Former Presidential candidate Hechmi Hamdi discusses ‘The only viable plan to save Tunisia’

Hashimi Nov 2014 Tunis

Former Presidential candidate and leader of Tayyar al Mahabba (formerly Aridha Chaabiya), Dr Mohamed El-Hechmi Hamdi

By Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi (Ph.D), SOAS graduate (University of London), Leader of Tayyar Al Mahabba Party in Tunisia and fourth placed presidential candidate in the 2014 elections; author of “the Politicisation of Islam” (Colorado: Westview Press, 1988); “The Making of an Islamic Political Leader” (Colorado: Westview Press, 1988); “Muhammad for the Global Village” (Riyadh: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 2008). Email: info@alhachimi.org Website: alhachimi.wordpress.com

The following is taken from a lecture by Dr Hamdi at the School of Oriental and African Studies on 22 Feburary 2015

SOAS is a special place for me. As you may know, I am an alumni and completed both my MA and PhD here. It is therefore a great honour to be back and discuss events in Tunisia. My cause is centred on social justice, and giving the youth of Tunisia, and the Arab World in general, the chance to lead a dignified life. My cause is to strive to give the youth hope and a purpose to wake up for every morning. I will explain why l have taken these causes as my political struggle.

A few weeks after my arrival in London in 1987, I was sentenced in my absence to twenty years in prison with hard labour because of my activities as the leader of the student wing of the ‘Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique’, now known as al-Nahda party. Three years before that, I was arrested for taking part in the ‘Thawrat al-Khobz’ or ‘the Bread Revolution’ in January 1984. I remember very well leading hundreds of students in one of those demonstrations. I could easily have been one of hundreds of Tunisian demonstrators killed on that day, the 3rd of January. A year before that, in 1983, I spent nearly seven months in jail because of my activities as the chief of the political bureau of the student wing of the MTE.

Why do I mention this and what relevance does this have? Essentially, although these were difficult times and trials for me, being taken and incarcerated in jail at the age of 19 years old, I never lost my hope or optimism for a better future. I always thought for certain that the status quo in Tunisia could not possibly last much longer. I remember even playing football inside jail, and singing revolutionary anthems in front of the presiding judge in my court hearing in July 1983.

I also remember that in 1987, when I was invited to discuss my political asylum application in the Home Office, I informed the two polite officers interviewing me, in quite terse terms, that they should take into consideration that I would soon become the new foreign minister following the fall of the Bourguiba regime, and that any decision taken regarding my application would have ramifications for bilateral relations between Tunisia and the United Kingdom! (By the way my predictions were half right. Bourguiba was indeed toppled on 7 November 1987, but I did not become the new foreign minister!)

I suppose this youthful drive I experienced echoes that of the irresistible force behind the revolution in Tunisia. Those young men who started the revolution on 17th December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, my home town, must have been full of anger and hope at the same time. This was the engine that made this historical change possible. The hope carried on following the fall of the regime, that Tunisia would now move into a new golden era, and enshrine the rights of millions, to finally break the nepotism and cronyism that prevented any form of social mobility, to finally create genuine employment opportunities. Put simply, and in the words of the revolutionary Tunisians themselves, the hope that ‘bread, freedom, and national dignity’, would be granted to every citizen.

Unfortunately, six years later, things are not so bright in Tunisia. I was in Avenue Habib Bourgiba on the 14th of January this year, meeting people, mainly amongst the youth and discussing the anniversary of Ben Ali’s departure and the current situation in the country. A female student who is graduating this year told me that she has no hopes for the future. She is convinced that her degree will get her nowhere. How had she come to this conclusion? She said that there were already two graduates from her family, both unemployed, with no hope in sight of getting a job. The message was the same in whichever gathering I sat in, be it in the capital Tunis, in Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Kairouan, Kasserine, Bizerte, Beja, Sfax, Gabis, or elsewhere in the country.

Young people in Tunisia have lost hope in the political system. Most of them firmly believe that all political parties lied to them during the election campaign to get to power and after obtaining it, failed to deliver on their promises. They think that education is no longer a key to a better life. They have nothing to wake up for. I remember many of them telling me “if you genuinely would like to help us, then get us a visa to flee this country”. They would show their carte d’idendite nationale, and say ‘this is all that we have gained from Tunisia’.

