Former Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa talks about his unusual journey to politics, the need for prepared politicians and the importance of picking the right team. He also calls on young people to claim their place in politics and has some advice for protestors on the streets around the world.
Mr Jomaa was a different kind of politician. He left his aerospace career to serve Tunisia in the years after the Arab Spring and was appointed prime minister during a political crisis in 2014. He and his caretaker government were charged with organizing the first free and fair elections since 1956.
Note: In this episode, Bek says Mr Jomaa was chosen to be prime minister in 2014. He was actually chosen in December 2013 but started serving as prime minister in 2014.
Mr Jomaa’s Book Recommendation: Kalila and Dimna or the Fables of Bidpai
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Hello dear listeners, welcome to APolitical Hope:
the podcast exploring how to get the courageous, trusted and ethical political leaders we need for the 21st century. My name is Lisa and I'm the CEO of the Foundation. In today's episode my colleague Rebekah Ison is talking to Tunisian former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa. Mr. Jomaa was working in aeronautics when he was asked to become a politician for the first time following the Arab uprising. After months of political crisis, he was appointed acting prime minister in 2014 and tasked, the tough task I may say, with transitioning the country to democracy. That meant organising the first free and fair legislative elections since 1956 and leaving the top job as a result.Mehdi Jomaa:
"Even the team the first meeting, I tell them, you have to prepare your exit, today."Lisa Witter:
We wanted to talk to Mr. Jomaa because of his unusual prime ministership, and a brand new democracy has a lot to teach us about how to get new different and prepared people into politics. And this interview, he talks about the need for politicians to be prepared exactly that something that was lacking post Tunisian revolution, the importance of an overarching political vision, and the skills he thinks politicians need today. He also calls on young people to claim their spot in politics, and has some advice for protesters calling for big political change around the world.Mehdi Jomaa:
"My recommendation is it's right to protest, to refuse the situation when it's not acceptable, but try not to destroy everything."Lisa Witter:
This episode was produced at the 2022 Athens Democracy Forum, in partnership with the Democracy and Culture Foundation. Mr. Jomaa is now a member of Club de Madrid, the world's largest forum of democratic former presidents and prime ministers who leverage their experience and reach to strengthen inclusive democratic practice, and improve the well being of people around the world. Enjoy!Rebekah Ison:
Okay, let's start. The reason why I thought it was very interesting to speak to you for our podcast is that our foundation is trying to get new different and prepared politicians into politics to serve for democracy for the better of democracy. And I think that you have a very interesting perspective, because you came to power and politics at a time where there was kind of a whole new set of politicians. These were people mostly who had never been politicians before, right?Mehdi Jomaa:
Yes, right. Yeah. So maybe I have a family background of politics, and I live in this atmosphere. But my decision when I were young is never touch to politics, never been involved with. I was more seeking for professional career. And that's what happened. And so I was living in Europe, for a long time, I made all my career, okay, here, travelling between Europe, United States, China, I was in a completely different field that was in the aerospace industry, which is a very competitive and worldwide industry. There, I learned a lot, I made a good, comfortable, professional career. Then happened this big change with the Arabic spring, which started in Tunisia, and there was a lot of events, a lot of changes. And I was contacted to join the government, after the first nation political association and the trouble, there was a pressure to include some natural competencies in the government. To be honest with you, I declined it because I did not have a good idea about politics. It's the rules and the way they are running politics and the behaviour of people is, like, dirty for me, was really dirty. And I'm worldwide professional. So I like the rules, I think switch are clear. And the rules of competition are clean, which is not the idea I got from politics, but after I accepted, because I think that it's an obligation for us, you know, and my obligation is to serve the country as well. So I took one year and I considered it like a military mission. Other things that in my professional career. It was made by crisis management and the country was in arises I have this obligation to serve my country. I like Tunisia, it's very, very nice country. So I decided to go back. And after there was another big trouble, which was the second political assassination, and everything was stuck, we stopped the big conflict, big trouble. And there was a dialogue and there I was selected as the Prime Minister, to lead the transition to organise the elections. And as well to face this wave of terrorism and insecurity. So it was really by the beginning, something