Tunisian Prime Minister Béji Caïd Essebsi
Seminar on “Tunisia's New Path Towards Democracy and Prosperity”
October 4, 2011, Washington DC
NOTE: The Prime Minister's speech was delivered in French. The following is a translation of the remarks, as delivered via simultaneous interpretation at the event.
MODERATOR HEDI LARBI: Ladies and gentlemen. First of all, let me thank you very much for having come in such a large number, and I wish you an excellent working session with his Excellency, the Prime Minister of Tunisia. I would like to start right away so that we have more time for the discussion with His Excellency, and I would like to invite Inger Andersen, the Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa Region.
Inger Andersen, you have the floor.
MS. ANDERSEN: This is an historic day for us here at the World Bank. Your Excellency, Prime Minister Beji Caid el Sebsi, we are deeply honored that you chose to come to see us today. Your country, Tunisia, is in the middle of a most remarkable time in its history. You have honored us to come and spend time here when we know that you have many issues of priority on the home front.
I would also like to thank our executive director and Minister Jouini and of course Ambassador Mohamed Tekaya for being with us and the many other executive directors who I see present here today.
Mr. Prime Minister, when you assumed office in early spring, late February this year, Tunisia had just emerged from the Jasmine Revolution. I imagine that the atmosphere in the country was both electric and full of hope, but also edged with concern for the future. At this time of great change, of great optimism, the Tunisian people turned to you as a man of trust, as someone who could guide them and the country with a steady and neutral hand. Your job was huge, no less than working to respond to the aspirations of millions of Tunisian people for a more open and a more equitable and a democratic society.
If I may, I would like to suggest that it takes special wisdom and a special patience to lead an interim government at such a time. You are known to be a fierce defender of democracy. You are known to be a fierce defender of Tunisia, and you are known to have worked hard for your country over the decades. And now, in just three weeks, your country will go to the polls in a truly democratic election.
Your Excellency, your leadership has helped Tunisia follow a participatory and consensus-building approach across these amazing and inspiring months. We have much to learn from Tunisia, and we have much to learn from you. And I imagine that there are countries across the world--in the Arab World and way beyond--that today are looking at the path that Tunisia is setting.
I have heard you rightly stress that success in Tunisia is not just for Tunisia, but it sets an example to the rest of the world, and indeed to the Arab World, that democracy and Islam can go hand in hand. And for that path that you have chosen, you have demonstrated that access to information, transparency, a level playing field, freedom of association – all elements deeply valued in thriving societies – and you are building some of these for the first time.
At the Bank, we are so proud to have been allowed to accompany you in this historic time.
Mr. Prime Minister, the result of your leadership is, as the country approaches the election, that we feel you can be confident in’shallah that voter registration will be done, that the work will happen, and that the election will roll off in the way that you have planned for it so that political parties and independents together will compete for seats in the constituent assembly.
This is a watershed moment. And for us, I hope it is a beginning of a true partnership, a partnership with this new Tunisia. And for us here at the World Bank, we look forward to deepening our support and to accompany you in this fundamental political transition.
Ladies and gentlemen, Excellencies, please join me in welcoming the Prime Minister of Tunisia.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much to have come in such large numbers. First of all, let me congratulate Mrs. Andersen as the new vice president who is going to deal with the business of the Maghreb and the Middle East. Not only do I congratulate her, but we are congratulating ourselves on this choice because we are certain that with her we have a person who has sensitivity to our problems.
For the second time in my stay here, I'm visiting the World Bank. It is important for us. It is our priority. First of all, yesterday, I was invited by the President of the Bank, Mr. Zoellick, who I had met in Tunis, and I came back to pay homage to him, to thank him for the support that we found with him, with the Bank in our difficult times in Tunisia. But the relationship between Tunisia and the World Bank does not date from yesterday. I checked it, and it's been half a century that we are working with the World Bank. And besides, our relationship has always been of the high quality because on each occasion the World Bank is evolving with us in the choice of the programs that it is financing.
I think that the first agreement we ever signed with the World Bank goes back to 1962. I'm talking about that because already I had been in a government ten years before. I was not born yesterday, as you know. My wife is not here so I can tell you I'm 85 years old, and I spent my entire youth serving my country. I hope to continue in the time that is left for me in the service of my country.
