Doha, Asharq Al-Awsat—Tunisia began its transition to democracy following the peaceful overthrow of President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali in January 2011. Shortly afterwards, a constituent assembly was elected to write a new constitution, and the moderate Islamist Ennahda movement headed the government after agreeing to share power with its secular rivals.
However, this transition has been far from straightforward. Disputes have delayed the drafting of the constitution and the Tunisian government has failed to alleviate the country’s problems with unemployment and poverty. As a result, many Tunisians have grown impatient and unrest has been a frequent feature. The beginning of 2013 has been particularly testing for the North African state, with prominent opposition leader Chokri Belaid being assassinated in February, and Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigning later the same month.
Asharq Al-Awsat met with Tunsian President Moncef Marzouki on the sidelines of this week’s Arab League summit meeting in Doha. In a frank interview, Marzouki gave his assessment of Tunisia’s current state of affairs and the challenges it is facing. The president also touched on the prominent issues currently occupying the Arab region at large, including Palestinian reconciliation and the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Can you explain what point Tunisia is at now? Do you expect further progress in terms of resolving fundamental issues in the transition period?
Moncef Marzouki: The political situation is becoming clearer after having reached a broad consensus to accelerate the completion of the draft constitution within the next two months, in other words before June. It has also been agreed that elections will take place between October and November, and now, after I return to Tunisia, we will complete consultations with other political parties to facilitate the work of the constituent assembly. Thus, politically, we can say things are clearer; we have emerged out of the bottleneck.
In terms of the economy, which stalled in 2011, it has now begun to operate at a robust pace. The security situation is almost under control, so we can say that so far we have weathered the major storms of the region. We have faced serious crises—and these crises almost eliminated the chances of a democratic transition—but the Tunisian ship has proven it is able to withstand storms. There could be more storms to come, which we cannot predict, but we have gained a lot of experience, first and foremost in sailing in stormy seas, and the ship has shown it is able to float even on high waves.
Q: With regards to security challenges, the danger posed by Libya’s instablity, and the covert interference targeting the security and stability of Tunisia, how do you plan to deal with these problems?
First of all, we are confident that there is no popular mobility behind any of these things; they are isolated episodes. For those that imagine there is a revolution within the revolution, this is not the case because the Tunisian uprising broke out due to corruption, injustice, the suppression of freedom and poverty. Now there is no injustice or suppression of freedom, and although there is still poverty, this alone is not enough to spark another revolution, because even the poor know that we are working night and day. We acknowledge that there are protests here and there, but this cannot serve as the nucleus of a revolution within a revolution, as some are planning.
As for the border region with Libya, its influence is sizable and rising day by day. However, the Tunisian army is professional and capable of controlling the situation. We do not deny that in the beginning, the security establishment was a weak point because it was targeted after the revolution and the majority of its apparatuses paid the price for mistakes committed by some individuals. Now, these apparatuses seem to be regaining their strength and are becoming more secure, and thus they are able to control the current situation. There remain some isolated events here and there, but this is the fate of any democratic country. Tunisia cannot demand absolute adherence, just as France, America or any other democratic country cannot either.
Q: Would you expect another revolution in Tunisia if an Islamist regime tried to control the triangle of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya?
Tunisia does not have an Islamist regime, and such talk is ignorant. Tunisia has a coalition regime and a secular president, with a president of the constituent assembly as well. The government, in terms of structure, is Islamist-led, but only within the wider framework of partnership. Democracy and human rights are the principle foundations, and thus Tunisia is not governed by an Islamist regime and never will be. It is governed by a coalition regime in which the Islamists play a big role.
Q: What did the Arab summit in Doha offer Tunisia, and what were the results of meetings on the sidelines with other Arab leaders?
Basically, meetings and conversations on the sidelines were the most important parts of the summit. The results of my conversations with other Arab leaders were very positive. In terms of relations with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, the Gulf states are determined to invest in Tunisia because of high profit margins and strong partnership opportunities. In our talks with our Palestinian brothers, we pushed strongly for Palestinian reconciliation and we asked for Tunisia to participate in the mini-summit due to be held in Egypt. Likewise, we will also participate in the delegation of the Arab initiative committee that will go to Washington. I also intend to visit Palestine within the framework of Palestinian reconciliation.
Q: Will you visit Ramallah and the Gaza Strip?
Certainly, I will visit both Ramallah and the Gaza Strip.
Q: What about coordination with the countries of the Arab Maghreb?
We took the opportunity to meet with our brothers from Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania at the summit.
Q: During the Arab summit, you also met with the secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil El-Araby. Did you agree on certain proposals?
Indeed, I proposed the possibility of Tunisia’s participation in the Arab peacekeeping forces because we are convinced that the Syrian dictator will fall and we have established ties with the Syrian National Coalition.
Q: When you talk about Arab peacekeepers, what do you mean exactly? Are you talking about this in the framework of a UN Security Council resolution?
I mean that now we must be thinking about the phase after the fall of the Syrian regime, and in this regard we should not involve foreign [non-Arab League member state] troops.
Q: What is the next step after giving a seat to the Syrian National Coalition at the Arab League?
Syria’s seat at the UN should now be given to the Syrian National Coalition, in order to completely renounce the legitimacy of the criminal Assad regime. Never in modern Arab history has someone destroyed his people with bombs without the slightest moral deterrent, and thus this regime is no longer legitimate. Now we must think of the future transitional phase, which will come sooner or later. This stage will be difficult, and we will help the Syrian people and offer them experience so they can learn from our mistakes and not repeat them.