Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi: The calm after the storm

Sunday 12/03/2017
Challenges ahead. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi speaking
at the Carthage Palace. (AFP)

Carthage - The corridors of the presidential palace at Carthage are incredibly quiet. For decades fol­lowing Tunisia’s inde­pendence, executive and political decisions were made here. Tuni­sian President Beji Caid Essebsi has changed that. He knows that what Tunisia needs is an experi­enced conductor of the political or­chestra, someone who coordinates and directs the music but does not himself play it.
In post-revolution Tunisia, the government’s team of youthful leaders has learned to appreciate the wisdom the veteran politi­cal figure provides. Caid Essebsi, who has surrounded himself with young aides, wants to stay con­nected to the country’s youth. He likes to reach out to this large seg­ment of Tunisian society in a lan­guage it can understand and the medium it uses most.
Unsurprisingly, reports of the president’s activities appear on the presidency’s Facebook page before showing up in the news media. That choice is not wanton. Facebook is the favourite news platform of Tunisian youth. Caid Essebsi, who has been in politics since the heydays of the printed press and radio in Tunisia, has kept track of the transformations in communication technologies.
A few moments with Caid Esseb­si, 90, are sufficient to realise how alert and sharp he is. He focuses on the main issues but does not ne­glect details. True to his classical education, he often quotes from Arabic classical poetry when he wants to make a point. Very often, too, he refers to speeches and ac­tions by Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who remains an inspiration for him.
There is a great deal of confi­dence in the discourse of Caid Es­sebsi, who said the end of Tunisia’s lean years is nearing and that the country is on the right track. Still, he recognises the enormous chal­lenges ahead, especially the need to solve the country’s seemingly intractable economic problems.
Reaching political compromise in Tunisia is one thing but achiev­ing reforms is another. Political compromise between the many political parties in the country — too many, in Caid Essebsi’s opinion — must be in the service of reforms and not an objective in itself.
Tunisia is an important country even if its regional role is bound to be determined by its geographic size, its internal political map and its resources. The Maghrebi bloc, with which Egypt finds itself in­creasingly associated, is at ease with Tunisia’s role. Nobody in Tu­nisia wants to control the region and that is what makes the country a place for the exchange of ideas even between opposing parties, especially when it comes to na­tional security issues.
Caid Essebsi knows the impor­tance of this conciliatory role and encourages the country’s diplo­macy to be active in promoting dialogue. Caid Essebsi knows the importance of this conciliatory role and encourages the country’s diplomacy to be active in promot­ing dialogue.
T he Tunisian president does not hide his con­cern about the crisis in Libya and about the con­sequences of keeping it closed to potential players from the region.
“How would we react if we find Russia in our neighbourhood as a result of its involvement in the Libyan crisis, just as it did in Syria?” he asked. “What could we do if the Russians, the Americans and the Europeans agreed on an interven­tion agenda in Libya?
“We (Tunisians) will be the ones who will pay the price in terms of our security, our economy and our stability. We must be the first to take action and sit together with all local and regional parties con­cerned with the Libyan issue; other­wise, we will lose to the alternative global schemes surrounding us. We are in the middle of the Mediterra­nean and Europe, the West, and the Russian fleet is just a stone’s throw away.”
The recent agreement among Tu­nisia, Egypt and Algeria, an agree­ment dubbed “the Tunis declara­tion”, is a step in the right direction. Tunisian officials like to emphasise that they are not just motivated by Tunisia’s interests but also by their desire to seek “the best for our Lib­yan brothers”.
Tunisia would face great threats if things got out of control in Libya. The threat of cross-border terror­ism is justification for the Tunisian initiative. A worsening of the eco­nomic crisis in Libya has dire con­sequences for Tunisia’s economy and not just for the people living near border areas. Hundreds of thousands of Libyans either live in Tunisia or transit by the neighbour­ing North African country to other parts of the world.
It is also obvious that Tunisia stands to gain tremendously from peace, stability and economic re­covery in Libya. The Tunis declara­tion is a reminder of these regional realities, which some are trying to ignore.
The president knows that he is in a race against time. All countries are preoccupied with their own inter­nal security and political issues and no longer pay attention to political crises in smaller countries. Caid Es­sebsi said that Tunisians should not exaggerate their problems. People should be patient and the media should give citizens the chance to think out the issues.
Caid Essebsi understands the contradictory pressures at play in the media. He said: “The success of the democratic experiment is contingent on the balance between several connected circles. Democ­racy would be threatened by the absence of security and develop­ment.”
He also said no democracy or so­cial development is possible with­out a free press. The president con­siders the rapid proliferation and development of private and public media institutions in post-revo­lution Tunisia as a major achieve­ment.
Media oversight of the govern­ment is an integral part of the peaceful transition towards a stable and productive society, Caid Esseb­si said. “They are free to write what­ever they want,” he said, “as long as they tell the truth. We have nothing to hide but let it be the truth only and not rumours and fabrications.”
Caid Essebsi is not without qualms about the work of the me­dia in Tunisia. He said there is a lot of exaggeration in what is being re­ported and there are political par­ties that either contribute to this kind of reporting or take advantage of it to attack the government’s re­forms. The president said he does not expect, however, critical me­dia to relent but he would like the members of the media to remember they are Tunisians first and fore­most.
Caid Essebsi said Tunisians should not lose sight of the real aim of true democracy. For him, politi­cal parties, candidates and ballot boxes are tools for ensuring good governance and are not in them­selves the ultimate goals.
Living in a pluralistic system should not mean denying the le­gitimately appointed government the chance to proceed with reform programmes. “The culture of work goes hand in hand with the cul­ture of democratic development,” Caid Essebsi said. “This is what has made the West progress and it is what we would like to instil in the minds of Tunisians.”
Still committed to his consen­sus-based approach to preserve civil peace, Caid Essebsi said Is­lamist movements should have their share in the Tunisian political scene. There is no returning to ex­clusionary policies and practices. As democracy grows in Tunisia and democratic tools become common­place, Islamist movements will not regret the peaceful political choices they made following the 2014 elec­tions.
“There is room for everyone in the Tunisian national project,” Caid Essebsi said. “We can sit together, negotiate and compromise because we have seen what could happen when relations are broken and po­larisation becomes the order of the day.”
Visitors to Tunis see changes tak­ing place. The streets of the city are cleaner and post-revolution signs of disorder are disappearing. One should travel outside the capital to see if winds of change are sweep­ing the rest of the country as well. There is a palpable feeling of opti­mism.
People are calmer and seem to instinctively respond to what they see as being in their best interests from what is proposed by the gov­ernment or political parties. Phos­phate production is back to normal. The Tunisian capital recently host­ed a major international conference on investment projects in the coun­try. Tunisians seem to agree over the need for reforms.
Quietly readjusting priorities looks like the right strategy towards transforming revolution from in­tentions to concrete measures. In Tunisia, the calm starts in the cor­ridors of the presidential palace in Carthage. A presidential calm, actu­ally.