Interview with the Honourable Ms. Imen Ben Mohamed (Ennahdha Party)
Who is Imen Ben Mohamed? Imen was born November 13, 1984 in Kebili (Tunisia). She graduated at the University of Rome in International Cooperation and Economic Development, and at the Tunisian Institute of Policy in Mediterranean and international Studies. At 14, she left with her family from Tunisia for joining her father, who was a political exile in Italy. She returned to Tunisia only once before the revolution, because of lawsuits and pressures that her family suffered.
She led the association of Muslim Youth in southern Italy and was Vice President of the commission “Family and work policies” in the forum of youth and civil society in Italy. She also participated to several congresses in Italy and Europe aimed at fostering the dialogue between cultures and contributed to train children and young people in the Italian schools to reconciliation of religions and cultures.
Actually, Ms. Imen Ben Mohamed is a member of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly and the Maghreb Shura Council.
Ms. Ben Mohamed, as you know Tunisia has been the only country to successfully begin a process of democratization after the Arab Spring through the adoption of a democratic constitution and free elections. In your opinion, what are the distinguishing factors that made Tunisia stand out compared with the neighboring states?
Tunisia has historically experienced a different path of development compared with the other countries in the religious, political and military field. Religion is the main distinguishing factor: nowadays, but also in the past, the Tunisian religious order shows a more modern, more open face which pays greater attention to women rights and understands the importance of fundamental liberties. The second element that I reckon to be crucial to understand the Tunisian exception is politics: even though the regime seemed to be more moderate and less oppressive, Tunisian people experienced years of dictatorship that did not leave any space to individual liberties. The state of police established by Ben Ali oppressed the population, but it also created a strong cohesion among the people against this very oppression, the same people that finally found enough resolution to go beyond personal ideologies and political believes to embrace compromise and to fight together against a common enemy. It was the dialogue between different factions among the opposition front to foster the future dialogue about a new constitution at the national level. The people that fought Ben Ali’s dictatorship join each other during the constitutional construction relying on channels of dialogue already stable. It is the culture of open dialogue that marks the difference between Tunisia and the other countries of the Arab Spring. It was not easy: after the uprising, there have been deep political crisis, especially after the killings of the lawyer and politician Chokri Belaid and of Mohamed Brahmi, the leader of the opposition party that goes by the name of Popular Front and member of the constituent assembly. After the killings, the process of drafting the constitution came to an impasse and it was suspended on August 2013, but the political parties involved into the constituent assembly succeeded in overcoming the internal fracture and the several factions of the civil society and the political panorama joined together in order to find a shared solution. Once Ben Ali was removed from office, the political parties created a new electoral system through which the National Constitutional Assembly was elected, involving all the political parties. Ennahdha won the majority of the votes, but decided to widen the parts involved into the constitutional process by creating a constitution that was not the result of the wills of the majority but the end of a process that involved the society as a whole, from the political parties to each single citizen. Everything began with a blank page on which we started to draft the proposals, than we gave start to the round of talks with the civil society. The population actively participated in the process, presenting their own ideas from all over the country and from abroad. This open and participative process led to a consensus without precedents: the constitution was approved with 200 favorable votes, just 4 contrary votes and 12 abstained. From a rich, deep dialogue stemmed a shared consensus and every Tunisian citizen can identify with the Constitution because our people worked together notwithstanding the ideological cleavages. The transition phase is not over yet, however the culture of dialogue and consensus succeeded in creating a Tunisian government made by four political parties. Finally, the last element to be taken into account is the military. The army had a very positive role during the revolution, even though it remained neutral and never interfered with the uprising, unlike armed forces in other countries.
Does the new coalition born after the presidential elections still support the values of mutual comprehension and joint efforts for the democratization of the country?
Ennahdha has always claimed the importance of creating a united national government. In such periods of transition, the classic dynamics of majority versus opposition is not feasible: it is instead fundamental to unify the entire spectrum of political forces. This position has been maintained also during the electoral campaign for both political and presidential elections of 2014, when the victory of Nidaa Tounes brought about further complex factors to take into account in order to create a new government. Ennahdha decided to send a message by participating through only one minister and three secretaries of states even though it could count on 69 deputes elected in the parliament. On the other side, there are parties that obtained a higher number of ministers notwithstanding the fact that they are far less represented in the parliament. Our party decided to participate jointly with the others instead of giving up this chance and be part of the opposition. Even though the latter would have been the best decision in terms of electoral strategy, Ennahdha is the only party with a solid structured that was consolidated during the years. Thus, we decided to support the national unity and to widen the basis of support for the new government. We bet on the future of Tunisia and we are confident that, although it is not always possible to find a complete agreement over the reforms to be implemented, it will be possible to use dialogue in order to take decisions with a large margin of consensus. Rules have been set in place in order to preserve the efforts undertaken on the constitutional and legislative field, with the first aim being to maintain those fundamental liberties earned through the revolution.
About the presidential election of November/December 2014: the election of Nidaa Tounes came as a surprise and a prove of the disappointment spread across the society towards Ennahdha and the decisions taken by the party. Which one you think is the best strategy to regain the support of the electorate?
The decisions taken by Ennahdha clearly show that our only strategy is to support this country. To symbolically participate in the government forced us to take much more responsibility than merely stay on the opposition front. We had to face several critiques for the decision to join the government, especially because Nidaa Tounes is seen as a residual bastion of the old regime, and for this reason it is firmly opposed by our electorate. However, our party wants to be actively involved in the process of democratic transition and we decided to participate to this government in order to take up our responsibilities, no matter what kind of electoral repercussions will follow.