that I did not think about and that I declined. But after it was like an obligation to the country. And you know, I was not coming from any party or any political field. So I decided to focus on the work to succeed the mission on the team. No one was betting on our success at that time. And I think that the most important realisation, whatever is happening today, is that we succeeded to stop the insecurity problems, to offer a right environment, and to ensure at the deadline that we fix it to ourselves and agreed with all the public to organise fair and recognised for the first time an independent election. Even though today, things are not so good and not our aspiration or the level of the aspiration. Anyhow, it's in our memory, it's in our legacy. And it will serve us for the future of the country and the to service to succeed with this new democracy.Rebekah Ison:
Yeah, I want to talk about, I mean there's a lot there I want to talk about, but just to give some background, so you were chosen to be the acting prime minister in that transition in 2014. That year, there was a new constitution, and the motto of that constitution for the Tunisian Republic was freedom, dignity, justice, and order. And now as we sit here today, you know, democracy in Tunisia, as with pretty much everywhere in the world, frankly, it seems to be under threat. So now they're, you know, it's been how long, eight years? With the benefit of hindsight, do you see anything that the leaders of Tunisia at that time when it was this brand new baby democracy could have done differently to avoid a situation like now?Mehdi Jomaa:
I think that we are speaking about eight years, let's say that we are on the learning curve. Today, I think the main thing for me in my analysis today is yes, we succeeded in putting the constitution, but we forget something which is important. And that's the lesson that, whatever the text, whatever the quality of the text of the constitution, whatever the institution, you know, you need the right leadership to meet that. It's like, in a plane you need a pilot, skilled with the quality and the skills and the competencies of a pilot, for all the democracies. We see, even in the mature democraciess, when you have a leadership, who is not believing or behaving differently, who is not really prepared to lead this democracy, we have some threats. You imagine in a nascent democracy, it's important the quality of the leadership. And when you organise elections, and when I'm discussing with my colleagues from Europe and US sometimes as well, in their mind, when we organise election, when we have elected the institution, the problem is solved, and we have democracy now. It's necessary, but it's not enough. Now, really, the deep work that we have to do is how to prepare this leadership, with the right competencies with the conviction with the democratic behaviour as well, because some of them, they see it in Tunisia, in the rights in the speech, they are democratic, no doubt, but in their behaviour, no, they're not democratic. And other thing, okay, you're elected, you have institution, you have to lead this institution to the success, because what is the aim of democracy at the end? It's the citizen. And the problem, the big trouble that we have in Tunisia today, is the expectation was high and people today, we did not give them any back any dividend of this democracy, no prosperity, no perspective, or the future. And they are like disgusted from this democracy. And that's the real truth.Rebekah Ison:
And they disgusted by the way that their new Democratic leaders are acting, or do they not see the benefits as far as equality or freedom?Mehdi Jomaa:
No, they are disgusted more by the quality of the leaders because of what we see, and I was surprised. Really discovering you win the election because you're a good speaker. You're not I spent two years elaborating a vision. Before I leave, in 2015, we elaborate with the team, a vision for the country and the set of reforms, which was necessary for the country to give the means of the democracy, you have to reform you have to succeed economically, you have to succeed socially. That's the means of the democracy. And we continue to work on that. I spend all my time explaining the vision, explaining what we have to do, explaining the perspectives explaining the geopolitics, explaining the environment, the set of reforms that we have. And I see on the other side, who succeeded in the election, they were promising everything without any foundation. So anyone who wants to involve himself in the public life in the elections, and to get the responsibility, he has to be aware that it is a responsibility, and to have clear thoughts, no vision, no programmes, no idea, no competencies, even though you are elected, by a fair way, the result is not good for the country is not good for two people. And this is not good for the democracy.Rebekah Ison:
It's really interesting, because I feel like you're saying a lot of things, even the same language that our foundation is trying to say, even the language around prepared politicians, this is exactly what we're trying to say. I have a question. And that is, then, you know, I look around the world that looks like there's going to potentially be places that find themselves in similar situations, as Tunisia did in 2014, where there's a replacement of leadership. So when you have a whole new replacement of leadership, how can you have politicians that are prepared? What do they look like? Does it need to be an infrastructure, which is what we're trying to do? That's like having a pipeline of politicians? It almost seems like impossible to have a whole new leadership that is also prepared.Mehdi Jomaa:
