A conversation with Hatem Ben Salem
By Mariam Salehi
On Thursday, the Summer Academy’s participants entered into a conversation with Hatem Ben Salem, the director of the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies. Ben Hatem and his long-standing diplomatic and political career were introduced by Jérôme Herteaux, who moderated the conversation. While it was originally planned that Ben Hatem would be joined by Sayida Ounissi, Member of Parliament for Ennahda who has just been nominated for the new government, we got a deep insight into his experiences and convictions. He had hold several posts as Tunisian ambassador, among others in Senegal, Turkey and as permanent representative with the United Nations in Geneva before entering into politics on the national level as coordinator for human rights in the Ministry for Justice and Human Rights in 2002. In his last post before the fall of the Ben Ali government, he served as Minister for Education. Then, he took a break from politics until he was nominated as director of the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies, a post on ministerial rank, which makes him the only minister who had already served under Ben Ali to return to this rank.
The picture he drew depicted a Tunisian state, which had been well-functioning under authoritarian rule thanks to a highly educated political elite, in which it was hard to assert oneself. And while he readily admitted that there was no freedom of expression in pre-2011 Tunisia, he emphasized the lack of desire for vengeance Tunisians voice toward the old regime.
In Ben Hatem’s opinion, it was a mistake to abandon the old constitution and to develop an entirely new one, mainly done by political novices and thus, not to draw on the political competence of the old elites. This was costly in time and money and, according to him, led to chaotic circumstances in bureaucracy and judiciary.
Tunisia’s political development, thus, was described as being blocked by compromise politics and the urge of various actors to have a say in decision-making processes. The economic situation has aggravated, especially in the central regions, which were already cut off from prosperity before the ‘revolution’. This, according to Ben Hatem, is also due to Tunisia’s geopolitical situation: On the one hand, the Libyan war is also hitting the Tunisian economy, since Libya has been Tunisia’s second largest economic partner. The largest partner, the European Union, on the other hand, is not meeting Tunisian expectations in terms of economic and political support.
The moderated picture he drew of Tunisia under Ben Ali was met with dissent from the audience. Given his privileged situation under authoritarian rule, his depictions are hardly objective (which he readily admits) and omit the hardship and suffering the regime imposed on many of the people living in Tunisia. Thus, to cite the absence of post-revolutionary lust for vengeance as an indicator for a ‘not-so-violent’ nature of the old regime seems hardly viable.
Faced with critique, in his closing statement Ben Hatem reminded us of the virtue of pluralistic opinion: “The greatest accomplishment of the revolution is freedom of speech.”