Tunisia has done it again. The country that triggered the Arab Spring has produced something unseen during the past two years of upheavals: A politician who holds himself to account.
Hamadi Jebali, Tunisia’s prime minister, resigned Tuesday in protest at the failure of political leaders, including those of his own Islamist party, Ennahda, to compromise. He was trying to calm the country after the assassination of an opposition leader had sent tens of thousands of Tunisians to the streets in protest at the failure of Ennahda to crack down on religious extremists blamed for that murder and other acts of violence.
To prevent further mayhem, Jebali called for a new cabinet of technocrats drawn from all parties, which would abandon the partisan haggling that has crippled the Arab Spring’s most hopeful country. When Ennahda refused, Jebali resigned, confronting his own party. “Our people are looking for credibility,” he said.
Such a move — putting country above ideology or pursuit of power — is so exceptional in the new Arab democracies (not to mention in the U.S. Congress), that it should be called “doing a Jebali.” Until more Arab politicians emulate his example, the Arab Spring revolts will continue to fail.
Here’s what makes Jebali’s case even more fascinating: He was long regarded as merely a front man for Ennahda’s leader, Rashid Ghannouchi, a renowned Islamic scholar whose moderate positions persuaded the world that Tunisia would show how an Islamic party and democracy could mix. This was especially important in Tunisia, a Mediterranean country with a high literacy rate and many activist women.
But Ghannouchi, and Ennahda, disappointed many Tunisians by failing to arrest or try violent salafis who have burned movie theaters, attacked students, threatened secular activists — and, on Sept. 11, sacked the U.S. Embassy. This has made many Tunisians suspicious about Ghannouchi’s long-term intentions, and whether he’s more loyal to his Muslim Brotherhood roots than to his country. A split has apparently emerged within Ennahda between pragmatists and the old guard.
For a large number of Tunisians, the gunning down of opposition leader Chokri Belaid — the first such assassination since the fall of Tunisia’s dictator in 2011 — was the last straw. There, as in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, there is a terrible disillusionment with the post-Arab Spring.
Newly empowered Islamists scramble to consolidate power. Opposition parties, united only in their opposition to the Islamists, squabble among themselves and fail to present alternative visions. Meantime, their publics yearn for politicians who will get on with rebuilding their economies and creating jobs.
So Jebali’s effort to pull his country together, and his resignation when he failed, resonated with many Tunisians. “I was so surprised,” civil society activist Ahmed Hamza told me by phone from Tunisia. “He is a man of his word.”
To what did Hamza attribute Jebali’s behavior? He confessed to a nagging suspicion that Jebali’s move “could be a fake” designed to buy time for his party. But, he preferred to believe that “Jebali had a conscience.”
When parsing Jebali’s motives, I thought back to my interview with him in Tunis in October 2011, just before Ennahda won a plurality in parliamentary elections and came to power.
A beefy man with a small white beard, bushy eyebrows, and the dark mark on his forehead indicating a devout Muslim, Jebali spoke of his 16 1/2 years in prison, 10 in solitary, as a member of the then-banned Islamist movement. “What’s important for Tunisia,” he told me, “is that democracy succeeds.
“It is important for the region and the world for Tunisia to set a model,” he continued, “to show that nonviolent change is possible and to show how a moderate Islamic party works in a modern country.
“The Muslim world is thirsty for such a model. We can be a source of inspiration. We are conscious of this responsibility.”
I can’t say whether Jebali will, or can, live up to his words. Ghannouchi has already asked him to form a new government — not one composed wholly of technocrats. Jebali has said he won’t do it unless certain conditions are met.
I can say that the Arab Spring’s future will be determined by whether its leaders can rise above the drive for power that has marked its first two years. Newly powered Islamists, fearful of setbacks, focus on cementing their gains, while disorganized seculars seem unwilling to do the organizing necessary to broaden their base. Eschewing pragmatism, they are sowing the seeds for a second wave of popular revolts.
If they want to stabilize their countries, and rebuild their economies, they will have to “do a Jebali,” and look for ways to bring their countries together. One indication of the prospects for such pragmatism will be how Jebali’s own efforts turn out.