Yeah. So first, I think is the responsibility. I believe that there is no solution without the involvement of the young people. We are speaking about the future. And such when we speak about democracy or change the country, it's not a question of months, it's long term. You cannot do it because you agreed on a text, on a nice text. No, it's long term, it goes through the education, but the only chance for the democracy and mainly for the nascent democracy is to see this young people involved. And to young people like I told you, this political landscape is, excuse me, the word dirty. The right people that we need for the country, this honest, working hard, open mind, they don't like such atmosphere. And I faced that, I really faced that. It was not so easy to hire, and to recruit ministers, the best ones, but on them, you know, we have a very difficult mission, no one is bidding on us on the success of the mission. But you have to, the crisis is the threats are very high. And I want to be clear with you. If you succeed, you will be insulted. If you fail, you'll be charged. So young people should be aware of that. But it's their obligation is that country, if they don't go through this, to make it cleaner, there is no chance to expect any change. The only way to change is to be involved, expecting from the existing leadership to open the doors. And to these people. It's a dream.Rebekah Ison:
Another way that your prime ministership was unusual, I think is that you were overseeing this transition to free and fair elections for the first time since 1956. But that means by doing so that meant that you would ultimately give up your prime ministership. And that's very unusual for a leader, obviously. So as a foundation, were interested in exploring how to get leaders that are willing to be reformers, even if it means that it might not be politically good for them. So how do we find those people personally? How did you deal with this tension personally between reforms and your political title? And how did you keep your pride in check?Mehdi Jomaa:
Yeah, I will tell you for me it was easier than for other politicians, who work all their life to get the position I'm coming from. In other words, I'm coming from the industry from international career and where we are, use it for a mission. And in your mind, you have to succeed the mission as soon as possible. That's why we said one year that As the first thing, the second, even the team, the first meeting, I tell them, you have to prepare your exit today, to think about that today. That's why. And we agreed, all together that we are here for a mission, but the state will continue. My mind is like that we are in a mission, we work for a country, it's a continuous, are responsible for a set for a mission for a step.Rebekah Ison:
Okay, so you've credited Tunisia and strong notion of the state as one of the reasons for it being like the success story of the Arab Spring at the time. So you said that Tunisia replaced the regime and shook the state, but it did not break the state. And around the world, we see people hitting the streets in frustration, and some people are calling for revolution. Do you still think that shaking but not breaking the state was the right way to go?Mehdi Jomaa:
Yes, because in the case of Tunisia, I'm used to being asked why it succeeded at that time in Tunisia and not in the other Arab Springs. Why? Because we have traditions, you know, the first constitution is not the one voted in 2014. No, the first constitution, it was around 1850. So we have a big tradition, with constitution and with institution. And we have a big tradition with the state, which is important. And that's why my recommendation is it's right to protest, to refuse the situation when it's not acceptable. But try not to destroy everything, try to preserve the pillars, that you can rebuild something which is more robust. All the ingredients of the state were there just to reorganise to improve and to make them more performant.Rebekah Ison:
You've talked about that. We need prepared leaders, but what specific traits, specific characteristics should we be looking for in people that we could train to help become emerging leaders?Mehdi Jomaa:
Yeah. So let's begin by the mission of this people, if they are involved, if they succeed, if they are elected, and if the mission is really to manage a country? It's not only a question of opinion, it's different. It's not a question of winning in a debate. It's not the question only winning election, you need to do that. But the people should think about the target, the target is to improve the life of the citizen is to improve the position of the state. That's the first thing. So this kind of people, they are open. They know the words as well. It's important to know the country to know the people, but it's not enough. You have to know your people that expectation their mind, how to communicate with them, how to explain to them, how to share with them, but as well, and as well as it's important. They know the word they know the future. They know technologies, they know all these changes, the climate change the technology, the problem that they see in Tunisia, all of that is absent.Rebekah Ison:
