“In Tunisia, the youth have lost hope and prospects. The movement of Gafsa is a matter of the whole society.” So says Tunisian biologist Maya Jribi, the leader of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which strongly supports the struggle of miners in Gafsa. The PDP is one of the main opposition parties against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, former head of the military intelligence services, who has ruled the country since 7 November 1987 when a team of medical experts pronounced the old Habib Bourguiba physically unfit to remain in power.
You’re the first woman to head a political party in Tunisia. . . .
. . . And I hope I won’t be the only one. There are other up and coming women in politics, but they are still poorly organized and have little visibility and little power. There aren’t many of us because the machinery of politics may seem too complex or humiliating. I never thought I would have less chances than men, and I must say that I have not suffered discrimination either inside or outside the party. I am a feminist, I come from student organizations, I have always worked with grassroots activists, and women have voted for me. In 1983 I founded the party with attorney Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, who led it until the December 2006 congress and who is now one of the twenty-eight members of the party’s political bureau. In 2006, I presented my candidacy at the congress and won against Ahmed Néjib. Initially the party was called the Progressive Socialist Regroupment, bringing together a certain number of Marxist groups. In 2001 we renamed it PDP to broaden our ideological base. The party gathers together different currents, from former Marxists to progressive Muslims to activists for democracy. We are trying to unite them under a common program, setting aside partisanship.
What is your program?
It revolves around two central axes: democracy and freedom, articulated in terms of the struggle for jobs and better living conditions for the popular classes, put to the test of social questions. We support the struggle in the Gafsa mining basin: a movement of powerful social criticism, born of people’s outrage and backed by some trade union cadres who have mediated between regional demands and the people. It’s a spontaneous movement, composed mostly of unemployed youths who are struggling against the high cost of living and have been harshly suppressed. Last June, two boys died. One was electrocuted during a sit-in at a power plant. He had some electrical wires in his hands, and regional officials said, “If you don’t give up, we’ll turn the power on.” He didn’t give up, and they turned it on. The unions tried to mediate, proposing realistic solutions so the situation wouldn’t degenerate, but the government arrested dozens of people. Gafsa is the first movement of youth, nearly all twenty-somethings. They are children of November, November 1987, 21 years ago, when popular revolts seemed to herald real change, not the politics of national security we are witnessing today. Since 2004, 5,000 youths have been put on trial in a country of 10 million. Many have endured the harshest sentences. As a party, we are for the nullification of the “trial of the Gafsa 38,” the freedom of political prisoners, and amnesty. But above all we want to develop the political character of the protest. During the siege of Gaza, people took to the streets and linked the resistance of the Palestinians to that of Gafsa, the local dimension to the international.
Many young Tunisians who landed on the shores of Lampedusa are from the Gafsa basin.
The government addresses the issue of immigration as a news item, whereas it’s a deep and serious problem. Young people have lost hope and prospects and are pursuing a mirage overseas. It takes a great debate in Tunisia to tackle this and other trends affecting the younger generations. There is asymmetry in the bilateral relations between Tunisia and Italy as well as a lack of development projects in Tunisia and other Mediterranean countries. Migration need not be regarded as a matter of national security, which is, if anything, one aspect of the problem, a consequence.
From 1989 to 1999 your party participated in the legislative elections, but without obtaining representation in the parliament. How do you evaluate your ability to influence the reality of the country?
In Tunisia there are no polls, so it is difficult to say exactly how many supporters we have, but we are considered to be the primary opposition party. The bulk of our members are intellectuals from the middle classes. We print 10,000 copies of our weekly Al Mawfik — one of three opposition newspapers — and it is estimated to be read by 32,000. We are cited and interviewed by Arab satellite television networks, which have a much larger audience than the state television. Al Jazeera calls us often.
President Ben Ali is putting himself forward as a candidate for the fifth time. Your party is excluded from the electoral competition in 2009 for lack of MPs.
At the end of October, the legislative and presidential elections will be held on the same day, but the conditions for participating with our own candidates are very complicated due to the special laws promulgated to prevent serious opponents from challenging Ben Ali. We started the campaign a year ago, though in Tunisia it is normal to do so at the last minute, fifteen days before the elections, without debate and in tow of the clique in power. After we nominated our candidate, Attorney Chebbi, they enacted a law according to which only party secretaries can participate. We decided to keep our nominee anyway. One of our main objectives is the alternation of power. Another point, free elections: even if that’s not possible this time, we will try again in 2014. Meanwhile, we accumulate people’s trust. Our slogan is: for free and fair elections, for strict supervision by an authority independent of the system of power. Till now the Interior Ministry has controlled elections. Instead, elections should become an opportunity for stocktaking and debate. For fifty years the citizens have had no choice, there is no opening for development, but there are a great regional imbalance, corruption, and nepotism. On the fifth of January, the youth took to the streets in Gafsa because of a rigged exam.
The original interview “Maya Jribi: I nostri giovani, senza speranza né futuro” was published by Il Manifesto on 29 January 2009. Click here to read Gorka Larrabeiti’s Spanish translation. English Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at] gmail.com).