President Ben Ali came to power in Tunisia in November 1987. This interview was conducted in March 1998 by Georgie Anne Geyer, a nationally syndicated columnist for Universal Press Syndicate. It was originally published in The Washington Quarterly Volume 21, Number 4, 93-106.
GEYER: Mr. President, your country enjoys exceptional prosperity. Could you explain to us how you arrived at your formula for development. how its precepts were defined and whether you took inspiration from the experience of others regarding development?
BEN ALI: Tunisia has, in its process of development, taken as starting point a strategic approach based on both domestic realities and the developments accompanying globalization. Support is provided for this realistic approach through the preparation of both comprehensive and sectoral studies. The prime factor in any process of development, the condition for its success, is the human factor. We have therefore made sure that the Tunisian citizen is at once the author and the beneficiary of the general effort of social and economic development, as well as its source of support. This option is illustrated particularly in the steady improvement of our education and in the promotion, diversification and modernization of vocational training. As beneficiary, the individual is a focus for government efforts not only in the fields of education and training but also in those of housing, health, culture and continuing improvement in the standard and quality of life. What is more, our development programs are defined according to a process in which citizens from all social categories are involved in project conception. At the base of the pyramid constituted by this approach, the proposals, concerns and aspirations of the broadest possible public are identified and collected. On the next, more specialized level, experts analyze and outline needs and costs. The governmental level, finally, is where decisions are made, as a function of priorities and opportunities. Success will, naturally, depend upon the effort made and upon the rigor with which the different tasks are accomplished.
To address the last part of your question, I would like to say that naturally we do not want us to live in isolation; we must strive to benefit from experiences elsewhere in the world, from which we take inspiration but which we adapt to our own situation, since every country has its own features that distinguish it from others, and without this mandatory adaptation, a formula that has succeeded in one country may fail in another. Every experience is a specific one.
Q: What do you consider the most important qualities that men and women around you must have?
A: I have always thought that the most effective method is one of teamwork, in a spirit based on attention to what others have to say. I have often said that my approach is to listen extensively, then reflect before acting. It is the exchange of ideas, group work and enrichment through the contributions made by all those involved that make it possible to come to objective, judicious decisions. It is obvious that over and above individual skills and talents, personal qualities are also important in these decisions: love of one's country and of work well done, rigor, intellectual resources and enthusiasm born of profound belief in what one is embarking upon.
Very fortunately, Tunisia today possesses a wealth of men and women with excellent skills and qualities.
Q: The association agreement with the European Union is very important. How was it concluded? What did Tunisia do to be the first country of the southern Mediterranean to reach such an agreement? Does this mean that your country is no longer part of the Third World? What are your projects for the future?
A: During the last ten years Tunisia has, by undertaking a large number of reforms, succeeded in raising itself from the ranks of the underdeveloped countries to the already enviable level of an emergent economy. The people of Tunisia are undeniably ambitious, but realistically so, for they know their abilities and potential and have confidence in themselves. They are therefore determined to go beyond this objective and join the ranks of developed nations.
The association agreement, which we were the first country south of the Mediterranean to conclude with the European Union, is very important for us; it is our bridge to the status of a developed nation. We were the first to sign this agreement with the European Union because Tunisia was the country of the Mediterranean's southern shores which was best suited to do so, both with respect to structural and situational economic advances and from the political standpoint. We were undoubtedly the country which was best prepared for this real challenge. As with any agreement between one country and a group of countries, numerous preparatory meetings, discussions and negotiations were held before a mutually acceptable text was reached. The agreement means that the Tunisian economy must raise itself to the level of the European economics in order to acquire the necessary competitiveness and vitality. This implies an indispensable upgrading of all sectors of the economy. We are now striving to achieve this through modernization of the production apparatus, concurrently with improved efficiency of the administrative system and simplification of formalities and procedures, to encourage both domestic and foreign investment and promote exports. What is necessary above all is a new mindset with competitiveness as a major concern, that of an economy geared essentially towards production and export. Our association agreement with the European Union is an appropriate catalyst for this process. We are legitimately proud of this, for we see it as a concrete illustration of the respect Tunisia enjoys. We are all the more proud of it in that we are determined to use it as our ticket to join the elite of developed countries by the next century.
