Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—Having served in various UN roles, most notably as the secretary-general’s representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and as the Tunisian ambassador to the UN, Kamel Morjane’s name is currently being bandied about as a possible replacement to former UN–Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.
But in this exclusive interview, Morjane tells Asharq Al-Awsat he intends to run for the presidency of Tunisia in elections planned for later this year.
Having served as foreign minister from 2005–2011 under ousted president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, after the 2011 protests he formed the Al-Moubadara (L’initiative) Party—one of several to emerge from Ben Ali’s now-banned Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).
Asharq Al-Awsat: Tunisians disagree about what happened on January 14, 2011: Some see it as an unprecedented revolution, while others see it as merely a social uprising. How do you interpret those events?
Kamel Morjane: The truth is that I did not expect a revolution of this magnitude in Tunisia. I supported the idea to make some changes in the form and direction of our governance, because the social and economic reality was completely different than it was in Libya, Syria or Egypt. I was convinced that it would be difficult to continue to govern in the same way, particularly in relation to justice and human rights.
Q: Are we to understand from what you’re saying that the social conditions in Tunisia were good?
We shouldn’t deny the great efforts expended by the governments preceding the revolution, but it’s too early for a scientific, objective assessment of the revolution independent of the negative emotions and feelings. Tunisia still had many advantages in terms of its infrastructure, education, health care and services for the poor.
Q: So, in light of this, do you plan to run for the presidency in the upcoming elections?
I do not deny my thoughts of running in the coming presidential elections, as the issue has been proposed within the Initiative Party, which was established after the revolution. However, I will make the final decision according to the nation’s interests. I want to be useful in the space that I occupy, and I want to develop a deeper understanding of the political map so that I can familiarize myself with the parties that I’d be working with. This is useful under any circumstances—an action removed from political calculations.
Q: How do you envision the role of the next president?
I think that the role of the next Tunisian president will mainly be built on a compromise, but apart from this I am eager to become a father to all Tunisians. If I am able to win the presidency, I would not be a “president” in the old sense of the word, a person who decides and implements, because the decisions will be shared. The political situation after January 14 will never be the same.
Q: What are the difficulties that come with being president, in your opinion?
There are personal difficulties involved with the role of the president. Some personal matters can be waived, so that the president can transcend the presidency in the traditional sense. There are objective difficulties surrounding the experience, as well as the need to learn from the past so as not to repeat experiences that have already taken place, whether in Tunisia or abroad.
Q: Is that a veiled criticism of the current Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki?
I am not criticizing Moncef Marzouki, as he is new to power and governance.
Q: Whatever your current political vision, you belonged to the old system of governance. How can you overcome this obstacle today?
I do not deny this fact, but as I said, the situation changed after January 14 and will never be the same. It has also altered relations between the political leaders of Tunisia, which we noticed through our interactions with various political parties. After straying from normal interactions during the time of the revolution, today we meet and discuss the country’s future. Many politicians feel that a return to the past is not in the interest of any political party, and we must now look to the future.
This does not take into account some political actors’ fears of the possibility of revolution and a return of the old regime through a restoration of its former supporters to the forefront of politics. It is difficult to return to the past, and this was noted in the statements of those who returned to the forefront of political action.
Q: But you announced your alliance with Nidaa Tounes, which has been somewhat welcoming of former regime figures . . .
The Initiative, which I head, does not differ from Nidaa Tounes, led by Beji Caid Essebsi, in terms of its goals and vision. This is a strategic decision we made after an extended debate within the Initiative’s national office.
Q: How do you explain your decision to join Nidaa Tounes and your reluctance to join the Constitutional Movement Party founded and led by Hamed Karoui?
I think that Karoui has not made a serious attempt to form a strong political front, instead he [only] formed [yet one more] political party to be added to the list of existing parties. I do not deny that communication was exchanged with Karoui’s party, but it did not last long. Perhaps we will once again exchange counsel and coordinate with each other on political issues. However, there is no possibility of integration with the Constitutional Movement Party led by Karoui at present.
