Hamadi Jebali, who is Secretary General of Ennahda, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, was in Oxford this evening to give a talk on ‘The Democratic Transition in Tunisia: The Experience of Power’. It was a privilege to hear about Tunisia’s recent history – both the highs and the lows – from someone who has played a central part.
Jebali served as the first elected Prime Minister of his country from December of 2011 until February of this year, when he resigned in protest over the failure of his attempt to establish a non-partisan cabinet during the troubled weeks after the assassination of Shokri Belaid on 6 February.
Speaking to a multi-cultural audience of students, academics, and alumni, Jebali offered a flying survey of the history of Tunisia. One of the surprises was his emphasis on how the intellectual formation of Tunisia’s political class in French universities has shaped debates over the freedom of conscience. Flashing his famous smile, he pointed out that Tunisia’s revolution has so far been incomparably less painful than France’s two centuries ago. The French passion for secularism (‘laicité’) is deeply rooted in the imagination of Tunisian intellectuals, he suggested, although it carries with it a complicated legacy in the Tunisian context, since it was associated with the Bourguiba regime’s repression of religious freedom.
Jebali spoke persuasively of his desire to preserve a distinctively Tunisian legacy of moderate Islam. He spoke of the increasingly polarized political situation, and of the disturbing momentum of far-right religious radicals, who he suggested represent largely non-Tunisian interests. Challenged by a member of the audience to explain why his own Ennahda party has not argued more successfully for the principle of diversity and religious freedom, he spoke of his own personal commitment to freedom of the press and freedom of conscience, and of his long imprisonment by the Ben Ali government, which began over this issue in 1990 when as editor of the newspaper Al Fajr (Dawn) he published an article critical of the regime’s military courts.
Hamadi Jebali has been praised as the face of moderate Islam in a country whose ability to protect the legacy of its revolution is now under threat. (See Radia Hennesy, Tunisia’s Theocratic Temptation, on the urgency – and difficulty – of protecting the revolution’s pluralistic spirit.) What Tunisia needs now is to find and support a charismatic champion of moderate Islam – someone who can argue convincingly that the real spirit of Islam resides in dialogue and mutual respect. If this can be achieved, there is still a chance of showing the world that Islam can serve as the basis for a pluralistic civil society.
Jebali seems to be looking for a chance to play the part. In Oxford, he spoke firmly of Tunisia as a society that can only be true to its multi-cultural past by following such a path. As he put it, ‘Tunisia is, by its very nature, a country of pluralism.’ Standing in front of a map in a crowded college library and explaining how Berber and Phoenician trad routes had given way to Roman and then Fatimid empires, it seemed clear that if Jebali retires from politics he has a future as a professor.
But not yet. Jebali’s next stop is London, where he will be meeting with City-based Tunisian business leaders, and it is rumoured that at least one reason for the visit is to sort out support for a presidential campaign. If this evening’s talk was anything to go by, he may have a future as a president instead.