Q: Tunisia has taken measures designed specifically to effect a strong reduction in the discrepancies between rich and poor, and you have made extraordinary achievements in assuring education for all. Could you explain the philosophical foundations of these actions?
A: The development and democratization of education are a basic decision made by Tunisia, which has always considered education as the prime factor in the promotion of the individual.
Since the change of November 7, 1987, we have coined this orientation, particularly in introducing basic reform of the educational and training system, establishing mandatory schooling up to the age of 16, and extending the educational system to cover every area and population group in the country, improving access to the schools and reducing premature dropout rates. This has enabled us to improve still further the school enrollment among girls in rural regions, particularly the more remote areas, thereby assuring them greater equality of opportunity. Thus it is not surprising to note that today school enrollment at the age of six is nearly total, both for girls (99 percent) and for boys, and that we are not far from equal gender distribution throughout the system, on the primary, secondary and university levels.
The results of this policy are now apparent in a number of areas, particularly in the improved general level of education among the population, the outstanding promotion of women, for which education has been an essential catalyst, and the impressive number of high-level professional staff and technicians who are trained in our universities and educational establishments. These have endowed the country with the skills and managerial expertise it needs. They constitute today a source of pride and an inestimable resource with which to meet the challenges of the future. With respect to raising income and reducing poverty we have, as you mention, been successful in achieving better income distribution among individuals and regions through a policy aimed at enlarging the middle class and reducing disparities in income. Between 1960 and 1997, per capita income did more than increase five times in real terms (having doubled between 1987 and 1996, from 1,051 TD/year to 2,070 TD/year), while the population only doubled during the same period, going from 4 million inhabitants to 9 million, thanks to containment of population growth (1.7 percent) and an economic growth rate which has remained at an average of 5 percent over the last ten years. Today, the middle class represents over three-fourths of the population.
This policy has combined accelerated growth with the creation of sources of income and an active policy of welfare allocations that in recent years has targeted the most disadvantaged regions and categories in particular.
It is in large part thanks to this that Tunisia owes its social and political stability. From the very beginning we have endeavored to build a balanced, unified society which would take its support from a broad middle class, an active policy of promotion of the weakest population categories, and an eradication of all phenomena of exclusion and marginalization. The National Solidarity Fund created in 1992, is, alongside other measures instituted to these ends, one of the most important means set up in recent years to assure promotion of the least favored regions and population categories.
Thanks to this policy, the proportion of the population suffering from absolute poverty according to international standards, fell to approximately 6 percent in 1995, compared to 11.2 percent in 1984. Life expectancy at birth, which was 68 years in 1987, is now 72, and there has also been a notable improvement in the indicators of human development.
These achievements have won us many compliments and encouragements from a number of international bodies and agencies. The results are for us both a source of pride and a convincing reason to stay the course.
Q: I share the view that "great ideologies are in a state of crisis." Does Tunisia represent a new type of development? What is its model? Is it either entirely or partially exportable?
A: I would state the question differently: it is the ideological debate that is in crisis, or at least that has ceased to be relevant since the collapse of communism. It is also true that fundamental divergences exist within the liberal debate today, separating to varying degrees those who advocate "hard-line" capitalism from those with a more social vision of the system. This is what gives pragmatism, moderation and the human, social and cultural aspects an essential value in building a method of development, managing the transition and ultimately succeeding. This is the path we have taken, a path where freedom is at the heart of all our choices. We have chosen, in the light of our country's economic, social and cultural features, to respect a complementary relation that excludes no aspect of development, whether social, political, economic, intellectual or cultural, as we adopt a comprehensive approach according to which the effectiveness of a development model is the result of interaction among these different dimensions, each addressed through a policy designed for the medium and long terms. We have confidence in the future. I do not think it is appropriate to speak of exporting models, just as it is inconceivable that we should accept ready-made solutions brought in from elsewhere. To put it simply, we say that our experience can enrich that of others, just as our experience has been enriched by the lessons we have learned from that of others.
