Tunisia will face catastrophic consequences if it tries to exclude from power everyone associated with the president who was toppled in a revolution earlier this year, the former foreign minister said in an interview.
After January’s revolution, which inspired the “Arab Spring” uprisings elsewhere in the region, most Tunisians turned their back on all traces of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his 23 years of autocratic rule.
But Kamel Morjane, a former minister under Ben Ali, said the country needed the experience and expertise of some of these people to get it back on its feet after the instability caused by the revolution, Reuters reports.
Morjane is the most prominent member of Ben Ali’s administration still active in public life. His small Initiative party is running in an October 23 election which will shape the country’s future.
“The exclusion of all elements of (former ruling party) the RCD, without exception, is a stupid act,” Morjane told Reuters. “People should know that in this party there are many honorable people.”
“The last page must be turned and a new page opened to achieve urgent reconciliation among all segments of our society, so that Tunisia can benefit from all its talent.”
If all those linked to the old system are frozen out, it “will have catastrophic consequences,” said Morjane. “We will be ridiculed in the world. We must … think about the future of the country, away from narrow interests.”
Tunisia’s revolution electrified the Arab world. Now that it is moving into the next phase — building democratic institutions — states in the Middle East are again watching how it negotiates the tricky path ahead of it.
Among other things, people in Egypt, Libya and Yemen will be following how Tunisia integrates members of the ousted ruling elite into the new system.
Soon after the revolution, a fresh round of protests forced any members of the caretaker government linked to the RCD to resign, and the party was dissolved.
Now, months later, any figures linked in the past to the RCD face hostility from ordinary Tunisians who associate them with a clan they believe trampled on their freedoms and misappropriated the country’s wealth for over two decades.
Morjane is a widely-respected diplomat who spent years as an official with the United Nations. At one point he was in the running to be the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
He returned home in 2005. He served first as defence minister and then as foreign minister until he resigned shortly after the revolution. A 2006 U.S. diplomatic cable, published by WikiLeaks, named him as a possible successor to Ben Ali.
In the interview, Morjane said Tunisia could not afford to turn its back on people like him with years of experience running the country.
Ben Ali’s government jailed opponents and repressed free speech, but at the same time it won plaudits from organisations such as the International Monetary Fund for its stewardship of the economy.
That competence, said Morjane, is needed now more than ever.
Foreign investment and tourism, a major source of revenue, dropped off sharply in the instability that followed the revolution. Gross domestic product is projected to grow 1 percent this year, down from about 3.7 percent in the last year of Ben Ali’s rule.
“We have obtained political freedom, as well as press freedom and freedom of expression,” said Morjane. “But now we need to work out how to revive our economy … Tunisians need bread and jobs.”
Selling that message to a sceptical public has been a struggle for Morjane’s election campaign.
His party is one of 110 groups seeking election to an assembly which will rewrite the constitution. The assembly will also decide the shape of the new government and a time scale for more elections.
Local newspapers reported that the Initiative party, which has many former RCD members in its ranks, was denied permission to hold a rally in the Moknine region, about 200 km south of Tunis. Protesters there gathered shouting: “Out with the RCD!”
Morjane himself is not allowed to leave Tunisia. Though he is not accused of any crimes, he is included in a court ruling designed to prevent senior ex-RCD figures fleeing abroad to escape possible prosecution.
Despite the obstacles, Morjane says he believes his party can win between 15 and 20 seats in the 218-seat assembly.
His fear is that the other parties in the assembly, which will be dominated by Ben Ali opponents, will exclude anyone with links to the old system from the debate about Tunisia’s future.