Q: How do you view the map of political parties in Tunisia? Do you expect a radical change in the political sphere?
A significant change on the political map of the country will not take place. With its social weight, the Ennahda movement will come in first or second. A sifting of political parties will take place following the elections, and those that enjoy real support among Tunisians will survive.
Q: You speak with great confidence about the possibility of Ennahda winning the elections once again. Did you expect their victory in 2011?
I did expect Ennahda’s victory in the 2011 elections, because I think that their supporters realize the magnitude of the suffering and difficult circumstances they underwent. We must be grateful that these historic leaders were recognized. It must also be recognized that the Ennahda movement is united and has not shied away from political work despite having been banned prior to January 14. Because of this, it was not difficult for the party to become involved once again in political life and revive its formerly hidden infrastructure.
Compared to the rest of the political parties, we know that Ennahda enjoys great popularity and material potential. On the other hand, I was surprised at the weakness of other political parties. Several leaders active before the revolution held great political weight, but the elections revealed their flaws.
Q: Does this objective reading of the size Ennahda’s support base play a role in the Initiative’s support for the Constituent Assembly?
No, never. We made the decision to support the government initially because we do not want to play the role of the destructive opposition. We wanted to show our intention to build and honestly express our sincere goodwill, moving away from the mentality of exclusion. Many supporters of the former regime understood this lesson well. I do not agree with those who make decisions on an ideological basis. Tunisia’s interests are what govern our relations today.
Q: Do you support the decision to ban the RCD, Ben Ali’s party?
Personally, I opposed this decision because it was not legal, and also because dissolving the RCD will not solve the problem. I think that maintaining an enemy that you know and whose plans you understand is better than venturing into the unknown.
But Tunisians today fear a religious state as well as the danger of a return to the dissolved RDC and, thus, dictatorship.
Q: What do you anticipate in terms of developments in this arena?
We are with the civil, modern option, and we call on the Islamist Ennahda movement to move toward final acceptance of the civil option.
Q: Could we just speak of your nomination for the post of Special Envoy of the United Nations to Syria. Is there any news regarding this proposal?
My name was mentioned among several candidates for this arduous humanitarian mission. The United Nations contacted me, and it seems as though the secretary-general has a list of possible candidates for the position. However, nothing has been decided officially.
If this happened, it would certainly be a great honor for me personally as well as for Tunisia. I worked with the United Nations for 27 years and started from the lowest rung on the ladder before eventually rising to the top. I spent 15 years of my service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But there is one point that still concerns me, namely reconciling the interests of the Initiative Party that I lead, Tunisia’s national interest, and this arduous humanitarian task. In any case I did not request the position, and if officially offered I will state my decision.
Q: Do you not view the decision to cut diplomatic relations between Tunisia and the Syrian regime as an obstacle complicating your humanitarian mission should you be chosen by the United Nations?
I have not taken any stance on what is happening in Syria and I criticized the Tunisian officials who made that decision in haste. It deprives Tunisia the chance to play a role in helping Syria and the United Nations resolve political issues. However, this decision will not affect my candidacy for the position because I would be a representative of the secretary-general of the United Nations, not of Tunisia. This nomination is a great honor for me, and Syria is a country very dear to us, thus if it is possible to offer assistance we will not shy away from the opportunity.
Q: Going back to 2011: If you were convinced of the need for political change from within the system before the protests, what prevented you from working towards it, given your proximity to former Tunisian president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali?
It was difficult to present policy suggestions under Ben Ali. With the composition of the military and the security [services] of the former president, there was a strict precision imposed on his meetings. We were not allowed to address topics that had not been specifically allocated time in that session. Otherwise, I did not see him outside of official working hours. Over the course of five and a half years working between the foreign and defense ministries, there were perhaps only one or two chances to sit and meet with him.
