Tunsian Prime Minister short of answers

We arrived at the prime ministerial building in Tunis to find half a dozen laconic-looking soldiers guarding the entrance. Between them and the crowds of people milling around the restaurants and shops of the medina were a number of poorly arranged crash barriers; the type you might see corralling concert goers queuing for some forgettable boy band. Though we were accompanied by the President of the Tunisian Bar Association, entering was perhaps easier than expected – even in a post-revolutionary capital where those in officialdom are keen to assure visitors that all is well. The soldiers waved us through with a friendly, if unsmiling, ‘bonjour’ without even one demand to produce identification. Difficulties only emerged in forcing answers to our questions.

The interior of the building was unquestionably impressive. Islamic tiling filled the walls with huge mirrors framed by golden borders spaced out along corridors. This majesty combined with the suited and wired men – again unsmiling – who accompanied us to the meeting room might well have set nerves on edge. But once inside we were met by Beji Caid el Sebsi: the interim Prime Minister of Tunisia. He welcomed us and invited us to sit down where we were served with mint tea and water before the discussion began.

The delegation was introduced and we thanked el Sebsi for meeting with us. We spoke of our respect for the Tunisian people and the struggle they had overcome and the struggle they had yet to endure in building a new country.

Anna Morris, the Vice Chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers from the UK then addressed the Prime Minister on the subject of political prisoners. She asked for his insights into what reparations were owed by the Ben Ali regime, the questions: “What will you do with those in the previous administration who tortured and abused?” “How will the Tunisian government provide compensation or rehabilitation victims of torture?”; “What assurances as to their safety can you give to Tunisian former detainees of Guantanamo Bay who want to return home?”

But el Sebsi is a man of 84 years, most of it spent in politics. The prime minister responded by thanking us for meeting with him. Our disappointment was not long in coming as el Sebsi told us the previous regime was no more and that our questions concerned their violations. “What about those people looking for justice now?” Anna replied giving details of specific tesitimonies the delegation had recieved regarding torture in state custody. But again el Sebsi was only concerned with discussing the future; one he promised would include free and fair elections, where the old guard – men like himself – will gracefully take their leave like ageing crooners who have decided to make way for younger performers. This, along with transparency, was necessary to give the process credibility. Who could disagree? But it was not what we had asked and it was not clear how he would ensure that these free and fair elections would take place. After all, his government, however interim will shape the framework for the next.

Anna then asked whether the amnesty to release political prisoners extended to those prosecuted of “ordinary crimes” but based on fabricated evidence or politically motivated. The prime minister said he did not know, indeed he conceded that we might know more. End of discussion.

Of those who had been interned in Guantanamo Bay? They were welcome to return but their files would be reviewed; some who were imprisoned suffered injustice but others did not. These were not words, which would have exiled Tunisians hastily booking the next flight back to Tunis. The Prime Minister should be reminded that these were men released because there was no useful information that they could provide.

He concluded by emphasising that it was his government’s remit to protect the revolution. He believes its future has two outcomes: one which results in defeat by those who originally opposed it or one in which a safe passage to democracy is reached. He asked for foreign governments to give the Tunisians enough time to succeed and said they had no option to help them if they supported the revolution.

He urged foreign governments to invest in Tunis but made no reference to how he would protect Tunisia from exploitative “free trade agreements” or prevent key state media agencies from being taken over by external corporate interests during this period of uncertainty.

Interestingly, he also made it very clear that Tunisia’s revolution was unique and that countries to the left and to the right would make their own choices and should not be influenced by Tunisia. I am not sure that the people of Libya would agree that the influence of Tunisia’s dignified revolution could be so contained.

Russell Fraser

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