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Interview. We spoke with the Tunisian scholar Habib Kazdaghli about social discontent and jihad. Fresh protests are refocusing attention on the failed promises of the Arab Spring.

‘Many things still need to be done’: Tunisia, seven years later

“Seven years after the Jasmine Revolution, the country has entered a new era of freedoms, political, intellectual and cultural, but serious economic reforms are necessary to fight the causes of the growing social tensions, such as those that have erupted again in recent days.”

These are the words of Habib Kazdaghli, Dean of the Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Humanities at the University of Manouba (Tunis), author of several studies on the contemporary history of Tunisia, the communist movements in the Maghreb and the history of ethnic minorities in the country. Kazdaghli is also a living symbol for the struggle for women’s rights and the resistance against the advancement of Wahhabi ideology in universities. His efforts led to him receiving death threats from radical groups.

Seven years after the revolution that ousted the dictator Ben Ali, where does the Tunisian political transition find itself?

After the ouster of Ben Ali, the country has entered a new stage of its democratic history, which is still ongoing today, on the seventh anniversary of the events. We have to remember that other countries (Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, etc.) have had similar waves of protests, but only Tunisia, with its critical approach, continues to celebrate its revolution and its democratic transition. As Gramsci wrote, “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” If we perform a quick assessment, however, a lot has been accomplished: freedom of expression, elections, a Constitution, a democratically elected government and president of the republic, success in the fight against terrorism, a civil war prevented thanks to a national dialogue, and so on. But many things still need to be done: successful municipal elections, and especially economic reforms to combat youth unemployment, a true scourge in this country.

Is the Nidaa Tounes-Ennahda coalition ruling the country in an effective manner, or is there a risk of an authoritarian drift, as the protests of recent days are accusing?

The term “coalition,” in my opinion, is not the best one to describe the coexistence of two opposing forces, one conservative (Ennahda), which has accepted a compromise in a democratic fashion, and the other progressive (Nidaa Tounes), which did not obtain a majority to govern alone [they received 86 seats out of the 109 needed for a majority]. This was a solution that can be considered “Tunisian-style,” to avoid a dangerous political impasse after the legislative elections of 2014 and to avert the risk of a civil war. However, the national unity government, which formed as a result of the signing of the Carthage Declaration and the push by the Nobel-prize-winning National Dialogue Quartet, brought together different forces without a well-defined development program, which is the cause behind the current political crisis, the decision of the two parties to run separately in the coming elections, and the recent erroneous and reactionary economic choices.

What are the problems afflicting the people today, and what would be the issues to work on in order to boost the economy?

The road to the true rule of law at the political, social and economic level is a long one, also because of the high level of corruption, cronyism and contraband that the old regime left behind. The main victim of this democratic transition has been the economy. The main resources of the country—tourism, agriculture and the export of phosphates—have collapsed, mainly because of terrorism and the lack of foreign investment. Social tensions, the high unemployment rate and laws such as the recent budget law, which caused rising prices for basic necessities, risk jeopardizing the path of democratic transition.

What is the role of the forces of the political Left, which have come together in the Popular Front, in this period of transition, and what should they change in their political activity?

Although Tunisia has been able to adopt a new constitution and hold democratic elections, the fragility of the political and economic transition should lead to a greater cohesion regarding the country’s priorities. I think that the forces of the Left should try to be more proactive, including in their relationship with Nidaa Tounes, in a way that would orient the economic development of the country and fight against the high cost of living and against reactionary reforms. The Popular Front and the UGTT [the main Tunisian trade union] are right to oppose an increase in the prices of basic necessities, some by up to 300 percent!

Tunisia has been one of the main sources of jihadists, and there are about 5,000 Tunisians who have left to join terrorist organizations such as ISIS or al-Qaeda. How do you explain this?

Tunisia is now an “open air” political laboratory, and it is the only country that represents a hope for the Arab peoples, because all the “Arab Springs” have failed. Paradoxically, at the same time, we are the country that has given the highest number of jihadists. The explanation is simple. Two factors have been at play. The first is related to the economic and social problems of our unemployed youth, with no prospects and attracted by the financial resources possessed by the terrorist organizations. The second has been the quasi-official encouragement of jihadist groups during the Ennahda government (2011-2014), with many Wahhabi preachers entering the country, who persuaded young people to go and join the fight against the enemies of Islam and to support the Islamist party. The pressure from civil society, a higher effectiveness of the security apparatus, and the strong determination of the secular political forces have forced terrorism to retreat in our country.

What is the current situation after the fall of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and how should the jihadist drift in the country be countered?

For the most part, the main danger for Tunisia remains Libya and its political instability, as we have over 500 km of easy-to-cross desert border. The Tunisian government is determined to counter the jihadist phenomenon, although it would require greater European support at the economic and financial level, for more effective action to combat the phenomenon, not only by repression but also by re-education, offering better prospects for the younger generation. This would also help us avoid the dangers of authoritarianism, such as in the case of the state of emergency that the government is maintaining indefinitely.

Where is the 2011 Jasmine Revolution going nowadays?

First of all, it is necessary to understand whether the national unity government will survive until the end of the legislature in 2019. In any case, our country is experiencing a new era of political, intellectual and cultural freedom. There are many social movements that are springing up, such as festivals and cinema, theater and music events. 2018 will be critical for two reasons: the first municipal elections since 2011, which will be held on May 6 (with 350 city councils and more than 7,000 councilmembers to be elected), and the creation of the Constitutional Court, since after providing the country with a new Constitution it is necessary to implement it and ensure compliance with its provisions. Economic reforms will also be of fundamental importance, not with the mindset of austerity and a high cost of living that the current budget law imposes, but with that of a real job growth, so that the democratic process that started on Jan. 14, 2011 can be made truly irreversible.

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