So the first loan we ever had with the World Bank was in 1962, and it was a loan for national education. It's the first time the World Bank ever granted a loan for education. And then, around 2000-2001, we contracted a new loan for culture and for our heritage. It's the first time the World Bank was giving a loan for culture and heritage, just to tell you that our relations are very old and that they are evolving, and evolving in the right way in terms of quality and quantity. And today, I came here to see all the members of the World Bank, not only the President, because I know that you, yourselves, have always given favorable advice to Tunisia every time we wanted a project, and I want you to know that Tunisia does not present projects lightly. Every time they are deeply studied, and we want to make sure they will be accepted; they always have, and I thank you for it.
So I'm not going to talk about relations with the World Bank. You know that better than I do. I think that I'm among friends here. I'm going to talk to you about the changes that have taken place in my country. I think that's what you're interested in.
I've seen my friend the moderator, and I've said I'm already very moderate. There's nothing else to moderate--believe me.
So the end of last year in December 2010, December 17th, 2010, until the beginning of this year in January 2011, things have changed radically in Tunisia. They changed in an unexpected way and unpredictable way. It was not predictable, not only for people who observe us; even the Tunisians were surprised, and I'll give you in confidence I've been in this job for over 50 years, even myself, I have been surprised. I was expecting a change, but at that period, that way, never. So, what happened?
Young people in poor regions of Tunisia and unfortunately under this regime that governed Tunisia for 25 years, this regime only took care of the façade of Tunisia, but never of deepest Tunisia and especially never bothered with people inside Tunisia. So there was a huge imbalance between the regions inside Tunisia and on the margins of Tunisia. So as soon as my government was formed, we decided to reverse the priorities. Twenty percent of our investments went to the interior. Eighty percent to the coast, where you have the sun and where you have Tunisia that people like. Our government decided to reverse that. Eighty percent will go to the provinces for the interior regions and only twenty percent for the coast in order to catch up with this huge imbalance.
So these regions, what we call the spine of Tunisia, cities that are well-known, because some Tunisians burned themselves, set fire to themselves to draw attention to the misery that reigned there. So young people revolted and they revolted in a Tunisian way: without weapons, bare-handed, without ideology, no religious ideology, no other ideology, without leaders. They were not leaders. There was no leadership at all, no orders, and they yelled "Liberty," "Freedom," "Dignity."
And what happened? It's something nobody expected. This regime that was in place for 25 years and governed through fire and blood, that exploited the wealth of the country that was led by corrupt people, blew up in one day. The head of state fled. It's bizarre but it's very Tunisian in a way. And we found ourselves in a situation where there's no government, there was no more president. There were young people in the street yelling "Freedom," "Democracy," "Dignity." We had to fill the void. And as you know, nature abhors a vacuum. So a government was built up in one day. It worked out, just like a government can work when for the longest time you've been immobile.
And then the second government took shape in a month and a half. We've had two governments, and then a third government came up, my government, the one I'm chairing, in order to pursue and in order to see to it that the sacrifices made by these young people are not for naught. So we decided to work hard. We decided to set up a program. And until today, it worked out, whereas a lot of people didn't believe in us. A lot of people expected that after one month we would leave. Well, we stuck a second month, a third, a fourth month; now it's the eighth month we're still there, and I hope that we won't be there on the 23rd (October) because that's going to be a constituent assembly which will have legitimate power coming out of the ballot box and which I'm sure is going to take over. And instead of having a provisional government, I hope we're going to have a second provisional government for one year and later on I hope that we will start a normal cycle of a country that is led normally like any other country. This is our honor. This our duty to do and I hope that we will make it, that we will succeed.
I knew we were going to succeed. I'll tell you why. Because I'm not a newbie in politics or a rookie, and I would never have accepted a mission that was doomed to fail. So I knew from the very start that we were going to do the maximum so that we can set up a government and a policy that step by step in an evolutionary process will reach its time; that is to say to a normal situation, the one that all developed countries enjoy. So I hope that on the 23rd, we're going to have a constituent assembly, that the elections are going to take place correctly, pluralistic elections, just elections, free elections, and transparent elections. And I'm sure, it's the first time that this will take place in Tunisia, and we have been independent for over 50 years, but I think it's the first time in the Third World and especially in the Arab World, in the Muslim World. It doesn't mean that we're all condemned to never be democratic, but I think for the first time it's going to be the right start for Tunisia. And as I said yesterday, our responsibility is to succeed for ourselves but also for the Arab World and for the Muslim World, because -- some call it the Arab Spring, but the Arab Spring started in Tunisia but it's not going to be the Arab Spring if it stays only in Tunisia. The wind of freedom knows no borders and already we have seen what happened among our neighbors in Libya, our brothers, and for us it's a domestic problem, Libya. It's not an international problem.