A few days after this, widespread protests erupted in the country, starting in Kasserine and spreading to nearly all the provinces across the country. Again, it started with someone taking his own life, reminiscient of Mohammad Bouazizi on 17 December 2010. The slogans of the protest were exactly the same; Khobz, Hurriya, Karama Wataniyya, or ‘Bread, freedom, national dignity’, in addition to ‘At-Tashgheel Istihqaaq’ or ‘Employment is our right’. It was as if nothing had happened during the last six years.

But definitely there had been changes. Tunisia had witnessed two legislative elections, and a presidential election. Some of its political leaders were praised and given prizes and awards in Paris, London and New York. The Quartet that led the national dialogue in 2013 were awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. But for the majority of Tunisians, particularly the youth, the changes they noted more than anything else were the rise in unemployment, the rise in poverty, the rise in corruption, the rise in suicide figures (more than 500 cases since 2011), and the growing sense of suffocating hopelessness and dissatisfaction with the political system and prevailing social order.

From the outside, for VIP visitors coming for a short visit, Tunisia would seem to be an example of true democratic change, and this might be true to some extent. But for Tunisians, at least for the majority of them, it is in reality a story of broken promises, and a big deception. Figures back this up; local and International reports and testimonies show that corruption has risen to alarming levels since the fall of Ben Ali. The party that won both legislative and presidential elections in 2014 is considered to be the closest party to Ben Ali’s RCD. Is it normal that a nation that revolted in 2010 and chanted ‘al-sha3ab yoreed taghyeer al nidham’, or ‘the people want to change the regime’, would vote back almost the same people they revolted against after only four years?!

Tunisia has been under a state of emergency since last November. Everywhere you go in Tunisia today, you will meet people lamenting their situation. On the anniversary of the fall of Ben Ali, the 14th of last January, I met members of the police who at the time were involved in a strike protesting about their difficult work circumstances. Two days later, a mini-revolution erupted in the country. Days before that, a lady died en-route to a second hospital after the first was found to have a shortage of specialist medical staff and was ill-equipped to attend to her urgent needs. Use of drugs is widespread in secondary schools and universities. And of course there is the constant and growing threat of ISIS and terrorism. I was in Kasserine last December, in the Shaanbi moutains and visiting families of soldiers killed in combat. All I spoke to believed this threat to be long-term.

Most depressing of all is that most of the political elite have no genuine answers or solutions to the questions and demands of the nation. Economic indicators go some way to explain all this pessimism: Tunisia is currently negotiating a new $2 billion loan with the IMF, and they may not get it as the level of debts has already reached unprecedented high levels (53% of GDP). The government is looking to Iran to send tourists and investors and signing deals in pursuit of this goal. This is both ridiculous and irresponsible as we already know the disastrous results of Iranian involvement in a number of Arab countries.

Tunisia’s growth rate in 2015 is a meagre 0.3%. Unemployment has risen to over 15%. A closer look at this particular statistic reveals that 30% of youth are unemployed. The tourism sector has been badly affected by two terrorist attacks in Bardo and Sousse. In fact, I cannot see any viable plan from the current government to solve the severe economic crisis and answer the legitimate aspirations of the youth and the poor. Asking for more loans is quite simply dangerous and irresponsible. Looking towards Iran or continuing to rely heavily on the volatile tourism sector are not viable options.

In all humility, I believe that I provided, and continue to provide, the only viable plan to solve the crisis, defeat terrorism, and answer the aspirations of the Tunisian people. My vision is both simple and bold, originating from the two main sources that can inspire the Tunisian people: Islam and Modernity. Islam as a force equality and social justice, as epitomised by the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that none of you is a true believer until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself. Modernity as epitomised by the Britain that I lived in and discovered during the last 27 years, embodied in its social welfare system that ensures the basics of a dignified life for every citizen and resident.

