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Economic Congress – The National Dialogue Continues at Carthage
In contrast to the alarmist discourse several weeks ago regarding the state of the economy (which has since provoked an ANC petition signed by ninety constituents demanding a session to clarify Nidhel Ouerfelli’s statements concerning civil servants’ salaries for the month of April), Prime Minister Mehdi Jomâa seems to have adopted a more sober, measured tone. The latest musings and revelations to come out of the national economic congress at Carthage on Tuesday are nothing out of the ordinary according to some media sources who estimate that the course of the National Dialogue follows the same evolution of economic issues manufactured by the successive governments of the Troika.

«The government’s willingness to pass a new financial law is proof beyond doubt that the budget of 2014, like the previous budgets and revenue numbers elaborated by the Troika, were fictitious and exaggerated». A La Presse de Tunisie article directly attributes the current economic state to two years of mismanagement under previous Prime Ministers Jebali and Laârayedh («With this new approach, the new government is attempting to convey reasonable, competent, transparent management of the disastrous economic situation, which implicates the incompetence of the previous government that led the country into a situation unprecedented in its recent history: borrowing in order ito pay salaries») and criticizes the interim government’s external aid-based approach to fixing the economy.

The author judges the government’s acceptance of an accord with the International Monetary Fund as a sign of weakness in that there are invariably strings attached to IMF aid. «We must remember that, in the arena of international relations, whether in the economic or other sectors, aid is non- or almost non-existent. Either it consists of loans or investments.» A similarly critical but less well-founded, more mud-throwing, Tunisie Numerique article conveys some of the same complaints regarding the interim government’s culpability in the economic crisis, characterizing the disastrous situation as the «fruit of their ‘competence’» and finding laughable the assumption that Tunisians have forgotten the past failures of the Troika.

Ministries Versus Parliament
In the wake of shock and outrage regarding the military tribunal’s recent verdict in the Martyrs of the Revolution Affair, the ANC seems to have become a veritable scapegoat for the growing pains of democratic transition, its interworkings the perceived epitome of mediocrity, incompetency, inefficiency, and obsoleteness. In spite of criticism that prescribed a number of the deputies’ responses to the verdict as counter-productive to democratic processes (specifically pertaining to the unconstitutionality of the creation special courts as well as the failure to respect separation of State powers), the ANC has rushed to implement the formation of a much delayed Truth and Dignity Tribunal as a measure of transitional justice. On Tuesday, the ANC published on its website the official list of 288 candidates from which fifteen will be selected to preside over the Truth and Dignity tribunal.

‘The Djerba Polemic’

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Jewish men pray inside the blue-tiled El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba following a wedding ceremony May 10, 2012. REUTERS/Anis Mili

In the meantime, Parliament’s petition to interrogate Minister of Tourism Amel Karboul and delegated Minister of Security Ridha Sfar regarding the decision to permit Israeli tourists entry into Tunisia has prompted renewed criticism and now official reprimand directed toward ANC deputies. Samir Ben Amor’s announcement on ShemsFm last Sunday galvanized online debate and warranted the response of Mehdi Jomâa, who directly addressed deputies during Tuesday’s conference. Quoted in Business News, the Prime Minister reportedly admonished, «Let’s be honest—normalization, no normalization…let’s put aside these grand causes please.» Jomâa reprimanded parliament members for trifling with the country’s tradition of welcoming tourists to Djerba for the yearly pilgrimage in which Israelis have historically participated, emphasizing the economic imperative of encouraging, not diminishing, tourism:

We strive to enable the success of the tourist season given the financial liquidity that it represents inasmuch as all professionals are unanimous in saying that the success of the tourist season depends upon that of the Djerba pilgrimage.
The Prime Minister, Mehdi Jomâa

Jomâa’s request that deputies not interfere with Tunisia’s history of welcoming Jews to visit what is the oldest synagogue on the continent contains an implicit message about the temporally and otherwise limited role of the deputies in government: «It is a known tradition in Tunisia, there are procedures that for years have been followed by all of the [country’s] governments.» The Prime Minister asked that the ministries not waste time dallying in political conflicts. What amounted to a deliberate and public scolding of ANC members captured common sentiments that had been expressed in online commentaries to Ben Amor’s announcement which evoked issues of religion, secularism, racism, and international relations, and Jomâa’s address was subsequently applauded by many who deemed his response as appropriately stern and direct.