The recent attack to the Bardo museum, which is located at the center of the new Tunisian parliament, was a very hard strike to Tunisia and to the entire world. How do you evaluate this threat?
After the uprising and the 2011 elections the country was victim of several, tremendous terroristic attacks. The killings of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi challenged the Tunisian democratic transition itself, which was rescued only thanks to the presence of effective channels of dialogue and intellectual exchange between political elite and civil society. Anyway, the attack against the Bardo museum is full of implications that are not only political but also ideological and brings about a threat that must be analyzed in its full complexity. Tunisia is emerging as a model of Arab and Islamic state that is moving the first steps towards democracy and the rule of law, and the attack was meant to undermine exactly this process. However, the democratic process was not the only target: the others were the Tunisian economy and its trade agreements with the Western world. The terrorists’ target were the tourists, foreign guests in our territory. The attack has the double aim to ruin the relationship between Tunisia and Europe and to undermine our economy, as tourism is the main economic activity after agriculture. Finally, because the attack was moved against one of the most important historical museum of the country, it was also a clear massage against our history and our culture. However, the attack will not destroy the country because Tunisia has already reacted: on the same day of the attack we called for an extraordinary assembly to show that Tunisian people are united, followed by a national and international march. Terrorism is a real threat not only for Tunisia but also for Europe and it cannot be managed by one country at a time. We need to fight together and stay united.
According to Tunisian official sources, about 3000 Tunisian citizens have left the country to fight the jihad abroad. It means that Tunisia is the country with the highest number of foreign fighters. This radicalization is partially due to the marginalization of the youth, who are excluded from the political world but suffer from the pitfalls of an unbalanced welfare system. Is there a plan at the institutional level to limit the Salafi expansion?
Most unfortunately, given the actual state of the economy and the high percentage of unemployment, young people find themselves marginalized and unable to find a job after their study, especially those living in rural areas. This gap between one region and another was created long ago, being the result of the politics of Ben Ali aimed at punishing certain regions and so reducing them to a state of social and economic underdevelopment. The young are the people that have mostly been damaged by this economic gap. Once they finished their study, it is very hard for them to find a job and they feel like they are deprived of their future and of the possibility to provide for their families. The majority of the Tunisian youth grew up under the dictatorship rule and was affected by it: they grew up without faith in the future, submerged into rage and oppression. Tunisian people still feel the effect of the dictatorship. Many among them nurtured great expectations for what was to come after the uprising but the economy is slow to recover and unemployment is still high. This caused the social discontent that terrorists could capitalize on in order to recruit young people. Ennahdha is working on a new strategy to fight against terrorism that doesn’t just rely on safety measures but also on culture, religion, education, and art, because terrorism bust be fought on different levels, not only by the armed force and the intelligence. The extremists’ ideology must be hindered by proposing a different vision and providing the young with an alternative. Today Tunisia is a model to effectively combine religion and democracy in the Arab world. In addition, for this very reason Tunisia is against terrorists’ ideology that sees moderate Islam and democracy as a threat for their survival. They think that also Ennahdha is haram, because it shows that Islam and democracy are not mutually excluding and it asks for a democratic Islamic state and for economic growth. Several videos have been diffused by IS where many political figures like Rashid al-Ghannushi and Ali Laarayedh are threatened. The only way to outwit terrorism is to develop a new cultural, religious and political model set against the extremist one, because it will undermine the very existence of religious extremism.
The 2003 law against terrorism wanted by Ben Ali has been strongly criticized by several association, like Amnesty International, because it was considered to violate human rights. Do you think that Tunisian political forces should make the legislation against terrorism compatible with civil and political rights in accord with the ongoing process of democratization?
Law 75/2003 is still in force but it will be modified. Its original formulation is vague, for this reason it was easily exploited by Ben Ali to harm his opponents. In particular, the law does not provide a clear definition for terroristic crime, nor it specifies the methods to be used to contrast alleged political opponents. Therefore it is not ensured respect for human rights and fundamental liberties, people charged of terrorism did not have the right to defend themselves and were immediately confined. For this reason we are now debating to amend this law in such a way to guarantee more protection to the people accused of terroristic activities, as well as to the police force. Our final objective is to update the legislation in a way that take into account the modern face of terrorism that has developed during the past few years, in line with fundamental human rights.
Tunisia shows a record of political success towards democracy and it is an important partner for the European Union. Tunisia received €169 millions through the European Neighborhood Instrument program in order to stimulate economic growth and the process of democratization. Moreover, after the attack to the Bardo museum we witnessed an increasingly stronger collaboration not only with Europe but also with the international community as a whole. Do you think this could be the start of a stronger collaboration in the Mediterranean region?
The EU, with its Neighborhood Policy and its collaboration in the fields of economics and security, is playing a very important rule in stabilizing the country and favoring the democratic transition. Democracy cannot be stable without a healthy economy, we know that young people that join terrorism come from rough areas and that the only way to beat terrorism is to invest in democracy, not only on the political level with the support of Europe, but also through economic, cultural and security’s reforms. To invest in Tunisia by implementing neighborhood policies is not only an investment on Tunisian democracy but also one on the stabilization of the entire region and the entire Europe.
Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)