On Dec. 17, 2010 a young Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, the victim of eternal police and government harassment, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. The self-immolation triggered protests that quickly spread across the country. Suddenly the Tunisian revolution – and the Arab Spring – were in motion.
An ocean away, in Washington, Mustapha Kamel Nabli, a Tunisian-born senior World Bank economist, found himself gripped by the uprising, though it was still too early to predict it would end the career of president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian dictator who had once employed him.
Mr. Nabli was at a World Bank conference in Bogota, Colombia, on Jan. 14, 2011, when he learned that Mr. Ben Ali and his family that very day had packed their planes with treasure and fled to Saudi Arabia. “I became very restless,” he says. “So I told my wife that we are going to leave tomorrow for Tunisia. It was important for me to see what was going on.”
The next day he and his wife, Fatiha, were back in Washington, getting ready for their overseas flight. He says: “On the 15th, in the evening, I was packing and I got a phone call from the Prime Minister, who said ‘I would like you to come back and do what you can.’ I said I would be happy to contribute. I didn’t hesitate for a second.”
Only two days later, Mr. Nabli was the new Governor of Tunisia’s central bank, making him the first truly independent central bank governor of an Arab Spring country, a status unchanged today as Libya and Egypt struggle to form stable democratic governments and Syria moves ever closer to civil war.
At the time, Tunisia was in political and economic chaos. The man who begged him return to Tunisia, Mohamed Ghannouchi, was prime minister on Jan. 14th, president for a few hours on the 15th, then prime minister again until he was replaced a month later. The rising body count – about 300 Tunisians were killed in the uprising – had sent the economy to the brink of destruction. Investors had fled, shops closed, tourists disappeared and Tunisians, fearing financial mayhem, had yanked funds from the banks.
It was up to Mr. Nabli and a few other prominent Tunisians living abroad to return home to help douse the political and economic flames. They abandoned high-paying careers, taking top jobs at the central bank and the finance, commerce and tourism departments, among others. “All of them deserve a lot of credit,” says an ambassador in Tunis who did not want to be identified. “They did it out of a sense of national duty. They were driven by a desire not to see their country collapse so it could get to October’s democratic elections.”
It is 11:30 in the morning and we are on the seventh floor of the modern headquarters of the Banque Centrale de Tunisie – French is spoken by virtually everyone in this former French colony – just beyond Tunis’s old centre. It is too early for lunch so Asma Ghribi, a young Tunisian journalist whom I hired to set up interviews and interpret Arabic, and I arrive with a box of delicate little cakes.
Finding them was quite an adventure. Ms. Ghribi and I plied the streets around the central bank before the interview and found no suitable patisserie. In near panic as our appointment approached, we hailed a taxi driver to take us to a traditional patisserie famed for its baking, then sped back to the bank. When we placed the cake box on his office table, Mr. Nabli gave it a curious look, then devoted his attention to us.
Mr. Nabli looks the part. He is 64, fairly tall by Tunisian standards, has thinning grey and white hair and is dressed in a conservative blue suit. He speaks English (and French and Arabic) softly and simply – there is no annoying economist jargon. He and his wife are happy to be “home” after 14 years in Washington, where he was regional chief economist within the World Bank’s MENA (Middle East and North Africa) group.
Mr. Nabli was born in the southern Tunisian coastal town of Teboulba in 1948, the son of peasant landowners who, thanks to government support, were able to send their son to school. He studied some economics in secondary school and yearned to be a writer (“I turned out to be a very bad writer”). After attending the University of Tunis, he went to the University of California, at Los Angeles, where he earned Master’s and PhD degrees in economics.