It is worth noting that one would not have even to search beyond Parliament chambers to bear witness to a formal denunciation and framing of the Djerba polemic as a product of political meddling. The ANC’s own Mongi Rahoui has pointed out the ‘political hypocrisy’ and opportunism of his colleagues: «This petition does not come from principles. It is an operation of manipulation

In the name of a struggle against the ‘normalization’ with the Zionist enemy, we are to upset the celebration of our citizens of the Jewish faith and sabotage the tourist season. Imed Bahri, Ideological Terrorism Threatens to Ruin Terrorism

The same accusations that Rahoui pinned on his colleagues are present in a succinct and discerning Kapitalis article on «Ideological Terrorism Threatens to Ruin Tourism» which contextualizes the polemic, validating Jomâa’s position but also pointing out the vagueness of his message. While classifying as hypocrisy and opportunism the deputies’ sudden preoccupation with the entry of Israeli citizens into Tunisia (whereas no one during the two previous years under the interim government voiced any concern over the issue), the author also qualifies as «politically naïve» the Prime Minister’s statement that the success of the impending tourist season depends upon the denouement of the Djerba affair. The author argues that the presence of Israeli citizens has never been cut-and-dry, that the often pro-Israeli tour leaders of the Djerba pilgrimage have always promoted Tunisia as a tourist destination, a fact that is well-known by Tunisian authorities and that has never threatened the country’s foreign policies nor solidarity with Palestine.

The pilgrimage to Djerba, above being a commercial affair, is a cultural and religious tradition that illustrates the ancestral tolerance that is characteristic of our people and that is part of our cultural heritage and collective memory… Imed Bahri, Ideological Terrorism Threatens to Ruin Terrorism

Karboul Reiterates Jomâa’s Message

Let’s leave politics to politicians. We are here to work and to move the country forward and beyond the crisis. Amel Karboul quoted in Amel Karboul Does Not Back Down in Face of the ‘Djerba Polemic’

Following Jomâa’s address to deputy members on Tuesday, Amel Karboul appeared in a press conference on Friday justifying the Ministry’s decision to regulate the entry of Israeli citizens into Tunisia and asserting her willingness to respond to Parliament’s questions. While some media sources hold that the Minister of Tourism «preferred to beat around the bush,» reader commentaries on Business News and Babnet reflect a range of opinions, the majority of which support Karboul’s decision in the affair and her work in general, condemning the pettiness of ANC deputies and imploring them to let the Minister continue her work.

What follows are several from among many commentaries posted in response to Business News articles on Jomâa’s and Karboul’s statements during the national economic congress and Friday’s press conference respectively.

Well Done, Mr. Jomâa
I find his message very clear. It’s easy for deputies to play the patriots and nationalists even without being accountable. Surely he is exaggerating when he says that the success of the season depends on the success of the Djerba pilgrimage, but to make a spectacle of the visit of a few Israelis may cause us some big problems especially in sensitive markets [such as] France where there is a large Jewish community and the media threatens causing new problems and in Germany, sensitive as demanded by history and mea-culpa to anything that might resemble antisemitism. It is Realpolitik and it is up to Tunisians to make courageous decisions and to stop polemicizing [the issue]. The Palestinian cause does not have much to gain if we categorically refuse visas to Israelis, but our tourism, however, risks real problems… Even Ben Ali I am sure allowed Israelis if discreet entry.

Mr. Jomâa, Make the Decision to Reduce the Salaries of Two-Thirds of Deputies
This ANC will disappear. These deputies don’t give a damn about Tunisia and Tunisians, what counts for them is to fill their pockets from the wallets of taxpayers. The words that you have spoken are courageous and good and all Tunisians appreciate them…State reserves are empty and you must reduce your salary by two-thirds. You will see all of these pseudo-deputies leave and the ANC which is no longer legitimate will disappear and allow you to work in peace and Tunisians will heartily thank you…Long live Tunisia’s real patriots.

Are you afraid of the people or the passport?

Welcome all Jews to Tunisia who come to fulfill the rites of their pilgrimage. Because I am Muslim, I am tolerant and hospitable.

Religion = nightmare
For a citizen of a secular country, this article and certain comments are surreal. Jewish tourists in Tunisia—where is the problem? … Here is another history of a people who identify with one religion, and among them perhaps atheists! What a nightmare, more than ever I remain attached to secularism, and the earth is my country, we belong to the earth, and not the opposite.