Tunisia's youngest minister has a vision and is ready to lead
TUNIS - In 2011, for the first time in nearly two decades, Sayida Ounissi returned to Tunisia with the freedom to be open about her political beliefs and affiliations. Her arrival was tentative – she did not intend to stay long, nor did she have major political aspirations.
But the 29-year-old did not go unnoticed. A combination of talent and good timing brought her to the forefront of the Ennahda party’s evolving leadership structure and since August of this year, she has been serving as secretary of state for vocational training and entrepreneurship, making her the youngest member of the Tunisian government.
Growing up in 'exile'
Ounissi’s parents, political opponents of former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, were forced to flee the country in 1992 - when she was just five-years-old - after the Ministry of Interior fabricated a false coup plot in 1991, allegedly orchestrated by 200 military officers and members of the Ennahda movement. In the years that followed, it was used as a pretext for the imprisonment and/or exile of countless members of Ennahda. Sayida's father was one such member.
Ounissi grew up in Paris, surrounded by a small but active Tunisian community of political refugees, and two brothers and one sister who she now calls her "most trusted advisers".
In the presence of this tightly knit community, Sayida participated - often accompanied by her mother - in numerous political demonstrations and human rights activities. She recalls feeling compelled by her family’s situation and the continued oppression of their friends and family who had remained in Tunisia.
“I have to recognise,” she says thoughtfully, “that my own political consciousness probably developed at that time, at a very young age.”
Exile instilled a certain fearlessness in the children of those banished by the Tunisian state. Long before the revolution, Ounissi and her young entourage were not afraid to speak out against injustices.
At the time, Ennahda had seen many of its members flee to Western European countries, while others remained and found themselves subjected to various forms of abuse under Ben Ali.
Ounissi acknowledges that growing up under the wings of the political party had a strong impact on her political orientations. But she is also quick to note that today, her engagement with the political party is not simply an inherited decision.
Her long-running connection to the party gave her the time to inquire into her own values before choosing to become an active member of Ennahda, and this may explain why, until recently, Sayida was more committed to academia than to political action.
From research to political action
When Ounissi talks about her research, her face lights up and she acquires a certain spontaneity that is not always permitted in politics.
Before being asked to lead Ennahda’s electoral list for France Nord, then being elected as a deputy in the Tunisian Assembly of People’s Representatives in 2014 - in which she essentially represented Tunisians in the diaspora; her first job in politics - Sayida was doing a PhD in Paris. Her research, she explains, was centred upon on the implementation of social policies in Tunisia from the 1970s onwards.
Her decision to focus on the social policies of the state stemmed from what she perceived, in the aftermath of the revolution, to be a high dependence of Tunisian citizens on the public services provided by the state.
“Despite the revolution, despite [having] a very transitory government… Tunisians remained deeply convinced of the continuity of the state,” she explains. “[People] were lining up in front of public administration offices to be reimbursed for their medical expenses. [They did not believe] that the public services and administration would be affected by any type of political instability.”
Sayida believes that this has important implications for the future of Tunisia.
“It’s amazing to see this very strong relationship between the state and citizens,” she says. “It is, in some ways, an unhealthy relationship, because it doesn’t help citizens to feel empowered and… [they forget] that there are other actors, beyond the state, who can impact their daily lives.”
Now, in her role as secretary of state for vocational training and entrepreneurship, she is faced with the task of trying to integrate these other actors, such as the private sector and civil society, into a viable national employment strategy.
But the political world is very different from the academic one, and Ounissi acknowledges that it is not always easy to convince the average Tunisian that it is in their interest to look beyond the state to solve their employment woes.
Often, she explains, the public is looking for simple answers. Perhaps, too, it is that no one – politicians included – realised how difficult the post-revolution situation was going to be.
Ready to redefine the role of the state
Ounissi’s assessment of the current political situation displays a remarkable maturity for someone who is still relatively new to the political game. Instead of viewing the sometimes-protracted consensus building process as an obstacle, she approaches the debate and deliberation inherent in the current transition period with great enthusiasm.
She mentions a recent bill on the elimination of gender-based violence, which received strong support from Ennahda and which is expected to pass before the end of 2016.