Q: During the last years of Ben Ali’s rule, it was rumored that you would be his successor . . .
It’s true that this proposition was on the table, and I did have a certain precedence among politicians. I had gained a lot of experience in politics as well as humanitarian work abroad, and I don’t deny that I had and continue to have a good relationship with the US administration. They were also, it seemed, more content with me on a personal level, given their greater knowledge of me over other Tunisian politicians. But I want to emphasize that I was not more connected to any specific political party or country over another. In fact, I am proud of other parties’ platforms, because they helped save Tunisia.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about how Ben Ali’s government worked?
He liked discipline, and work sessions on government activities were allocated no more than half an hour. He had a large number of political appointments on his desk, but we were never allowed to address topics that were outside the jurisdiction of the ministry [we led]. I personally had a good relationship of mutual respect with Ben Ali, but he did not encourage me to deal with any political issues.
Q: During your time at the foreign ministry, did you ever sense that Western forces were actively looking for a way to influence political change in Tunisia?
I don’t deny that the Western world was looking for a way to effect change from within Arab regimes, but what happened in Tunisia, as the birthplace of the Arab Spring, was a surprise, which I personally do not yet fully comprehend.
Q: Is this a personal position, or did Ben Ali’s regime react similarly when the alarm bells went off because of the country’s political situation?
Ben Ali was not expecting a revolution like those seen in the Arab world, evidenced by the fact that he spent his end-of-year vacation in an Arab state. But I think he felt threatened in the final days of the regime. It was completely unexpected that the revolution happened in the beginning of 2011. Perhaps he was dealing with it in the same way as the mining basin incident of 2008, which died down after the Tunisian army intervened.
Q: Did you have private communications with President Ben Ali on January 14?
Actually, I was in communication with him throughout the day. He called me in the morning about a statement I made for a French radio station about forming a national unity government. He told me he supported the idea of a coalition government, in the sense that all political currents would be represented in the government. That was the only observation he presented to me.
Around 11 that morning, he called me again for more information about something he had seen in a magazine. There was an impression that the state was running normally despite the thousands of protesters who had come down to Avenue Habib Bourguiba. He called again around 2:30 in the afternoon, and I told him that things were unusual. Security had withdrawn from the vicinity of the foreign ministry. He told me, and I quote, “This is a dangerous matter. I will handle it.” And that was the last I heard from him.
Q: Did you and your colleagues at the foreign ministry find anything about the events unusual?
I was following the events, but around 1 o’clock in the afternoon I was shocked at when the foreign ministry no longer had security guards. To this day, we still don’t know how the reason that happened. So I immediately called four individuals: Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa, Defense Minister Ridha Grira, Head of Military in the Defense Ministry Gen. Rachid Ammar, and Director of Presidential Security Gen. Ali Asserati. I asked them to provide security to the government ministries. About an hour later, Gen. Ammar, who had worked with me at the Defense Ministry, surrounded the ministry with tanks and barbed wire. I also asked to bring my family with me to the foreign ministry after the state of emergency was declared, and we spent the night of January 14 inside the ministry building.
Q: You seem uncertain about how to characterize these events . . .
That’s right. On the one hand, I would call it a revolution, but on the other hand, I don’t think that classification is correct. In any case, what happened in Tunisia was a turning point in its history. And this requires a different way of thinking and acting. We have to read the new circumstances in a way that breaks with the past, whatever the perspectives of politicians and intellectuals.
We have to recognize that what happened was something big, a political earthquake, and in spite of the negative connotations of an “earthquake” and the destruction it leaves, we now look forward to rebuilding what was destroyed. We must look with a different perspective at a system of development for Tunisia, at issues of freedoms, development and work, with a focus on development as a whole and with support for local democracy and with partnership between the private and public sectors. Furthermore, the political changes in Tunisia will make us remember that our priority is maintaining national unity and make us pay attention to the role of the next generation in the promoting development projects.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.