The scholar given a year to save Tunisia

Tawfik Jelassi, universities minister after the Jasmine Revolution, on losing his anonymity and being taken hostage by students

September 15, 2016
Tawfik Jelassi against backdrop of Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia
Source: Getty/ITU pictures

When Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at harassment by municipal officials in 2010, Tawfik Jelassi had no idea that the ensuing Jasmine Revolution would not only change the course of his homeland’s history but also propel him to high political office.

Then dean of the School of International Management at the École des Ponts ParisTech, Jelassi watched from the French capital as the regime of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years, was overthrown within a month.

He watched as the subsequent interim government, criticised for its links with Ben Ali, finally called parliamentary elections in October 2011 after an earlier cancellation amid concerns about corruption. He watched as the newly legalised, moderate Islamist Ennahda Party won a narrow victory and its leader, Hamadi Jebali, was appointed prime minister.

He watched as the ensuing year of civil unrest, marked by huge protests over the description of women as “complementary to men” in Ennahda’s proposed new Tunisian constitution, culminated in the assassinations of the leaders of the secular left-wing and nationalist opposition parties.

And he watched as, amid violent demonstrations, Ennahda finally agreed, at the end of 2013, to stand aside for a caretaker technocratic government of national unity, headed by engineer Mehdi Jomaa. But Jelassi had no idea that Jomaa even knew of his existence.

“The call from the prime minister designate came out of nowhere,” Jelassi (pictured above) tells Times Higher Education. “[It was] Christmas Day 2013: the first day of a family vacation in Florida. I did not know [Jomaa] before and I wasn’t affiliated with any political party. Here I was, a Tunisian expatriate, [who] left my home country 35 years earlier to study: even in my wildest dreams, I never would have expected that I’d be called to serve as a minister in government.”

How, then, does Jelassi account for being asked to leave his comfortable, well-paid job in France to become minister of higher education, scientific research and information and communication technologies in Tunisia? The explanation, he says, is that Jomaa identified potential ministers on the advice of political leaders across Tunisia and on the basis of his own research; Jomaa has said that he interviewed 300 people for 28 ministerial positions.

“The decision, when [Jomaa] granted me those three ministries, is based very much on my CV,” Jelassi says. “He saw that for 30 years I [had been] a university professor, and I was also dean, and wrote publications, and my field is information and communications technologies. He told me: ‘Mr Jelassi, I am offering you a custom-made job.’ He literally said these words. ‘These ministries were not together before; I’m asking you to [head] them because of your background, your experiences.’”

Jelassi promised to think about Jomaa’s offer and fly to Tunis at the end of his holiday to give his answer in person. But, after hanging up the phone, he was confronted by his wife. “For my family, the door was definitely shut: [it was] a definite no,” he says, adding that they regarded the offer as “career suicide”. “My wife...said: ‘This is the first day of our 10-day vacation and this call is going to ruin it.’ And it did, because at every meal, this was the subject of discussion.”

In Tunis, Jomaa gave more details of what was on offer. Jelassi and his fellow ministers would have a fixed term of one year to put Tunisia back on track towards stability and prosperity. They were to be “paid peanuts” and would not be allowed to complain or resign until they were fired at the end of the 12 months. Jomaa “stressed the call of duty and the opportunity to serve the country”, Jelassi says. “I didn’t serve in the army when I was younger, which was compulsory for every Tunisian youngster. He told me: ‘Military service is one year long: [the interim government will have] the same duration but it’s a civic service.’” Jomaa added that he was counting on Jelassi to join an inner group of four ministers to work on a policy programme ahead of taking office and facing a confidence vote in parliament.

Jelassi accepted the offer. And for the initial three-week preparatory period, he was glad that he had. “That inner group work created a lot of solidarity,” he says. “I touched every single dossier and matter, from international diplomacy to security, economic and financial matters. It was tremendous. It was the four of us acting like a shadow government.”

It was also an opportunity to get to know the other technocrats Jomaa had recruited. “I knew a few names: maybe three; four, max. But when I saw their CVs, my first reaction was respect,” Jelassi says. He thought: “These are competent people: many of them have international careers. We should be able to see eye to eye.”

Rapport was built by having meals at each other’s houses and by playing football. By the time the vote of confidence came around, the Jomaa cabinet had formed “a lasting friendship that God created. In hard times, we called each other. We had to show solidarity, esprit de corps, help each other out.”

Little did Jelassi know how heavily he would rely on that support network, right from the beginning of the technocratic government’s period in office, which began in early 2014. The debate prior to the vote of confidence was itself a 16-hour test of resolve and endurance. Jomaa’s ministers were “grilled” not only on their technical suitability for their roles but also on “all matters”, including personal issues.

“They dug deep into everybody’s broad CV – whatever information about us there was [in the public domain] – and some of them were not professional in [their] language.” Although Jelassi himself avoided “serious criticism”, other ministers had “an extremely harsh time”, with dozens of parliamentarians openly hostile to the notion of a technocracy.

The technocrats immediately began to question “whether this is what we want to do. We had left behind families and were willing to serve the country and live on our savings, and this was our introduction? I saw one of my colleagues in tears during the session.”

Subsequently, Jelassi’s intention to reform “the entire higher education system” was questioned even within the Cabinet, on the grounds that an unelected politician would struggle to command sufficient legitimacy to make such sweeping changes – as well as the fact that systematic reform was “by far, more than a year’s task”.

