By Hamadi Redissi
Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, Al-Masira wal Massar (My Life, My Itinerary), Tunis, Kalimât ‘abira, 2022
A desire for politics animates Al-Masira wal Massar. Its author Néjib Chebbi had only one life, completely devoted to politics. He even says the embarrassment he feels when talking about something else, his privacy and his family. Bios politics is the Greek word for a political life. It has two parts, praxis (or action) and lexis, speech (or theoretical statement), precisely the two parts of the book: “My life” (hayati) and theoretical “approaches” (muqarabat). The book is a mine of information. It is full of posts. Hundreds of names appear in this dense text, which has the contemporary history of Tunisia as a background from the sixties of the 20th century to the present day. The story is captivating, a real epic when the curriculum vitae of most political actors is insignificant.
Salah ben Youssef attends the ceremony for his circumcision and his two brothers and offers them gold rings. His mother tells him about the accidents of the Palestinians. His father was one of the notables of the “Commission of Forty”, created by the neo-detour after World War II. At the age of eleven, on June 1, 1955, the boy returned halfway through the route that led him from Ariana (residence) to La Goulette in jubilation, awaiting the return of Bourguiba. In the summer of 1956, he took part in street demonstrations in Libya (where his Youssefist father had taken refuge) in support of the nationalization of the Suez Canal. “The voice of Algeria” gives him news from the front, from 11 to 17 years. Events that nurture the love of “the fatherland, of freedom” and the values of “courage and sacrifice,” he says. Courage he never lacked. In 1962, he experienced his baptism of fire. He was checked at the age of 18 by police while shouting Arab nationalist slogans when Nasser came to Bizerte after French soldiers evacuated the city. Néjib landed in Paris in 1963. Out of nasserist sensitivity, he frequented Marxist and perspective circles, but ended up joining the Baath party. He met Khmaïs Chammari at the Association of Muslim Students of North Africa ”(AEMNA, an anti-colonial organization founded in 1927 by Messali Haj). Too preoccupied with the struggle to devote himself to studies, he returned to Tunis. He was arrested on December 15, 1966 during the first student demonstrations (with Chammari, Salah Zghidi, Aziz Krichène…); and then again on March 23, 1968 in the wake of the “Ben Janet Trial” (named after the left-wing activist arrested during protests against the 1967 defeat of the Arab armies). He has his first experience with torture. In 1969, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison in the great trial against Marxists and perspectives. From the depths of his cell, he learns about the Ba’athist military coup in Iraq. He refuses to support it. He’s leaving the party. Néjib Chebbi feels free. Following the ouster of Ahmed Ben Salah of Bourguiba, a presidential pardon was declared on March 20, 1970. He was appointed to live in Béja and was helped to cross Algerian borders illegally (1971). It was the year of the famous congress in Korba (where the minority Destourians imposed a leadership subordinate to the PSD, Destourian Socialist Party). Radicalized, Néjib joins the Marxist group al-Amel Tounsi, an offshoot of the Perspectives movement. The debate: proletarian revolution or national and democratic revolution? An Arab nation or particular nations? Néjib will be part of the governing body until 1980. He goes all the way. He visited China (1974) and learned to handle weapons under the command of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He returned under false identity to Tunisia in 1977. He lived in hiding until 1981. He returned to Paris. And soon after, he legally returned to the country on July 27, 1981, thanks to a “political opening” that Bourguiba decided in early April during the PSD’s extraordinary congress. From trial to trial, he will have accumulated more than 32 years in prison. But the warrior is not ready to lay down his weapons. He leaves the extreme left party, al-Amel Tounsi. After many negotiations, he created the PDP (the Progressive Democratic Party). And he gets permission to publish the magazine Al-Mawqef. It is a turning point. Néjib is a new man, a Social Democrat, willing to understand, ready to serve his country. He resumed law school headlong. But he is not at the end of his troubles. He was again brought before the court for “constitution of an illegal association”, following the PDP’s condemnation of the first arrests of the Islamists in 1986. This is the confrontation. He tells the story of the trial against the Islamists and the release of Chammari and Habib Achour, jailed for three days. Ben Ali takes power.
