Shortly thereafter, he became chairman of the Tunis Stock Exchange. Between 1990 and 1995, he served as minister of economic development and minister of planning and regional development in the Ben Ali government. The two men have not talked since then, which is a good thing for Mr. Nabli’s image, given the hatred for the dictator whose piracy nearly bled the country white. Mr. Nabli says he quit “because it became clear to me that the regime was going in the wrong direction in terms of corruption, increasing nepotism, and authoritarian attitudes and repression.”
When Mr. Nabli started his central bank job three days after Mr. Ben Ali’s exodus, the political revolution seemed on the verge of being upstaged by financial and economic collapse. He swung into action. “The country was in turmoil,” he says. “The first few days were violent. The big challenge for a central bank was to ensure the payments system continued to work.”
The banks were pumped full of liquidity and paper money to meet a sudden demand to convert deposits into cash. The central bank made sure the international payment system kept functioning. Maintaining the Tunisian dinar’s existing ties to the euro, dollar and yen prevented the currency from imploding. Mr. Nabli’s nightmare scenario – a run on the banks – never happened. “If we had had a run on the banks, we would have had a real, real problem,” he says.
By the spring, the financial system was pretty much intact. The next job? Rebuilding the central bank itself.
When Mr. Nabli arrived, the computer systems were primitive and Internet and e-mail was restricted. “Use of e-mail was not generalized,” he says. “I used to get tons of daily reports on paper.”
The language of international finance and economics – English – had to be taught to the bank’s senior employees. Experts in bank supervision and reserves and currency management had to be hired. Above all, Mr. Nabli had to ensure that the bank’s independence was preserved.
He has fought off two challenges to his professional freedom from the Islamist government of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali. The first came last October, when the new government (read: the Prime Minister) wanted sole power in appointing the central bank governor. The proposal triggered a national debate, which went in Mr. Nabli’s favour. Now the governor can only be hired, or fired, with the approval of the government, the president (head of state) and the national assembly.
The second challenge came in early April, when the government tried to give itself a role in the monetary policy game. Mr. Nabli explained to the politicians that the central bank is better equipped to deal with managing inflation and the cost of money. He appears to have won the debate.
Central bank independence, he argued, is the key to building confidence in Tunisia’s democracy and the economy. To illustrate his point, he tells the story of how Mr. Ben Ali hijacked bank supervision to enrich himself and his extended family, which includes his brother in law Belhassen Trabelsi, now holed up in Montreal, who was convicted in absentia by a Tunisian court of plundering the state treasury.
Mr. Ben Ali stuffed the central bank and the public and private banks with friends, all the better to channel favourable loans to family ventures. “What it meant for Ben Ali and the family was that it gave them easier access to credit, to get loans from banks, to get preferential treatment,” Mr. Nabli says. “By the end of 2010, there was 3-billion dinars [$2-billion Canadian]of debt owed by the family to the banking system. The amount had doubled every year between 2008 and 2010.”
About an hour after we started, Mr. Nabli sends for plates and cutlery for the cakes. We wait and wait; evidently such items are in short supply on the Governor’s floor. Finally, we all get up to leave – everyone is late for their next appointment. As he eyes the untouched sweets, Mr. Nabli laughs. “I’ve never been presented with gifts from journalists before,” he says.
Born 1948 in Teboulba, Tunisia.
Graduated with Master’s and PhD degrees in economics from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Spent 14 years, until 2011, in Washington as the World Bank’s chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa.
Wife Fatiha is Tunisian. They have no children.
Worked for former Tunisian strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali as minister of economic development and minister of planning and regional development from 1990 to 1995.
He and Fatiha are happy to be out of Washington: “The big problem in Washington was that it was cosmopolitan. There is a lot of turnover. You’re losing friends all the time and it becomes tiring.”
“I am an avid reader of books, especially history and science.”