President Moncef Marzouki gave this exclusive interview to Globus Vision six days before the murder of Chokri Belaid, the leader of the opposition coalition the Popular Front. For 45 minutes, the President of the Republic of Tunisia spoke about his vision and his expectations for the new post-revolutionary Tunisia, a country plunged into political turmoil by the recent events that attempted to boycott the democratic consolidation started in January 2011 with the ousting of Dictator Zine Ben Ali.
In 1986, during the Bourguiba administration, your book ¨Let My Country Awaken¨ was prohibited and you had problems with the law. Twenty seven years later, has your country finally awoken?
Yes, of course. People sometimes say that the Tunisian revolution did not accomplish anything because they cannot see the economic development that took placce, but in fact Tunisia changed dramatically since January 14, 2011. The mindset changed dramatically. The Tunisians became citizens overnight, whereas before they were mere subjects who lived in fear. Fear of the secret police and fear of speaking their mind. And, suddenly, they became citizens.
That is the first dimension of the Tunisian revolution. The second is that, before, people like me were censured; we were not able to express ourselves. And, from one day to the next, the Tunisian people obtained all the democratic rights they thought they would never have, like the right to protest and to express themselves. So yes, the revolution brought about a shift in mindset and democratic freedoms, and now the other aspects like social justice and development need to follow suit, but those will take time.
What is your overview of the years of transition?
These last two years have been years of intense frustration because, while it is true that the revolution was centred around freedom and that it accomplished that, freedom is only the foundation for change. One realizes that it is more difficult to accomplish the rest, which is social and economic development. Unemployment has to be tackled; poverty continues to exist. It might appear as if there is more corruption now because, unfortunately, it has become clear that corruption is not linked to one or two families, but to the entire system. In this case, it is linked to a state that has to reconstruct itself and that has pledged to refrain from violent persecutions. Counterrevolutionary forces are still very much present and they have access to funding; therefore they invest much more money in perpetrating corruption.
So economic and social problems abound. The dictatorship tried to conceal them for over twenty years, which backfired because they blew up after the revolution. And since this is an interim administration and therefore a weak administration- all interim governments are weak because the electorate knows that they are temporary, it cannot implement in-depth reforms. The bureaucracy, the police, everybody is waiting for a permanent government to take charge. So this is a very frustrating situation, but at the same time, it is an extremely stimulating one because the country is at an early stage and all its systems are in reconstruction. The constitution is being drafted as we are speaking, so we are in the predicament that Gramsci eloquently described whereby the past has not died yet and the future has yet to be born. Because of that, it is a very difficult situation, but it is a very promising one as well.
Tunisia was also a pioneer of the Arab Spring, which made a notable difference compared to Syria or to Egypt. What is your opinion about the gradual dilution of the spirit of the Arab Spring in neighbouring countries?
I remember that Tunisia was always a leader at something. In the Arab world, the first constitution was passed in 1861 in Tunisia; the fist legal framework for the emancipation of women was also passed in Tunisia in 1956; the first human rights league and the first civil society movements were all in Tunisia. This has always been the case in Tunisia, because it is a new old country. The country has a history of three thousand years, it is an open-air museum, and therefore has a strong tradition of an active civil society.
It does not come as a surprise that the Arab Spring started here, because the fight for democracy and human rights was initiated in Tunisia in the 80s. It has been a three decade struggle, which I participated in and which I am very familiar with. The other countries might not have had the same conditions in terms of the fight for freedom, the involvement of women in society, which is very significant here, the proximity to Europe, the strong links with the West. That said, we feel somewhat responsible for what is happening in Syria, because, if we hadn’t started the movement, the Syrian people might not have rebelled. We set a precedent, but the conditions in Syria are different. Here, we were able to have a peaceful and democratic revolution thanks to our traditions, to the strong civil society, to the military that did not open fire on the people, to the homogeneity of the country. But the most noteworthy thing is the message that the Syrian people want to send, which is that the dictatorship will be taken down regardless of the price they have to pay for it. The price was not too high in Tunisia because it is a mature country; it was higher in Egypt, it is higher still in Syria, but the message that all Arab peoples are sending to dictators is that the age of dictatorship is over.
After a lifetime spent in the opposition and even in exile, you became the president of the first free republic in the Arab world. What drives you to keep going and what are you afraid of?