Egypt, look at Egypt. Even if the situation is not quite the same because in Egypt now they have a military regime. Egypt is a large country with huge problems. It has nothing to do with our problems, and that's why we must understand what's going on there. And we must not be too critical. Like I hear, here and there in the media, Egypt is a difficult case, and if Egypt succeeds, the whole Arab World will succeed because it is the largest country in the Arab World, and it is normal for everybody to look at Egypt with a lot of understanding.
Our experience of our revolution was very tough and tells us that this transitional period is not an easy one. We have followed all the transitions that took place in regimes like in Spain, in Portugal, in Eastern European countries. Believe me, a transition period is very tough. It's much more than building a state. Tunisia and myself, we've been lucky enough in taking part in the building of a modern Tunisia. We worked for about half a century. I, myself, took part for 35 years, but it has nothing to do with the six, seven months that we just went through. These are extremely, extremely, extremely hard months, especially because the people that made the revolution were expecting to have everything overnight, and they thought they could allow anything, they could do anything, even to denounce good actions that the government was doing. And yet I had the honor of chairing a government that has been accepted, perhaps in spite of everything because we had no other solution, but generally speaking, we're going to have elections in three weeks.
Things are calming down. Tunisia is doing better. I, myself, when I started I promised only one thing. I promised that when I would leave the government, Tunisia would be in better shape than the one I found it in. I think it's a bet that I won. Even though there's a lot left to do, but of course we have to give room to the new people so they at least have something to do, huh? We can't settle everything by ourselves before they get there. We're on the right track. The Tunisians like to complain, to protest. Every time you ask them a question, they say no before they say anything else. Then they will answer your question. And we always end up at a satisfactory solution.
I am the man of compromises. I discuss, I love dialogue but with a limit because a compromise, if it is badly led by people who are incompetent, then you talk about "compromission," and that's a red line for me, and we are not going to go that far, I hope. And I trust that the next government is going to do better than us because it will have much better working conditions and it will be better supported because it will be legitimate through the elections.
The government that I led had a functional legitimacy, but especially it had the support, a consensus support and that is the way that I advise you to do it, people who one day want to lead a country, especially in a difficult period, that's a good way to go. You can be sure of what you do, but you can be more sure if you have the support of most of society, and especially for Tunisia today. Right now we have a civil society which more and more grows in importance and takes part more and more in the life of the country. And I was very happy that I could count on the support of all its parts, even if it was a critical support and perhaps sometimes difficult to take, but we did, we took it, because between two evils you have to take the lesser evil. The lesser evil is to be supported by your own friends but they all have to work, like us. And we've been accepted. We accepted our critiques. Things are doing pretty well finally. I know the best is the enemy of the good, but we are doing the good and we leave the best to the others. That's what I wanted to tell you.
As I said yesterday, I know that our experience is important for ourselves, but also for other countries, and I hope--I hope--that people will be inspired by our experience, especially if we succeed. If we don't succeed, it's going to be bad for us, but bad for the others too.
And I said yesterday--I'm sorry I repeat myself but you were not all here so you're going to hear it for the first time. What we do right now can succeed in Tunisia. Why? Because we have all the ingredients, and they are different from the ingredients in other countries. Tunisia is a country where education has existed for half a century, so today any young Tunisian who goes to school and has a degree will have a job because education has been free and compulsory for fifty years. Tunisian women, and that's our great change, are educated. This might not be the case everywhere unfortunately, but in Tunisia women have almost--almost--the same rights as men, except on one point which we have not been able to solve so far. But on all the other points, all the reservations that existed in different protocols about human rights, women's rights, everything has been accepted by Tunisia. We have approved all the international conventions, and I must say that women are really good with us. I don't know if it is only men here or there are a few women, but my experience--my experience shows that women work better than men.