My plan is to kick start the economy by starting with the basics, that is fighting corruption and tax evasion and ensuring the basics of a dignified life to all, especially to the disenchanted youth. There is no easy money in this world today, and we should not expect charity from any other nation. At the moment, as Foreign Policy put in one of its recent articles, ‘Tunisia may have a new democratic electoral system, and hard-won freedoms, but the vital work of tackling corruption and reforming state institutions has not begun. In fact, corruption may be getting worse.” But how much worse? The president of the national Anti-corruption authority, Chawki Tabib, said on the 8th of February 2016, that corruption has become much more widespread following the revolution and that this threatens to cause a new revolution that may well bring about the fall of the President, the government, Parliament, and kick out even the members of the national anti-corruption authority! In a press conference on 6th February 2016, Lassad Dhaouadi, one of the top senior tax experts in the country, declared that Tunisia has entered an era of “total corruption”. He also said that the country is losing more than 9 billion dinars ($4.5 Billion) every year from tax evasion. That is almost a third of the country’s total budget of 2016.

So the first point of any serious genuine plan to tackle the problems of Tunisia is to fight corruption, chase tax evaders, increase taxation on the wealthy members of society, and dismantle what is known in Tunisia as the ‘parallel economy’ that accounts for more than 50% of Tunisia’s economic activities without a single dinar reaching the state coffers. In my campaign during the last Presidential elections, I suggested raising taxes on earnings above 60,000 dinars a year from 35% to 40%. And from 35% to 50% to earnings above 100,000 dinars a year. These measures, together, will bring to the State Coffers up to 5 billion dinars as additional revenues per year. I am counting that at least we can get half of the 9 billion dinars reportedly lost in unpaid taxes, and an additional half a billion dinars from raising taxes. There is even a chance that we may be able to recover more money lost in unpaid taxes, and that will be a bonus.

The second point of my vision for saving Tunisia’s economy and restoring social cohesion is to uphold the basics of social justice. It is shameful for all of us Tunisians that more than 500 of our countrymen, mainly young, have taken their own lives since 2011 because of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness. Around 230,000 of university graduates are unemployed, some of them since 2003/2004. More than one million Tunisians have no healthcare cover. In Tunisia they use a ‘carnet’ system, which is a document that allows a person to consult a doctor in time of need. Many have never held this document in their hand because they are unemployed and cannot pay the contributions required to get a carnet. Those who lifted the beacon of the revolution on the 17th December 2010 were poor, hopeless, unemployed young Tunisians. They won nothing from the revolution. Their numbers today are bigger, the cost of living is higher, and their misery is deeper. We have to look after these people. We have to pay 200 dinars monthly to each unemployed person in return for two day’s work or training arranged by the State. And, we have to come up with 450 million dinars to ensure the provision of medical cover for all Tunisians denied a medical carnet at the moment.

The employment minister announced recently that the total number of unemployed stands today at 612,000. The cost of giving them the job seekers allowance of 200 dinars will be a bit less that 1,5 billion dinars (eaxctly 1,468,800,000 dinars). So, these two measures will cost less than two billion dinars and will be funded by raising taxes on the wealthy and closing loopholes for tax evaders. At the same time, it will ensure the basics of a dignified life to every Tunisian citizen. Unless we do that, we cannot call ourselves a society, and we cannot win the war on terrorism. And unless we do that, then Chawkat Tabib’s predictions will come true and we should expect a new revolution around the corner. I would like to insist here, that even if there is a new revolution, or a new government, or a military coup, God forbid, Tunisia will never get out of its crisis without adopting these measures that I am proposing with regards to fiscal adjustments and social justice. It is sad that many Nahda ministers and politicians who have benefitted from the social welfare system in the UK during their exile in Ben Ali’s era, have, with MPs in Nida Tunis, rejected and defeated my proposals to Parliament to implement a jobseekers allowance and the provision of healthcare to the poor in a televised session on 11 December 2015.

My third point is that we must use One billion dinars from tax increases and fighting corruption and tax evasion to save the education system that is on the brink of collapse. When I left Tunisia in 1986, those who could not make it in the state school system would pay to go to a private school, which was seen as a last opportunity for failing students. Today, the state schools are for those who are failing, and every parent who cares about his children will deprive him or her self from some basic needs to fund sending his children to private school. We need to learn from South Korea, where they grasped modern science and technology and became a global player in the world economy, especially through high tech industries. We are a small nation of 11 million people. We are brave and intelligent, and if we accept the demise of our educational system, it means we are signing our own death warrant. Life is much harder today than 30 years ago. We have no oil and no gas to fund our needs and aspirations. Therefore we have no alternative but to resurrect our educational system. With good education and advanced knowledge, we will be able to tackle any obstacle.

