Al-Hadi Al-Taimomi, described as the "sheikh of social historians" in Tunisia, hails from the city of Kairouan, rich in religious culture, and focuses on renewing Marxist thought. Al-Taimomi is known for his contributions in critiquing capitalism and globalisation.
Ahram Online spoke with him at his home in the capital Tunis about the political situation in the North African country and the Arab world.
AO: How would you evaluate the present moment in Tunisia, especially after parliamentary elections that saw defeated the Islamic party Ennahda?
HT: It is a critical moment in Tunisia's history because a real democratic transition occurred, but it is a transition from above, and it's not guaranteeing a transition from below. And that is because January 2011, in my view, was not a revolution, as I said before. It is more a popular uprising. Because revolution is transferring power from a social class to another class, along with fundamental changes on all levels of the society, which didn't happen in Tunisia. The same class continues to own the means of production; the same class that owns power and economic wealth. The people who are practicing power are petit bourgeoisies, and behind them are the capital class that overrules the political game.
AO: Do you believe that Ben Ali's businessmen still control Tunisia's economy?
HT: Yes, because expropriation and assets confiscation were applied only on the very small community of businessmen that surrounded Ben Ali and his wife. The same people's assets outside Tunisia were not confiscated because of complications of international law.
AO: As a social historian, what do the parliamentary elections results indicate?
HT: The winning of Nidaa Tounes Party is a reflection on the great failure of the troika rule headed by Ennahda Party, especially on the economic and social levels. Tunisians didn't forgive Ennahda's attempt to turn the country towards its agenda of radical Islam, even though it announced that it believes in modernisation. As well, Tunisians were angry about how easy Ennahda was with militants and jihadists and their wrongdoings in Tunisia throughout the last three years.
AO: Do you see Nidaa Tounes as an alternative to Ennahda that could solve the country's problems?
HT: Most of the parties' programmes are the same, except some party positions on the public sector and external debt, like the leftist popular current movement. As well, there are some platforms that assure the religious role in the community. Other than that, all parties' platforms are just copies. Meanwhile, Nidaa Tounes is able to lightly improve the current economic and security situation, but it will not turn Tunisia to the aspired to country, because the January 2011 uprising left citizens' ambitions beyond the country's capability.
AO: In Tunisia, the middle class has an important position. Does Nidaa Tounes have something to present to it?
HT: The middle class situation will be a problem for Nidaa Tounes Party. Because since Ben Ali's regime, that class's livelihood began to shrink. A Tunisian who loses something is more dangerous to the regime than a poor Tunisian who owns nothing to begin with. The January uprising was made by the middle class; all the great and large movements were made by this class. Satisfying that class will be a problem that Nidaa Tounes has to face. But it is expected that businessmen will start investing in Tunisia as long as the security situation is stable. Also, that issue has regional dimensions. For example, Algeria is ready to cooperate on the security level with Tunisia when Islamists aren't at the helm of power, as well as France. It's only Libya that will remain a problem. On the other hand, Qatar and Turkey have an international agenda. The only thing here in the country that brings problems is Algerian gas, because to transfer it to Europe it has to pass through Tunisia. Essebsi is a good friend of the Algerians, and he could urge them to bring investment to Tunisia as he has long experience in power.
AO: How do you see Ennahda's future after the 2014 elections?
HT: Current regional unrest is not working in the favour of Ennahda, as all Islamic movements in the region are in retreat. So I think Ennahda will behave according to the current situation, as well as work in the depths of Tunisian society. Ennahda will avoid any clashes with Nidaa Tounes. It also has a lot of its leaders and members serving in the country's institutions, where they will build experience, and where Ennahda could depend on them in coming elections. Whoever controls the administration in Tunisia is like whoever controls the army in Egypt.
AO: Do you think that Tunisia's political polarisation is based on class or ideological roots?
HT: Nowadays in Tunisia, a major contradiction is unfolding between two opposing political projects. One of the two involves political Islam and is represented by Ennahda Party, while the other involves modernism and believes in universal principles of human rights, gender equality, freedom and tolerance.
AO: Did the new constitution achieve a balance between the demands of both sides?
HT: The constitution itself is a mix of contradictions. It stipulates articles about Islam and secularism at the same time. It also brings reference to the notion of freedom of conscience, including atheism. Each party will manipulate the constitution's articles as it wants, and the constitution allows for this.
AO: In light of your latest book, How Tunisians became Tunisians? do you see an identity crisis in Tunisia?