I realize that it is a great honour and a great responsibility to be the president. And people, after taking down the old regime that was characterized by arrogance, aloofness, narcissism, corruption, violence, and so on, want a new kind of head of state. I am trying to understand what people need and to respond to their needs. People now want a president that they feel is closer to them, that is not corrupt, that does not let his family take over all the power in the country, a president who governs based on consensus, who is not partisan to a single party or region. So for me, it is important to embody their hopes and to respond to these needs, which is not very difficult seeing how I come from a background of militancy for human rights; and how, for a long time, I was a barefoot doctor, like I like to call it, one who visited the poor neighbourhoods in Tunisia and then in France while in exile, working with the poor and with immigrants in Paris’ neighbourhoods. It is my natural inclination and I will not change or negate an environment that is familiar to me.
Right now, a source of fear is the fact that people’s expectations are too high. They want everything straightaway, they have become extremely exigent. And, when one is in power, one realizes that the exercise of power if frustrating because it always takes time to accomplish things due to resistance, bureaucracy, habit, various interests and the lack of resources.
Governing a country that is in the centre of attention of the international community and where the expectations are so high, where people are no longer afraid of anything is difficult.
You are governing a free Tunisia that started on a new path after it overturned the old regime. In what direction would you like the new Tunisia to head?
It’s very simple. I dream of a democratic and transparent Tunisia in the next five years. I am in favour of the Open government system and I want to send one of my counsellors to Estonia and to various Scandinavian countries to observe the functioning of those governments. I truly want Tunisia to become the first country in North Africa to have an Open government. What’s more, during the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Tunisia submitted itself to a peer evaluation whereby a group of heads of state observed the functioning of the government to ensure it was in line with democratic criteria.
Secondly, I dream of a Tunisia that is free from poverty. There are almost two and a half million Tunisians living in poverty, and I would like to develop programs to lift them out of it. And in order to accomplish that, I am relying a lot on Brazil’s and Latin America’s experience, on learning from them how to lift two and a half million people out of poverty.
I also dream of a Tunisia that takes a leap of faith into the 21st century, meaning that it develops new technologies, uses renewable energy sources and protects the environment.
And finally, Tunisia has the opportunity to belong to three different geographical, political and cultural regions: the Eastern Mediterranean, the Arab-Muslim and the African regions. Until now, we have not developed these three dimensions properly. Therefore, I would like to forge strong bonds with the West because we have much to learn from it, but I would also like to develop relations with the rest of Africa. During the 28-year Ben Ali regime, Tunisia basically did not have any relations with Sub-Saharan Africa, as the incumbent never set foot in any of the countries south of the desert. I have already been there three times, I participated in three African Summits, and I want to visit all of those countries. So I want to open up Tunisia to Africa and to the Maghreb, particularly to the Arab Maghreb Union.
These are the directions in which I would like Tunisia to advance.
I would like to ask you a question that I asked all the cabinet members we have interviewed thus far: if you were to choose one line to describe the new Tunisia, what would it be?
I would say it is a brotherly Tunisia. A brotherly and universalist country, because Tunisia is not an island, but rather an open and obviously free country. Freedom is what we missed the most in this country.
To conclude with, I would like to quote something you said “other countries see us as a laboratory for democracy.” What importance do you place on the country’s international communication campaigns to convey to the world the realities of the new Tunisia?
It might shock you to hear that I associate the word communication with the word manipulation. I am not very keen on communication because I am under the impression that it involves a lot of manipulation. I believe that one ought to do their job well, one ought to be who s/he is, one ought to be transparent. Beyond that, one cannot control the impression that others have of one. For instance, let’s look at the extent to which Tunisia’s image is being manipulated in a negative way. Certain extremists in the media, particularly in the French media, portray the country as a nation of Salafists and barbarians, as a country governed by Islamists, which is entirely false. It is a country governed by a coalition in which there are moderate Islamists and also seculars. We have extremists just like Germany has its extremists.
Therefore, I think that the way in which the country is portrayed in often not positive, but one cannot fight against that. The media will not choose to talk about the flights that are on time, but about planes that crash. I continue to think that the important thing is to do our job well and to try to stay true to our ideals, and the image that others have of us is beyond our control. But I would not do what a certain ambassador once suggested, which was to invest EUR 20 million in a communication campaign to improve Tunisia’s image in France. To that request, I replied that I would rather use that money to create jobs for students. The French can think what they want about Tunisia. That is not my concern.Si vous désirez lire cette interview en français, cliquez ici.
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