A political intellectual
Néjib is one of the few political intellectuals in this country. He knows his classics. He read the left-wing thinkers Marx, Franz Fanon, Guevara and Castro, the philosophers, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Theorists of radical Islam (from Mawdoudi to Ghannouchi) have no mystery to him. Arab nationalist thought, he learned it very young. He personally knows the heralds. He liked to discover the history of Tunisia. I saw him at the Institute for Research on the Contemporary Maghreb (IRMC) for years reading theorists on democratic transition, at a time when the prospect of political change was a dream. Each time he is defeated, the outraged intellectual returns to read, the last time between 2014 and 2019, following the victory of the Béji Caïd Essebsi clan in the election. He lists his readings. His relationship with Bourguiba is one of the most complicated. He discusses this in detail in Part II. Néjib is a loyal opponent. It recognizes the value of man, the liberator, the reformer, and the modernizer. At the death of zaïm, he pays tribute to him one last tribute. He admits to being bourgeois by the “method.” [d’action] and not by fidelity [à la personne] “. Chapter two in the second part on the” Arabic question “is very rich. The author knows his subject. He picks up the story, from Nahdha Syro-Lebanese in the 19th century to Arab nationalist ideology that passed through the “Arab uprising” (1916) and the colonial effect. He draws the necessary lessons from this: Only democracy is capable of realizing the dream of a united Arab world. The third chapter in Part Two on political Islam is also troublesome. Néjib frequently frequents the Islamists. The author admits that political Islam has evolved without “clearly breaking” with its original driving force and its dogmatic vision. He has always vehemently rejected the possibility of extermination (get rid of the Islamists by all means). And he sees no choice but the pressure that the secularist current must constantly exert to force political Islam to make more concessions. He does not rule out going with them. It is done. And we have every right to blame him heavily.
He used himself without counting. Pragmatically, he often changed positions. He never stopped discussing, arguing right or wrong about the essentials and even about trivial things. This has given him tenacious enmities, as numerous as infallible friendships. During the Ben Ali era, Néjib Chebbi was no longer an outcast. He signed the National Covenant (November 7, 1988). He has contacts with Ben Ali. A gentleman, he retains great (and mutual) respect for Mohamed Charfi despite his fierce opposition to the reform implemented by the Minister (1989). And I remember I was tough on him. Ben Ali has reconciled all opponents in the match. In 1992, Néjib Chebbi began crossing the desert. It lasts twenty years. After oppressing the Islamists, Ben Ali attacks human rights defenders, lawyers and judges. In return, Néjib Chebbi’s party will be deprived of parliament, unlike the satellite parties for which Ben Ali generously provides a few seats (in 1994, in 1999, in 2004 and in 2009). And Néjib himself will be banned from participating in the presidential election of legal tricks that were aimed at him personally. It had no bearing on his determination. From 2005 to 2007, Islamists and secularists met to adopt a range of common positions on political and social issues at the initiative of Néjib. In 2008, the mining area revolted. The man could not miss the call. Suddenly the revolution, to use the title of the book by Fethi Benslama (Denoël, 2011). And a great role will be played between the rationalists and the intuitive, the reformists and the revolutionaries. Néjib is a cerebral and a reformist. He read Transition from authoritarian rule by Odonnel and Schmitter, The Bible on Post-Authoritarian Transitions. He knows that the transition is taking place within the power between “hard liners” (supporters of oppression) and “soft liners” willing to understand. Néjib accepts the outstretched hand. He joins the Ghannouchi government. During his short stay he was not unworthy. But the trick of the story decided something else: The people do not want a negotiated transition. He’s making the revolution. Néjib starts a new phase in his career. He participated in all the sequences, from the election from 2011 to 2019. He created the Republican Party, which went into swing. He resigned in 2014. He went back to reading, the ultimate getaway. But the desire for politics is stronger. Néjib fails the Amal party. Confused, he wonders if he is not this Sisyphus who is bound to raise the cliff to the top of the mountain forever. But if the drama is individual, the tragedy is collective: it is an entire country doomed to constantly fight the dictatorship with the same protagonists, what’s more! Albert Camus’ epic version fits the character: To decide to experience the punishment that fate inflicts as a free act: To choose to raise the rock without the prospect of salvation makes man master of his own destiny.