The Resignation of Tunisia’s Prime Minister Jebali and what it says about democracy in Tunisia…

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Two nights ago Tunisians heard their Prime Minister, Hammadi Jebali resign. The following morning, I saw a major English language television channel refer to the resignation as “again” throwing Tunisia into “turmoil”. The visuals showed film footage of a demonstration with tear gas…from a previous time!

Unfortunately, this is yet one more example of the media not understanding the process of democratic transition in Tunisia. Using past film footage in itself, was visually misleading, as are loaded words such as “turmoil” to describe Tunisia’s political happenings.

Tunisians have for the most part seen a rather peaceful political process take place. The February 6th killing of Chokri Belaid, a lawyer and political activist representing secular views from Tunisia’s political left was a shock for all Tunisians! The relatively peaceful transition since the January 2011 Revolution was now marked by an assassination and the use of a gun, two shocking symbols in Tunisia. Tunisia has never seen the violence that has marked Syria, Libya, Lebanon, or even the level of protests that have been seen in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The killing of Belaid, implicitly, pointed a finger at Ennahda, the Islamic political party that holds a plurality of roughly 41% in Tunisia’s freely elected Constituent Assembly. Why is the finger being pointed at Ennahda?  There was no one other than the Islamic political movement that would have wanted Belaid silenced, as it was against Ennahda that Belaid voiced his opposition. The assumed is that it was Ennahda or their sympathizers who would want him out of the picture.

Hammadi Jebali was appointed Prime Minister by Ennadha, as their plurality based on the democratic and transparent elections of October 23, 2011 permitted them to choose the Prime Minister position. Jabali has been a long time Ennahda member and served more than a decade and half in prison during the dictatorial years of Ben Ali. Today, many in Tunisia have seen Jebali as a puppet to Rachid Ghannouchi, one of the founders and the undisputable leader of Ennahda.

Since Belaid’s death, Jebali felt the stink of the taint that has been cast over Ennahda. Perhaps to deflect himself from this stink, a week ago he called for a government of technocrats, rather than the present political leaders who by all Tunisians’ accounts, have accomplished nothing. The idea of bringing back technocrats met with favor from many Tunisians, except Ennahda’s Ghannouchi and his followers, who said it was unacceptable that technocrats should replace people who were in their positions due to the political will of voters. Jebali said he would work behind the scenes to try and make it a policy change, but if he could not accomplish this, he would resign.

Jebali’s resignation did just that! No one, but Jebali, knows what was really behind his decision to resign. His actions are most likely motivated by one of several possibilities:

1) He is acting to uphold his word, acting as a result of Ennahda’s decision not to consider technocrats.

2) He wants to not carry the taint which now follows the killing of Belaid and thus, as he said in his closing resignation speech…he wants to be the Prime Minister of all Tunisia, not of Ennahda.

3) The theory favored by conspiracy theorists that the entire process since the killing of Belaid, including Jebali’s resignation, is that of a charade being orchestrated by Ennahda.

Most people can see this as an honorable move on his part, even among those who had little high regard for Jebali. The small Constitution now called for President Moncef Marzouki to call on Ennahda to appoint a Prime Minister, as they are the party holding the plurality and thus, entitled to carry the PM post. Their chosen appointee to the Prime Minister post is Ali Laareyedh, a longtime Ennahdha activist and until this appointment, the Minister of Interior. Political watchers would likely say that Laareydeh was the less controversial candidate from Ennahda’s short list, which also included Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri and Health Minister Abdellatif Mekki. Ennadha also knows that polls show they are no longer the political front runner, but rather, in a dead heat with Nida Tounes, the umbrella organization founded by Bourguiba era, Beji Caid Essebsi in an attempt to form a political block of centrist democrats.


All of this political wrangling is unfairly cast by the media as “turmoil”. Our United States Congress plays with brinksmanship regarding the “fiscal cliff”, name calling among politicians, debating whether all Americans should have access to healthcare and most recently, debates on whether automatic weapons are an entitled right based on our Second Amendment right to bear arms. All of this which is viewed by the political eyes of the rest of the world as politically puzzling. Could this also be called “political turmoil”?

What will evolve in Tunisia’s political process in the days and weeks ahead is any pundit’s guess. However, for a young democracy that went from decades under dictatorships, “turmoil” and “violence” are not adjectives that aptly describe Tunisia’s political process. Rather, democratic political transition, which includes ups and downs, is the more appropriate description of what is taking place.

Hopefully, the United States and other democratic countries can continue providing their support to Tunisia to help them through this process of their very new democracy. The West must stop looking at all of the Middle East and North Africa with the same brush and let Tunisia’s democratic actions let it stand above its neighbors in its path to democracy.

Photo courtesy of Middle East Institute, Washington, DC


Jerry Sorkin’s involvement with Tunisia dates back three decades. He lives much of the year in Tunis, Tunisia. Since July 2010, he has served as President of the American Tunisian Association ( . The views expressed are his own.

Overcoming Diplomatic Hurdles Requires Dialogue!

The other day here in Tunis, where I live much of the year, I attended an event that brought out many families from the Tunis international community of business and diplomatic expats.

Having traveled quite a bit in Iran and knowing many Iranians, I spotted someone who clearly looked Iranian and took advantage of the festive atmosphere to ask the question of a total stranger…”are you from Iran?”  My hunch was correct and he responded in perfect English, expressing interest in my familiarity with Iran. When I told him that I not only have studied Persian culture for years, but have traveled and led tours to Iran, there was even greater surprise.

My house in Tunis happens to be a short walk from where the event was taking place, so I walked home and shortly thereafter, returned with some of the TunisUSA brochures about our tours to Iran and brought them to him. The brochures include numerous photos, as well as quotes from Americans on how warm and welcoming they found Iran and its people. He was clearly pleased!

He noted that he has a brother living in the United States and after chatting a bit more about how cultural travel and engagement brings out the reality of the fact that Americans are quite beloved in Iran, he added that it is true, Iranians love Americans. It is unfortunately, only the people who represent our two governments where there is a lack of communication and trust…he added!

This conversation may have been simply one more of the frequent interactions I have with people from Iran, though in this case, as it turns out, I was speaking with an Iranian diplomat!!!

Travel is one of the best forms of diplomacy. The Stanford University Alumni Association has a trip to Iran this month, with over twenty participants and a wait list! Better understanding and improved relations only come from dialogue! Both sides of political debates must continue to work at dialogues, as there are often more possibilities than we know when we make the effort to dig a bit deeper and know one another better!