Q: You have accomplished something very interesting in ensuring the renewal of Tunisian culture. How can you decide which are the most important aspects to highlight out of your very rich, varied past? Do you see Tunisia becoming a center for Arab culture?
A: I should say first that the state can in no case be a cultural creator. If national culture is currently going through a fruitful period, it is because we have encouraged our artists and intellectuals, respected their freedom, and confirmed the values that fertilize the cultural field, a field that is rich with three thousand years of Caspian, Numidian, Carthaginian, Roman and Arab Muslim history, embodied in such names as Carthage, Kairouan, Hannibal, St. Augustine, Ibn Khaldun and others.
It is thanks to this that Tunisia will remain an important center for Arab culture, just as it has always been during the most brilliant periods of its history.
Q: What is your policy regarding the promotion of human rights? Are there political prisoners in Tunisia? To what extent are they people who were involved in the fundamentalist activities of the past?
A: Let us be clear about the fact that there are no political prisoners in Tunisia. All those in prison in Tunisia are there for common law crimes.
They have been judged by the ordinary courts in accordance with ordinary procedures and in application of the law, and have been found guilty of established actions involving in most cases terrorism or aggravated violence, or related to the preparation of acts of violence directed at overthrowing the republican regime. It is true that this has been the case with some who belonged to the fundamentalist movement. Those who respect the law in Tunisia are not disturbed, as we live here under the rule of law. We are, quite obviously, particularly committed to safeguarding and promoting human rights. These are not limited to political rights; we see them as encompassing economic, social and cultural rights as well. We have endowed the country with a considerable number of legal and institutional mechanisms to protect and promote human rights. We have also undertaken to disseminate the values of human rights as widely as possible, and a national commission for education in human rights has been created as an element in the attainment of that objective.
This is an essential culture which we are striving to inculcate in the Tunisian people so as to anchor in them a belief in these rights and mobilize them for their realization. The active endorsement of this approach by our citizens encourages us to pursue this path; that we are doing so can be verified through objective observation.
When violations are noted they are, as is the case everywhere, addressed through the legal system by virtue of the law and through the many appropriate institutions and structures that have appeared in our country during the last ten years.
Q: What is the position of Islam in Tunisia today? Are there still fundamentalists in Tunisia? Do the fundamentalist leaders living abroad, and the European governments that protect them, still constitute a threat to Tunisia?
A: Islam in Tunisia today is what it has always been, the religion of almost all Tunisians, a religion of conviviality, love of one's neighbor, moderation and tolerance. There is a clear, unambiguous distinction between Islam and the distorted use that is made of Islam by fundamentalist and terrorist movements. The fundamentalists attempt to exploit religion for exclusively political ends, through double talk and the use of every possible means, including terrorism and violence. Here, as elsewhere, their tactics have been exposed. Just as our fellow citizens are loyal to Islam and its noble values, so have they rejected those who sought to seize power by violence and the use of religion.
If there are still a few fundamentalists abroad, that is primarily a problem for the countries that continue to give them asylum despite the evidence that they are continuing their terrorist activities, from the countries that house them and against their own homelands. They are a source of inconvenience and concern above all for their hosts, a situation which will, you may be sure, worsen day by day. It is sufficient to look at what is happening around you, in Europe and elsewhere.
Q: What are your hopes for Tunisia?
A: My most ardent wish is to succeed in raising Tunisia to the level of a developed country and to confirm the values of freedom, tolerance, openness and moderation that characterize it. This will, I believe, require first that we succeed during the next few years in the program of economic upgrading upon which the entire country has embarked. It will also require strengthening every measure that can help us build a balanced, unified society. We’ve taken important steps along this path, but we must continue for a long time to come to maintain strong economic growth that will generate employment, so as to meet the job demand from our young people, create greater wealth, and ensure that the distribution of that wealth among individuals and regions is as equitable as possible.
For this reason, improving income levels and living conditions in the weaker regions and among the weaker population categories is one of our most important priorities for coming years, and one of the main components in the model for the society that we are working to build, a society capable of providing this country's youth with every reason to be proud and confident.