Jebali emerged from jail in 2006 with a new approach that blended traditional Islamist political thought with a contemporary philosophy of pragmatism.
He proceeded to play a key role in the emergence of a new political powerhouse in Tunisia, which in turn ushered political Islam into a new world: that of Islamist pragmatism.
This he achieved by beginning to flex his muscles from the very outset of the January 14 revolution, after years in the shadows or behind bars, under the regime of deposed president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Al-Nahda’s Machiavelli soon emerged as chief minister to its ‘Prince,’ Rached Ghannouchi, when he returned from exile to find himself leading the most potent political force in Tunisia since the days of former president Habib Bourguiba.
Ghannouchi arrived back from London to find that the group had gotten its act together and skillfully ridden the wave of revolution, enabling the exiled leaders to return to make their mark on the new political scene and bring the Islamists to center-stage.
Pragmatism was the hallmark of the strategy pursued by Jebali, after he opted to dispense with clerical attire in favor of Western-style suits and neckties.
He proclaimed the emergence of a new “dawn” as al-Nahda emerged as the country’s new political giant, with over 40 percent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly and ultimate control over decision-making.
Jebali went so far as to speak of a “Sixth Caliphate” taking shape in the modern age.
A native of the coastal town of Sousse, 130kms from the capital Tunis, Jebali is a certified engineer who earned his masters’ degree in Paris.
His name first surfaced in the stagnant pond of Tunisian politics in 1981, when the senior leaders of the Islamic Tendency Movement – as it was then called – were jailed.
The movement’s consultative council elected Jebali as its acting leader, and he assumed that responsibility during the darkest days of modern Tunisian history in the early 1980s.
Jebali may be credited with enabling the movement to become more politically engaged during that period. In 1984, the movement’s leaders were freed.
But in 1987 they were arrested again, and Jebali returned to the forefront of the movement’s affairs, leading its political struggle. He eventually fled to Spain as a political refugee.
Jebali returned to Tunisia after Ben Ali’s coup against Bourguiba, and established a newspaper to speak on behalf of the Islamists called al-Fajr (The Dawn).
He was its editor until 1992, when he was arrested and sentenced to 17 years in prison by a military court. He spent ten of those in solitary confinement.
He was released in 2006, and took charge of the ‘New al-Nahda’ which – thanks to the popular revolution which overthrew Ben Ali – would within a mere five years come to govern Tunisia. .
Even before Ben Ali’s downfall, al-Nahda’s Machiavelli had his connections and contacts. WikiLeaks cables showed that the American embassy consulted him about the strength of the Islamists in Tunisia, when it was thought that Ben Ali might be terminally ill.
The same happened last May, when Jebali unexpectedly paid a visit to Washington for discussions with US officials.
He assured them that after the Constituent Assembly elections, al-Nahda would be willing to govern in keeping with Washington’s strictures, and in line with the experience of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party.
‘The Engineer’ has a vision for using ‘modern Islam’ as a means of assuming political control. The strategy is clear. In his own words, “for every occasion there is a message.”
Thus “we speak to the other in the language of the other:…we use the principles of secularism to counter the secularists,” while “we present the general public with the principles of Islam,” as “what is prohibited is clear, and what is permitted is clear.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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