“[The bill] is a new occasion for us to redefine the limit of the state and how the state should actually protect women. And it’s not a private life question,” she insists. “The state is now being pushed to acknowledge that even if you [are violent towards women] behind closed doors, you are accountable to the rest of society for what you are doing because we are together paying the cost of your actions… in terms of insecurity, in terms of health, in terms of violence.”
'If you [are violent towards women] behind closed doors, you are accountable to the rest of society for what you are doing because we are together paying the cost of your actions…'
The need to redefine the role of the state also applies to economic matters. Since coming into office, Ouinissi has been involved in a number of negotiations with Tunisia’s major labour and trade unions, such the Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT).
While these unions are accustomed to defending actors who belong to public administration, Ounissi and her staff are now trying to include them in the development of a new framework for the protection of private sector workers’ rights.
The UGTT has been criticised for upholding an old and dysfunctional system. But Ouinissi says that despite what some people may say about the UGTT, it is a powerful bloc that still represents “the spirit and mind” of a lot of Tunisians in the workforce.
Her hope is that they, along with other trade unions, will be willing to collaborate on the restructuring of various sectors in the Tunisian economy.
“Until [Tunisia] enters a positive cycle of economic growth,” she says, “we all - [trade unions and private sector proponents included] – have to think about what we keep and what we put aside for now.”
On the changing face of Ennadha
In May 2016, Ennahda formally announced its decision to separate religion from politics. The party also adopted a new term - "Muslim Democrats" - representing a subtle but symbolic shift away from other Islamist parties.
The party also adopted a new term - "Muslim Democrats" - representing a subtle but symbolic shift away from other Islamist parties
The party received mixed reviews on the change. Many applauded the announcement as a progressive step for the reconciliation of Islam and democracy, while others voiced their concerns that it was simply a strategic move and that the party had yet to achieve real consensus from within.
Coming from a member of the party, what does it actually mean to be a Muslim Democrat?
Ouinissi wrote about this in January of this year, and has continued to reflect upon the question.
Firstly, she regards the recharacterisation of the party as a useful way to address accusations that Ennahda is a “foreign object imposed on Tunisian society,” with strong links to other political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Contrary to these suppositions, she says that Ennahda has to be understood in terms of its own national context and permitted to evolve according to Tunisia’s internal dynamics.
Ouinissi believes that Ennahda’s shifting rhetoric is not just a “now” strategic position. But she is also aware that a change in terminology does not imply a transformation. Now, the challenge for Ennahda is to concretely prove that there is no contradiction between being a moderate Islamic party and advocating a free, democratic system.
The challenge for Ennahda is to concretely prove that there is no contradiction between being a moderate Islamic party and advocating a free, democratic system
“The aim of all this, at the end of the day, is to address people’s needs. And you can only do this if you evaluate yourself in the same dynamic that [your] society does.”
Being a young woman in politics
Sayida counts herself as being lucky to work with a minister, Imed Hammami, who she says is very supportive of her role in the ministry and as a young woman in politics. That being said, her position has also enabled her to have a more global view of the challenges faced by women at different levels of Tunisian society, and this has made her comfortable with being outspoken about women’s rights.
“[As secretary of state], I now have a folder, in terms of public policies, which is really touching core problems that women are facing in terms of economic exclusion, violence against women, right to education and positions in their professional areas… so I am in a position where I can be more gender-oriented,” says Ounissi.
But her confidence and apparent ease in office does not mean that it has been easy. In fact, it is the contrary.
While people may want to view her success or the professional success of all women as proof that other women can do it, or that gender issues are no longer a major problem in the workplace, Ounissi says that this is false, and that more women need to speak up about the challenges they face.
More women need to speak up about the challenges they face
“We need more women to say that it’s not easy, and that [we are not] exceptions. It’s not because I’m a particularly brilliant woman that I got here. It’s also because there is a political choice and desire, which is, at the end of the day, coming from men [that got me here.]”
Despite the challenges, Ounissi has quickly managed to rise above overly simplistic characterisations that reduce her position in office to a strategic choice made by Ennahda’s older leadership. Her competencies and dedication to the democratic process heavily outweigh the identity-based conceptions that paint her as a young, Muslim, female politician picked up off the roster to facilitate Ennahda’s metamorphosis.
She may only be three months into office, but Sayida Ounissi has a vision, and she is ready to lead.