Exactly two months after Tunisia’s October 23 elections, a peaceful transfer of power took place—a rarity in the Arab world. The outgoing prime minister, Beji Caid el Sebsi, handed the reins to Hamadi Jebali, one of the founding leaders of al-Nahda movement and a former political prisoner. The latter introduced his cabinet to the constituency assembly, which voted largely along political party lines to approve it. Forming a coalition government was understandably a struggle for a group of novices, many of whom had spent more time in prison than in government. But in the end, the parties put forth a respectable coalition of 30 ministers and 11 secretaries of state. Three political parties (Nahda, Mu’tamar, and Takattul) and some independents are represented in this coalition government. Several appointments in particular stand out.
The most controversial appointment concerns the foreign ministry, which was entrusted to Rafiq Abdessalam, a former politics and international relations student at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, London. The 43-year-old academic has no practical experience that would allow him to navigate the complex world of diplomacy, except his personal connections to some of the rulers of the Gulf States. It is believed that his appointment was meant to reward the historical leader of al-Nahda: Rachid Ghannouchi, his father-in-law. But this very fact did not please many Tunisians who had suffered from the actions of Ben Ali’s in-laws. Appointing the son-in-law of the leader of the winning party to a powerful position despite his lack of experience is a painful reminder of the corruption, cronyism, and abuse of power under the old regime. Nahda might suffer politically in next year’s elections because of this insensitive and probably foolish move.
Nahda leaders may have a saving grace in the new chief of the interior ministry. For most Tunisians, the interior ministry is a euphemism for police brutality. Under Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali, the ministry was used to eliminate political opponents, torture political prisoners, intimidate citizens, and spread fear—it was the tyrants’ favorite tool for subjugating peoples. One of the victims of this institution was Ali Laaridh, who was imprisoned for 15 years—13 years of them in solitary confinement—during Ben Ali’s rule. He was sentenced to death under Bourguiba’s regime. It is highly unlikely that a victim of torture and abuse would subject others to the same brutality. Consequently, Laaridh might well be the right person to rehabilitate the security forces and reform the institution.
Another reassuring face in the new government is that of Noureddine Bhiri. The 53-year-old lawyer is a moderate who spent years defending political prisoners. He, too, was imprisoned for his political activities. Many Tunisians, and other human rights activists, hope that his struggles for civil and political rights will serve him well as he leads the critically important ministry of justice.
Governing a country that has suffered years of mismanagement, corruption, and abuses of power is never easy. Forming a coalition government was the right choice. The three political parties seem to trust one another, and they all stand to lose a great deal if the coalition fails. They have months, not years, to deliver on three critical issues: unemployment, political reform, and economic growth. Even more importantly, they have the responsibility of setting new standards for the rest of the Arab world. The new standards must reflect transparency, compassion, and just use of power that demonstrates respect for human dignity.