It's true. I think women in Tunisia have places of choice if you look at Tunisian society, and I've seen it evolve, that society, because our personal status was approved in 1956, the government at independence was created in April '56 and the reform took place August 13, '56. So it was the big priority, and I'll tell you out of duty, the great artisan of that law was President Bourguiba. I was one of his advisors. He didn't need any advisors but, I mean, he had to have one. And I remember that I, myself, asked a question. Since three months after his nomination as Prime Minister – he was not the head of state back then--he started that reform.
And I said, Mr. President, is it our priority this thing? Because we had important opposition. We just barely started. And he said--and I repeat what he said--"If I don't do it myself, nobody will do it. And if I don't do it now, I'm not even sure that I, myself, will be able to do it six months from now." And he was right. Against everything else and everybody is paying homage to him today because it is true. It is one of the most beautiful achievements of a developing country. And I hope that on this particular plan too, other Arab countries and Muslim countries will follow us. And as long as they don't make it, as long as they don't free women, their society is going to remain minor societies, only fifty percent only of their population will be active.
So I think we're making progress since in Saudi Arabia women have the right to vote. They may not be able to drive but she can vote. So this is a significant progress.
Third point, as I said yesterday, we have a very large middle class, and this is truly an ingredient for democracy and its success. What is left for us to do is to start the economic machine back up. We have a number of issues to solve, difficult issues. We are faced with large unemployment, particularly among youth and particularly among educated people, graduates from university.
I remember back in 1956 our major problem was to fight illiteracy, so we created structures to do just that, because most of the population, be it male or female, could neither read or write. Today we have a different issue which is graduates without work. That means that we have managed to extend universal education to all, but we have now graduates, so you need to find them work, so there is an issue of matching between education and workplace, and this is a major issue we need to solve in the months and years ahead. That will be up to the next government to tackle, but right now the means we have--the economic means we have--has not enabled us to meet the expectations of our youth to find work for everybody. This is a legitimate expectation, but we haven't been able to reach that, so we have taken provisional measures, funding. These are temporary measures, makeshift measures, like a pill of aspirin if you want, but we need to find an economic strategy, and if it were to be implemented correctly in the next five years, we would be in a position to sharply reduce unemployment.
I think we have about 600,000 unemployed out of 3.5 million working population. So I think in the next few years, we'll be able to reduce that significantly. We hope to reduce that number by 100,000 each year, and you know up to now, Tunisia was not able to create more than 70,000 jobs with a 7 percent growth rate. So right now we have almost zero percent economic growth. So this year we have made great efforts, including Tunisian companies, private Tunisian companies. That's important for us. They have made a lot of sacrifices and created 50,000 job positions in spite of a zero economic rate, so this is a significant progress, and we hope that this is a good year and that it will greatly improve for the coming years. That is actually the view of most foreign companies operating in Tunisia. They are optimistic.
I repeat: Tunisia is the first country south of the Mediterranean with so many foreign companies. We have 3200 foreign companies operating in Tunisia, and in spite of the political atmosphere, the revolution, that was somewhat negative, we lost I think about 60-70 companies that closed shop. They went elsewhere--to Morocco, to Turkey--but they're not completely lost for other countries; they're lost for Tunisia, but a hundred about came back.
And right now a strange thing, which we can understand, however, is that exports have increased compared to last year. We had a European Union mission in Tunisia last year--last week. And Tunisian industrialists are the first exporters in the region in spite of the events in our country. We've had a terrible year because of that, but now in hindsight there is trust coming back, and we have a 30-40 percent drop, and this is not much compared to the upheaval the country has gone through. So actually our situation has improved. Security is back in the country, is improving. We haven't resolved that issue 100 percent. It's not possible. There are some attacks here and there, anecdotal attacks, but it's not like before where you had demonstrations and troubles. The situation has much improved. And I go back to what I said, Tunisians are contrarians. They complain a lot, but they hold the interest of the country above other interests, above their own particular, individual interest.
I wouldn't say that I'm satisfied with everything I see, but I'm not dissatisfied either. Everything is relative. The honor for this government is that by October 23, if everything goes according to plan, I wouldn't say as in any other advanced nation because they too are faced with a number of issues, but we want to give those keys, the house keys to another team, a team chosen by the people. And for the first time I hope the people of Tunisia will choose in a climate of serenity, order, quiet, which is their new team.
So thank you for understanding the issues of our country. Thank you for your support, which is much important and needed by us.