Tunisia, the country in which the Arab Awakening began, needs to focus on the economy and public safety while reducing ideological polarization, former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said at USIP.

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H.E. Mr. Hamadi Jebali, Secretary General, Ennahda Party Former Prime Minister of the Tunisian Republic

Tunisia, the country in which the Arab Awakening began, needs to focus on delivering economic development and public safety while reducing the country’s ideological and social polarization, former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on June 3.

Jebali, currently the secretary-general of the ruling Ennahda Party, acknowledged “miscalculations,” a “lack of experience” and high popular expectations as shaping the environment in which the post-revolutionary government has been operating. He described a split in perceptions between “the ruling elite” and the general population, arguing that those who are governing need to “give attention to what people need,” which he termed as “safety and development, side by side.”

Jebali’s appearance at USIP comes amid growing secular-Islamist tensions in the country, which is transitioning away from decades of authoritarian rule. Tunisia had the first freely elected government emerging from the Arab Awakening, and it is preparing a new constitution.

With Tunisian political debate increasingly framed in terms of “backwards and progressive,” Jebali said, “this tears the society apart and this is not even the truth.” He said most Tunisians are more concerned about jobs, transportation, education and other services than in whether a woman dons a veil in public. “We have to bring down the tone of the polarization politically,” he said, and move toward “a society at peace with itself.”

Jebali urged that political labels be avoided because he said they deepen that polarization. “They put us into problems with no end….a circle that goes nowhere,” he said. Rather, he suggested a more meaningful division in Tunisia is that between people who want democracy and freedom and those of any political or religious orientation who do not. “Freedom is for all—whatever their belief is,” he said. “We can live with each other.”

As for political violence in Tunisia, “we have to fight against this by law,” he said. Jebali said the struggle for public safety is not directed against groups that are labeled as Salafist; instead, “we combat these groups because they use violence.”

Jebali spent 17 years as a political prisoner before Tunisia’s revolution and has been called the Nelson Mandela of the country. He resigned as prime minister in February amid a political dispute within Ennahda over whether to broaden the government by shifting to a cabinet of technocrats. He favored such a move after the assassination of opposition political leader Chokri Belaid, a rare political killing in the North African country that led thousands of Tunisians to take to the streets in protest and some secularists to blame Ennahda for the killing—an accusation denied by Ennahda.

In his remarks at USIP, Jebali reiterated his view, saying that Tunisia should be governed by a broad-based, “representative” government after the next elections, which are expected this fall. Jebali said he has not yet decided whether he will run for president.

Charles Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House and the event’s moderator, lauded what he said were Jebali’s endurance and commitment to democratic political change. But Dunne also suggested that it is “an increasingly open question” how much Ennahda is willing to share power in Tunisia with other parties. Tunisians, he said, are continuing to contend with basic issues of the role of women in civic life and secular versus religious approaches to politics.

Jebali noted that democracy cannot “be born in a day” and is “a mental process” in which citizens develop new ways of coexistence. That process cannot be imported from the United States or elsewhere, he said. Ennahda will also continue to develop as it gains governing experience, he added, and will support the “global values” of liberty and respect for others.

Typically described as a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, along with similar movements in the region, has learned from its initial period in power that it has “a duty to rule all Tunisians….It’s not just one sect or party representing a specific group of people,” Jebali said. He urged the audience at USIP not to back any particular Tunisian party or politician but to “support our democratic experience.”

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