HT: Yes, most people here define themselves as Tunisians, which is not the case with other minorities. The latter are either Arab nationalist, Islamic or communist, but we have to put in mind that they are minorities. We also have to be aware of the fact that the process of Tunisisation is very strong in this country. Probably this fact stands behind the success of the secular Nidaa Tounes and its leader Baji Caid Essebsi. The man and his party counted on the reputation of former President Habib Bourguiba. On a personal level, as a Marxist, I believe that so-called Bourguibaism equals Tunisisation. You have to put in consideration that Bourguiba is the only one who stood in the face of Egypt's former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in times when Nasser was strong and all political issues of the Arab world were finalised in Cairo.
AO: You spoke about possibilities of the rotation of power in your book The Trick of Soft Authoritarianism in Tunisia, issued in 2012. What are your views on this question now?
HT: The rotation of power has already occurred, and this is a bright spot in the Arab world. This matter contradicts the dominating idea of the old orientalists on the inability of Muslim countries to reach democracy, for dictatorship is their fate. Tunisia is currently undertaking this transition and creating a balance between democracy and Islam. I hope the Tunisian experience will successfully continue. Perhaps Tunisia was lucky for not having resources, such as Libya and Iraq, that the West seeks to obtain. In our case, Western states are ready to provide help. Tunisia represents a beautiful image of a non-Western democratic state.
AO: Concerning Tunisian leftists, which you also tackled in your book, do you think they can unite their parties and have a chance of ruling the country?
HT: The leftists started to live a democratic experience here, with all its difficulties, but I don't think they can govern Tunisia in the near future. They began to discover the hardships of dealing with the masses and international players. The Popular Front — coming fourth in October's parliamentary elections — is an exception. Although better results could have been achieved given the left's history, fourth place is a respectable position. The backdrop of such an outcome includes the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bourgeois nature of the leftist parties, and many divisions among their ranks. Leadership problems and shortages of financial capabilities are to be added as well. If the leftist bloc had someone like businessman Saleem Riahi — whose Free National Union came third in the parliamentary race — among its ranks, its conditions would have been definitely better.
AO: Is there a US-French plan for Tunisia?
HT: Tunisia embodies a laboratory that tests the compatibility between Islam and democracy, but it is not far from the imperialist-Zionist project that seeks control over the Arab part of the world. The systematic destruction of the Arab world is evident. Controlling oil and gas resources and protecting Israel are two main aims of this project.
AO: How do you evaluate the path of Tunisia's revolution considering ongoing events occurring in the Arab world?
HT: The Tunisian uprising was undoubtedly made by the people, but Zionism and imperialism turned other Arab uprisings into a means for destroying the Arab world. Tunisia had solely escaped this massive deluge, and Egypt as well. However, the question in Egypt involves whether Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi made a coup or responded to the demands of the people. But as long as Egypt maintains its weight in the international arena, the hope of developing Arab countries along the lines of Brazil, India and South Africa will remain.
AO: Did the Arab Spring uprisings fail?
HT: The failure was miserable, and imperialism has turned the uprisings into civil wars. You can notice the atrocities of the Islamic State (IS) militants. They come from the Stone Age and have no place in the 21st century; like calls for sexual jihad (Jihad Al-Nikah). Syria, Libya and Iraq are devastated, and the rest will come. This is the situation in the region, which the Arab world had not lived since the Mongols era.
AO: Does that mean that Tunisia is an exception?
HT: Tunisia has its own experience in the Arab world. We had the greatest constitution in ancient times. The extremist movements that emerged in the classical, Islamic age — such as the Kharijites and the Shias — did not succeed here, though they gained ground in Algeria and Libya. Women's rights are more developed in Tunisia than in the rest of the Islamic world.
AO: In your book, you spoke about the conflict between the merchant and the farmer more than once. Can you explain that to us?
HT: Tunisia's history was generally created by merchants, not farmers. Merchants are shrewd, connected to the world and capable of making good political calculations. Bourguiba achieved independence for Tunisia with the least human cost, while the neighbouring Algeria lost one million martyrs for the same target. The Tunisian revolution started with rural Sidi Bouzid city in 2010, but the small bourgeoisie in the cities — maintaining the merchant's mentality — were those who took advantage of it. Now political power is falling within the hands of Essebsi. The results of elections in 2014 underlined the victory of the merchant against the farmer. Farmers always take the initiative to revolt, but they did not collect its fruits, which happened in Tunisian history time and again.