force.
Whether or not it will turn into a party? I have said that the Front is half a party, i.e. it has its national, regional and local leaders, a unified policy, and a priority over partisan action. At the same time, parties still exist and work to the advantage of the Front in the first place. In the future, we will be running elections with joint lists and there will be no partisan lists within the Front. In fact, it is an important historical gain, and we will probably seek to expand the scope of the joint action in the next phase. We have expanded it towards the scope of the National Salvation Front. At a certain stage we were required to reach out to liberal democrats, because we had found ourselves under a real threat of fascism.
As-Safir: Before talking about this threat, will there be an alliance among opposition groups of the National Salvation Front in the next elections?
Hammami: The idea is not on the table for the time being, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. The Popular Front will certainly be unified during the election. The possibility that [this unity] reaches out the NSF has not been discussed so far, but as you know in politics, circumstances impose forms of action.
As-Safir: Are these circumstances the ones that imposed an alliance with Call for Tunisia?
Hammami: Yes, circumstances imposed that. We found ourselves facing a creeping dictatorship that was posing a threat to freedoms and to the existence of political parties. It threatened through political assassinations, and even threatened gains in Tunisia, not only the gains of the revolution, but also the civilizational and cultural gains in Tunisia. We found ourselves in the face of a dangerous derailment in the revolution, namely toward building a new backward despotism that was willing to reconsider all of the civilizational and cultural gains of Tunisia. It is natural to resist this new despotism. It is not only limited to the forces of the Popular Front, but it can also include other forces. Call for Tunisia has no interest in this violence. The party calls for freedom of assembly and is being denied, just as the Front, from the right of assembly. Call for Tunisia is committed to women’s gains in Tunisia. It supports the establishment of a civil state, for instance. These represent points of similarities. For us, this is the reason behind our rapprochement. These tasks were behind our rapprochement.
As-Safir: One last question; Hamma Hammami is today an icon for some Arab circles. He is also a key Tunisian opposition figure abroad. In addition to what is described as a battle you lead in Tunisia today, does Hamma Hammami have anything to say to those Arab circles? Does he have an Arab message?
Hammami: Of course. We believe our battle is part of the battle waged by revolutionary, progressive, democratic, anti-colonial and anti-Zionism forces in the Arab world. We believe we are part of this battle, because we ultimately face the same enemy: we face fierce backwards regimes and colonialism. We also face autocratic fascist Islamist movements. They have their extensions and we have ours, just as democratic, revolutionary and anti-colonial forces in the Arab world do. We consider ourselves to be their extension in Tunisia.
For this reason, we believe we fight a common battle, which requires us to unite and coordinate, because our enemies and adversaries are united and they coordinate. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood meets in Istanbul and plans with each other how to act, not only with regard to general policies, but also in terms of tactics that should be adopted sometimes. Based on that, revolutionary and national progressive forces in the Arab world are required to coordinate, converge and act, especially in light of the current balance of regional and international power that is not actually to our advantage. We must act to make it to our advantage.
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