The Tightrope Prime Minister

Hamadi Jebali

Tunisian Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, has committed himself to walking a fine line between advocating his own ideology of political Islam and safeguarding a stable democratic transition for Tunisia. If he succeeds he may well invent a model for the region to emulate. If he fails, detractors will claim to have found their evidence that political Islam doesn’t support democracy.

Prime Minister Jebali forms a partnership with the recently elected President, Moncef Marzouki, at the head of the Tunisian government. In tandem the two former dissidents of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali’s regime are responsible for facilitating the transition of Tunisia away from the despotism of the past and towards a pluralistic future. They will be aided by a constitutional assembly dominated by Jebali’s Ennadha (Renaissance) party.

[inset_left]His party’s core tenets of political Islam remain intact while he works towards advancing the timeline of democratic transition in Tunisia. [/inset_left]Both Jebali and Marzouki can boast deep roots in the opposition movement to Ben Ali, however, as the secretary general of Ennadha, Jebali is the man who brings political Islam to the table. Throughout his career he has fought against anti-Muslim oppression in Tunisia and spent many years in jail as a consequence.

In 1992, as the editor of Ennahda’s newspaper, Al Fajr (The Dawn), Jebali was sentenced to one year in prison after a publishing an article that was critical of the Ben Ali government. When his time for release arrived—and as anti-Islamist sentiment gained ground under Ben Ali—he was sentenced summarily to another 16 years behind bars. He reportedly spent more than ten years of his sentence in isolation and was eventually released in 2006, after serving 15 years in prison.

He emerged from that time in isolation a leader, with an easy going, jovial demeanor. He is frequently photographed laughing and smiling, even in state events. Well dressed, with a trim beard and fluent in French, he has built a strong rapport with the press. Sofiene Ben Fahrat, the editor of Tunisia’s daily La Presse told AFP that Jebali “has always had good press, is well connected, and has a fat contact book”.

The young Hamadi Jebali

Jebali was born in 1949, in the eastern port town of Sousse, the third city of Tunisia, which is known as the Pearl of the Tunisian Desert thanks to an ancient association with olive oil production. Today, the town relies heavily upon the tourist industry and in 2011 it was the arena for one of the major flashpoints of the Tunisian uprising. But the town may soon be chiefly remembered as Jebali’s birthplace. After studying engineering in Tunis and specializing in Solar energy as postgraduate in Paris, by the early nineteen eighties Jebali was making his name as a journalist and was among the co-founders of the Islamic Tendency Movement, the group that would become Ennahda.

He has long been a big player on Tunisia’s political scene. Jebali was front and center in a confrontation against the government of Habib Bourguiba in the early 1980s when the modernizing President of Tunisia launched a repressive campaign against Islamists and sentenced several of its key leaders to death.

After the revolution that toppled Ben Ali in January, 2011—and in the wake of his nomination for prime minister by Ennahda—Jebali travelled to the United States in order to put to rest fears that arose abroad concerning his politics. He made clear his position that Ennahda’s priority was democracy in Tunisia, not theocracy.

Nevertheless, on issues such as the sale of alcohol in Tunisia and the right of people not to fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he has hinted at the Islamist priorities of his party. “We do not have the right to interfere in people’s personal affairs, but everybody must respect the consensus and the national identity” he told AFP in an interview last April.

On October 18, 2011,  Ennadha secured an outright victory in Tunisia, in landmark elections that were the first of the so-called Arab Spring. The results have been interpreted as an indicator for the future of neighboring states. Egypt, for example, held parliamentary elections in November with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Hizb Al-Nour emerging as the clear victors after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

After Ennadha’s victory in Tunisia—with the eyes of the watching world upon a new Islamist government—Jebali took his time before appointing fellow Ennahda members to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Justice—all critical posts—but he appointed an independent candidate to head the Ministry of Finance.

Since October, Jebali has been the consummate statesmen and played host to diverse foreign dignitaries. He received the Italian Foreign Minister, Giulio Terzi Di Sant'Agata, and in doing so acknowledged Italy’s historically close ties with Tunisia. Significantly, this meeting took place only one day after Jebali was photographed walking hand in hand with the senior Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh. The meeting fueled speculation that Hamas was searching for a new politburo headquarters in Tunis, due to the upheaval of the continuing Syrian crisis—a rumor that Jebali denies.

In keeping with Tunisia’s new-found role as a potential model for Islamist governance, Jebali discussed with Haniyeh the role of rural areas in Tunisia’s revolution and the future of infrastructure in Gaza. The Arab Spring is widely viewed as creating an alternative model of dissent that has shied away from the violence associated with Hamas, reframing notions of uprising in the Middle East.

Jebali, frequently photographed smiling and relaxed, is managing a smooth transition while walking a tightrope. His party’s core tenets of political Islam remain intact while he works towards advancing the timeline of democratic transition in Tunisia. For now, he has made no major stumbles or indeed faced any major tests of his party’s values, but he has only been treading the wire as prime minister of a new Tunisia for three months.