What I'm also hearing you say, as far as your approach is that they need to be good people managers, essentially needs to be like a good boss. Right? Yeah, that's good advice. All right.Mehdi Jomaa:
Yes, you know, you have to manage problems, difficulties. You have to manage people, you have to manage teams, you have to manage organisations, it's knowledge. I remember, when I was selected as Prime Minister, I got to discussion with Madame Christine Lagarde, she was the head of the International Monetary Fund. And she's coming from the corporate world before. And I explained to her what is my intention to do to manage the country, and she said: "let me me tell you something, you will succeed because what we learn in the corporate world, our reflexes, our tools, our way to manage our it's more performance in the preparation of the leaders, you deal with this." I know that there is a big preparation, how to debate how to communicate, it's not enough. That's the way but we have to prepare them how to manage problems, how to manage career crisis, how to motivate and the most important thing, how to choose people. I consider myself that I did not succeed. But the team succeeded. My only success is how to choose the team. And I will tell you something, and it's really a recommendation of all the people who were listening. In my life, professional life and even in the public life. I learned something I cannot hire or work with any collaborator with any We're running out of time. So I'm going to ask you the minister with any responsible if I don't feel that he's better than me in his field. questions that I asked everyone on this podcast. us. And the first is, what three main takeaways Do you want to leave the audience with? It's important whatever your career, whatever your position, to pay attention to the country, to pay attention to politics and to be involved, at least, to be involved to understand of the people and to choose the right one. But when you feel more responsible to be involved to be a force of change, and the question of politics, it's not for politicians, and this passive position saying that one is good, that one is bad, it's comfortable for you, but not for the country. If you are a group, if you are many, you will succeed. And we need these open minded people. At the end, what is important is to fit your responsibility is really to have a clear target, clear vision. And each time, don't think only about how to answer the immediate or the short term solution, you have to think about the long term. And each decision you have to make for today, think about the impact for tomorrow. If you do that. Normally, it's the biggest service that we can give to the country.Rebekah Ison:
Thanks so much. What are you reading at the moment that we should also read? Or recently?Mehdi Jomaa:
You'll be surprised. I'm reading a book that I read when I was young. It's from the one of the famous books in the Arabic literature, the name is Kalila and Dimna. I found that prediction in English, they call it the Fables of Bidpai. I don't know why. But she's telling the story of three Indian princes. Through the story you have a lot of ethics about politics about, you will be surprised, it is from the the abbasid period, it's around the century, the 13th century 1220 or something, or 22, or something like that. It's really a big surprise at how it's describing what we are living.Rebekah Ison:
And this is our final question. What is giving you political hope?Mehdi Jomaa:
First for my country, I think, you know, I branded Tunisia, like a startup democracy. My hope that it is still a startup and we know that startups can have many troubles. It's not so easy. But I know that we will succeed at the end. And what is giving me hope that the leverage of this startup democracy will be not only for Tunisians, but for all the young people all around us, and I know the potential of that area. Today we are speaking about threats, but I see behind the threats all the opportunities.Rebekah Ison:
It has been so nice to speak to you. Thanks so much. I hope you enjoyed. Thank you.Lisa Witter:
And that was our discussion with Tunisia's former acting prime minister Mehdi Jomaa. Thank you for listening and daring to hope. A political hope is a podcast from Apolitical Foundation. And we'll be back with more from changemakers helping politicians to serve people and the planet in the coming weeks. You can help us shift the discussion on what's possible in politics by sharing this episode with your friends and tagging us on social media. You'll find us on Twitter@ApoliticalFound, Facebook and Instagram @apoliticalfoundation, all one word, and on LinkedIn at Apolitical Foundation two words. It'd also be a huge help if you rate, review and subscribe wherever you get this podcast. Last but definitely not least, we have a really great weekly briefing full of resources, tips and jobs for people to want to build better politics. I call it the antidote to pessimism. You can subscribe to that in the show notes. It's a great way to join our network and keep up to date with the work that we do and we want to hear from you too. I'm sure there are things that we're missing and ways to make the show better. We're always open to new ideas. Much love, gratitude, health and safety and hope for me and the entire a political foundation team.