However, Jelassi stuck to his guns, pointing out that of the 700,000 people unemployed in Tunisia at the time, about half were graduates. Among graduates, unemployment was running at more than 31 per cent. Hence, he concluded, universities were “not giving young people the skill sets that recruiters and the labour market are expecting. [There were] thousands of vacant jobs in the country and the employers would not hire these graduates. What does that tell us? We need to rethink what we teach – what skills and competencies – to enable them to have better employment opportunities.”

Tunisian graduates block road with burning tyres, Medenine

Jelassi set out to do this in the most inclusive way he could. Involving all university presidents, education experts, directors of the ministry of higher education, student union representatives and corporate recruiters, he scheduled a series of workshops to discuss how best to educate the country’s students. His guiding principle was that higher education should not be “education for employment” but “education for self-employment”.

“We had to educate these students to become entrepreneurs; revise curricula in all disciplines and introduce entrepreneurship, management, technology [and] business modelling,” he says. In addition, he proposed the creation of incubators at each university so that if graduates weren’t able to secure employment after their studies, they would have free access to IT and free coaching on entrepreneurship. And he proposed the creation of two state banks to finance start-up companies.

Drawing economic worth from higher education was also a significant part of his research policy. The major challenge, Jelassi says, was how to better link what happened in research centres with the economic and business world, such that “the output of the research” could be “adapted by the companies and turned into products and services”. To this end, he wanted to create “a board in each research institute, the members of which would include a representative of the business community, with academics and lead researchers”.

He also intended to “call on the business world to sponsor some research, and tell researchers about their business needs, for which they don’t have the research capabilities” – as well as to provide “coaches and executive residents to give the real-world input to academics and researchers”.

The trick, he says, was to change mindsets: among Tunisian academics, that their mission was merely to “educate” and, among students, that a well-paid government job with a chauffeur-driven car would fall into their laps on graduation. But he knew that it would not be easy, and opposition to his plans was stiff.

Every morning, at 7.30am, Jelassi would receive a press dossier containing all the mentions of his ministry’s work. “Sometimes it was surprising, sometimes it was very discouraging and sometimes it was intimidating because it was lies,” he says. Initially, he found it difficult to take the criticism, but, after a while, he developed the “constructive mindset” necessary to “carry on with the mission”.

Ironically, it was a law that was already on the books that caused Jelassi the most trouble. In Tunisia’s fee-free higher education system, a student could enrol in any field and, if they failed their end-of-year exams, they were permitted to retake the year twice. But if they failed a third time, they had to leave their university except in exceptional circumstances, such as family bereavement. Students took to the streets to demand to be permitted to retake a failed year for a third time as a matter of course.

“This [was] illegal and it [would] cost the state a lot of money,” Jelassi says. Nevertheless, the students were determined and after striking for three months, a group of them burst into his office and took him hostage there. Some students subsequently went on hunger strike, and opposition politicians called for Jelassi’s replacement. Despite his fears for his own safety, it was only when students started setting up gallows on the roofs of university buildings that his resolve began to waver.

“A colleague in government, a close and good colleague, called me up and said: ‘Tawfik, I know that you’re right: you’re standing up for your values and sticking to your principles. [But] with the escalation and the threats of students to commit suicide, do you really want to have blood on your hands? This may lead to the fall of our government. [The repercussions] will definitely go beyond your ministry. Are you willing to look for a compromise, a face-saving action, so the [student protesters] put an end to their [action]?’ That was the moment of truth for me.”

Jelassi’s proffered compromise – whereby students who narrowly failed were permitted a third retake, with all others offered a place at a vocational training centre – was accepted and he was able to move on to his own reform programme. University presidents ultimately approved a raft of reforms, including giving each state university administrative and financial autonomy, easing the criteria for opening new universities, upgrading teaching skills, strengthening research centres’ links with business and further measures to enhance students’ employability.

By the time he and his ministers resigned at the end of their 12 months, in February 2015, Jomaa had become one of Tunisia’s most popular leaders. The technocrats’ last act was to organise the first free parliamentary elections in Tunisia since the 1950s: an achievement for which they drew widespread international praise, including from US president Barack Obama. And, in 2015, the National Dialogue Quartet, the group of four Tunisian civic organisations that initiated the installation of the technocratic government, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nowadays, Jelassi can walk around IMD Business School in Lausanne, where he is professor of strategy and technology management, without the need for bodyguards. So how does he reflect, from the distant shores of Lake Geneva, on his whirlwind year as a Tunisian minister?

“It was a lifetime of experiences in one year,” he says. “I was making decisions at a country level. I’ve never had that exposure before…Everywhere I walked, people recognised me. Before, I was happy as an anonymous citizen.

He also “saw the dark side of politics: the hypocrisy. People who smile in front of you, encourage you, but then [are] stabbing you [in the back] behind the scenes.”

Since the technocrats stood down, Jelassi – in common with many of his former ministerial colleagues – has resisted the efforts of various Tunisian political parties to recruit him. But he admits he could be tempted back into politics if he could work again alongside those colleagues, remarking that “some people [still]call us a shadow government, even though we did not set up a political party”.

Indeed, he believes it would have been better for Tunisia if the technocratic government had been asked to carry on, “in order to pursue the various national reforms and strategic projects that it had initiated. Actually, this is what I have been hearing from a lot of people in Tunisia and [it is] also what some political analysts have been saying.”

Academics, in Jelassi’s view, often make good ministers on account of their high level of education, their objectivity and their honesty.

“I am not saying that only academics have these qualities but I think a high number of them do,” he says. “If academics with those qualities [can] put the general interest before anything else and forgo their personal and party interests, then I think they should enter politics more often.”

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