Finally, we have to use the remaining Two billion dinars to look after the neglected provinces and classes of our country and society. Provinces of the North West of the country, the Centre West, and the South. There is no argument in Tunisia that these parts have been neglected over the last 60 years. Even the constitution of the country specifically refers to positive discrimination in favour of these provinces. Unless this promise is delivered and seen by the people to be delivered, there will be no real progress or stability in our country. As the French say, ‘les bons comptes font les bons amis”, that is: honest auditing makes for long friendships.

I suggest we use the two billion dinars to set up a 10 billion dinar sovereign fund for development and employment, in which the EU, Gulf nations and other foreign investors and countries can be invited to join as shareholders in the fund. This is the way to start building a more just and prosperous Tunisia.

There is one final question, why did all the governments that have run the country since the 2010 revolution refuse to adopt these policies? Why is it that the political class in Tunisia keep attacking me vehemently for raising these demands and calling me names and making me the face of populism in Tunisia? I think the answer is simple. These ruling classes and those connected to them in the Tunisian elite in general cannot and will not be able to execute the necessary reforms needed to kick start the economy and respond to the aspirations of the youth and the poor in Tunisia.

They cannot because essentially they are backed by or are too close to those who do not have any interest in changing the status quo. Many Tunisians think that the big barons of the parallel economy and those who are due to pay huge taxes if my reforms are implemented are either supporting and funding the main political parties, or at least are too close to them. It has been reported that many of the members of the current Parliament are businessmen nominated by the main political parties running the country. I cannot see how these people will allow genuine reforms in the country that will see them adhere to the normal rules of a modern and transparent economy.

Although Western analysts would love to talk about a duel between Islamists and Secularists in Arab countries, their rivalry and their ability, or inability, to co-exist, I am going to disappoint them and put it to them that the Tunisian model shows that in fact there is not much difference between the two political and ideological groups when it comes to adhering to the basics of social justice. Both are not particularly keen on it. And that is a major reason why they are currently able to pursue a partnership in government and in Parliament, to the extent that the leader of the Nahda parliamentary group is referred to in jest as the ‘leader of the two blocs’; meaning the Nida (secularists) and Nahda (Islamists) parliamentary groups. This means therefore that the main dividing lines in Tunisia today are not Islamists verses secularists, but social justice versus the preservation of the status quo. This is a very difficult but vital and necessary battle. I have made this my mission and that of the political movement that I set up on 3 March 2011, Tayyar al-Mahabba, formerly known as al-Aridha Al-Shaabiyya which won 28 seats in the 2011 Constitutional Assembly elections.

Am I optimistic? It is really difficult to say yes. Theoretically, the poor and unemployed can bring a majority government that will implement these reforms. But those people, it seems, have lost faith in the ballot box and in the political system in general. Most of them will simply not vote. If you talk to them, most of them will say that they have lost confidence in all politicians. This is a vicious circle, because how will we be able to solve the current problems if we do not use elections as a means to change?

The other worrying factor is that its seems a sizable number of poor voters are willing to sell their votes for as little as 10 dinars on the day of the vote or the week before it. How can you change a society, if voters are willing to sell their votes and betray the essence of democracy and the sacrifices of generations of noble and courageous people so cheaply?

I fear that many more difficulties await Tunisia. I feel that those benefiting from the status quo are so powerful and embedded in the system, and they are unfortunately capable of defeating those fighting for social equality. We have a history of painful deceptions and setbacks. Indeed some of our best names in politics and poetry had miserable experiences and lives in Tunisia. One has only to look to some of the poems of Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi, the legendary contemporary Tunisian poet, who lived in the first quarter of the 20th Century, to know how difficult it is to defend freedom, justice, dignity and the poor classes in Tunisia. His famous poem, ‘The Beautiful Tunisia’ says it all. You can find it on google, so I can spare you the painful and pessimistic imagery.

I wish I could have concluded on a brighter and more hopeful note. But I am simply unable to. Tunisia is in a severe crisis and there is no hiding from it. Salvation is possible but the road to it is difficult and full of obstacles. Can we unseat the established interests and bring about social justice? This is my mission. This is the challenge of my generation. If we don’t win, Tunisia is doomed.