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A voice in history: Tunisia readies for change

Inger Andersen's picture
Also available in: العربية | Français

The Prime Minister of Tunisia, Béji Caïd Essebsi, is in Washington DC this week on an official visit to the United States and we were honored that he made time to visit the World Bank and share his thoughts about his country’s future as it prepares for elections on October 23.

What a remarkable story it is. The Prime Minister, who has served in public life since Tunisia’s independence in 1957 and wryly describes himself as “no political novice”, told us he had expected change. But the manner and speed and unpredictability of the revolution in December and January was a surprise.  

Mr. Caïd Essebsi has been a unique leader for this fast-paced and game-changing period in Tunisia. While in his mid-80s, he leads a country brought to its new fate by a leaderless and apolitical youth movement.   At a time of such dynamic change, it is remarkable that Tunisia has found a leader who is respected, experienced, and trusted to steer the country safely through its biggest change since independence to the first truly democratic election in its history.

The interim government Mr. Caïd Essebsi leads – the third in a matter of weeks after the fall of former President Ben Ali on January 14 – was always going to be tested on its legitimacy. Tunisians expected his government to leave in a month, he shared with us. “Well, we stuck a second month,” he said. “A third, a fourth month and now it’s the eighth month and we’re still there.” Key, he told us, was building consensus, even among fractious opinion and the soaring hopes of a post-revolution population.   He felt that one of the riches and strengths of Tunisia is the growing civil society engagement, especially of the youth, which brings hope and opportunity for the future.  Women, too, are a rich resource, he said, impatiently describing countries who exclude women from public life as doomed to be “minor” nations. He drew warm applause and smiles from us when he described women as better workers than men.

The Prime Minister felt, too, that Tunisia’s success is not just for Tunisia, but for all countries yearning for democracy, transparency, and freedom, in the Arab world and beyond. To quote his voice again: “Our responsibility is to succeed for ourselves but also for the Arab world and the Muslim world. The Arab spring started in Tunisia but it’s not going to be the Arab spring if it stays in Tunisia. The wind of freedom knows no borders.”

The World Bank has been privileged  to work with Mr. Caïd Essebsi and his team these past eight months and notable has been the country’s striving for a real and demonstrable break with the past, a way of doing things differently. And of course doing things in a way that reflects the aspirations of millions of Tunisians who imagine a more equitable and democratic society but have not had the institutions to realize these. In an effort to support the government and the people of Tunisia, the Bank, together with the African Development Bank, the European Union, and the French Development Agency was pleased to approve a project to provide budget support at a time when the Tunisian economy was under stress.  Significantly, the “triggers”, to use bank-speak for this support, were reforms and let me quote what the Prime Minister himself said about that at the time:  “The program of reforms undertaken by the transition government responds to the key aspirations of the Tunisian people and demonstrates that Tunisia has turned a page in its history. The Tunisian people have said they want to see improvements in transparency and governance as well as immediate action to relieve the plight of the unemployed, the poorest, and the most vulnerable. This loan will help us respond to these demands and help prevent a recurrence of the most visible ills of the old regime.”

These reforms, which help create transparency and accountability while also providing space for citizens to have their say, are a long-term project for any society of course. For Tunisia and indeed many other countries across North Africa and the Middle East, these are fundamental changes and represent no less than a change in the social contract.

I hope you will listen to Mr. Caïd Essebsi’s voice in the webcast archive we have posted here in three languages. It’s the voice of a man at a special time in the history of his country.  I think we are all the richer for listening to him.  I would value hearing what you think.

In English: http://go.worldbank.org/BIALSIBQ00

In French: http://go.worldbank.org/649PR5BXX0

In Arabic: http://go.worldbank.org/F51ZJVBS10