London, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat Tunisian Interior Minister Ali Al-Areed, discusses the current security situation in Tunisia, his country’s fight against corruption and extremism and the role of the media in politicizing events.
The following is the full interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your general assessment of the security situation in Tunisia today?
[Al-Areed] In general, it has been progressing for many months, especially since the revolution. However, some incidents get huge media coverage, which makes some think that the security situation has stopped progressing, or is even deteriorating. The fact is that the security organization is achieving continuous progress in imposing the law. With regard to those who have been committing violations or are free to do whatever they want as they break the law, they have been trying to push toward the creation of disturbances, because the law restricts them. Contrary to the media cover up that occurred in the past, now this is exposed in an extensive way.
Generally speaking, I can say that we are progressing in controlling the security situation, and in restoring the dignity of the state, which respects the rights of the citizen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you talk about media coverage, do you believe that the media is adopting a negative slant towards you, or is exaggerating events?
[Al-Areed] The fact is that part of the media is much politicized, adopts a stance that strongly opposes the government and the ministry, and is manipulated by sides and individuals who are in politics. This is only a part of the media, and it is the part that sometimes exaggerates, and focuses in particular only on negative aspects, and it ignores completely all good things, and the manifestations of work, joy, progress, and improvement. This contributes to making the foreign image of the country as if Tunisia is in a disastrous situation, while the Tunisians, despite the existence of some chaos here and there, are working in a normal way, and tourism has reached a level close to the figures of 2010.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] For decades the police dealt with citizens in an oppressive way, but now the police have to deal with the citizens within the framework of the law. Is the Interior Minister in a dilemma with regards to dealing with citizens?
[Al-Areed] It is not a dilemma, but it is the difficulties of administration in a democratic state. We have turned into a democratic state that respects human rights, and it also ought to apply the law to the violators. This process requires a citizen, who is aware of his rights and also of his duties, and who respects the law; this process also requires trained security cadres, who at the same time impose the respect of law.
This process of transformation includes some kind of lack of balance, whether in the behavior of the citizen, or in the behavior of the administrative organization, or even the security organization, because we have been used to manage our affairs under a tyrannical state, and as people, administration, government, and security and media organizations we are not used to manage our affairs under a democratic state in which the citizen is respected, the law is respected, and also the state apparatus is respected. However, we are about to proceed in this direction, and this is the great wager.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do the recent events in Tunisia, which saw confrontations that led to the killing of Salafis and the wounding of members of the police, reflect the perils of the Salafi movement?
[Al-Areed] Yes, there is a religious hard-line phenomenon, which some call Salafism. However, Salafism, as you know, has diverse schools; the violent part of Salafism, which represents excess and hard line, is the one that causes the problem, because it does not recognize the state, and does not recognize the concept of citizenship, freedom, the people’s will, the elections, the gains of women, or even the concept of a modern state. This part wants to coerce the others to be similar to it, and hence it represents a danger to the social structure, and even to the religion in its productive centrist concept that is compatible with the era. It also represents a danger to the national unity.
Therefore, the events to which you referred are not unique or isolated, as there are a number of similar events that have taken place, and perhaps are taking place, which indeed are indications of the difficulty and gravity of this phenomenon, and of the need to deal with it. This dealing is not only with the security method alone, which is represented by arrest and confrontation, but also with fair judiciary, Islamic education, thinking, media, and dialog. This is because this phenomenon usually is linked to the youths, who are young, and sometimes to those approaching old age.
I consider that you have a point in so far as this phenomenon is widespread and complicated, i.e. complex, as it has several dimensions. However, its treatment also is multi-dimensional, and cannot be merely a security one, despite the fact that the security treatment is necessary in order to impose the law, and to ease the pressure caused by it on women, men, and the society in general.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have a clear plan to confront and deal with these violent hard-line groups?
[Al-Areed] Yes, we have plans, and we are about to apply these plans. We are about to confront these violent groups, whether these groups are operating in the name of religion, or they are criminal groups that have been revived or benefited from freedom. We are confronting them, and we have plans and tactics, whose details I do not want to reveal now. However, you can say without fear of contradiction that there will be no truce with these groups and we will not stop until the day these groups either are arrested, or respect the Tunisian citizen; but we always will operate within the framework of respecting the law, and not within the framework of force.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some individuals are now dealing with government officials in a disrespectful manner? Have you thought of laws to protect the symbols of the state from such “slander?”
[Al-Areed] As far as I know, the Tunisian law includes sufficient provisions to protect the state, its headquarters, its men, and all citizens. As you know, where exactly does freedom end, especially the freedom of expression and of the media, and where does the encroachment upon the state, its symbols, or its headquarters start?! There is not always a clear straight line, and there always is a scope for interpretation. I want to point out that it is not only the Salafis who encroach and slander, but there are others who go to excess and do the same thing. Indeed this relatively encroaches upon the dignity of the state. This used to happen more than it does now; now the situation has become less, and many have been sued for such actions.
I know that when we come out of suppression, and quickly, chaos might ensue, and it would be difficult to return to the balance of combining the dignity and sanctity of the state, and the sanctity and freedom of the citizen. We need some time, and a great deal of effort, and even a great deal of training.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do Tunisians have enough awareness to live within the framework of a democratic state?
[Al-Areed] This is a difficult question, and I have contemplated it a great deal, even before the revolution. However, the building of freedom, of the democratic society, and of the democratic state is not a matter of being, but it is a matter of becoming that includes issues of economics, culture, law, state institutions, and training of the people. When we compare to other experiments, they tell us that they were compelled to a number of five-year plans in order to build a balanced society. The fact is that this is a wager and a challenge over which we have no option other than to proceed forward, and to gain as much time as possible, because it is the road to dignity and progress, and to have a place among the peoples in this era.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The presence of the army in the Tunisian streets arouses many questions, How do you justify its presence, and is it the result of the inability of security organs to manage the affairs and preserve security in the country?
[Al-Areed] There is something right in what you have said. Indeed the army was present in an intensive way, because after the revolution the security organization on its own was not sufficient, and the army was undertaking a huge security mission, and supporting the security organization. Then the security organization started to regain its strength, role, and mission in a gradual way. Now, the army supports a little and every two or three months the burden is reduced, and the security organization regains control of the street.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that you have a clear plan to withdraw the army from the streets?
[Al-Areed]Yes, last summer we nearly lifted the state of emergency completely, which means that the army would withdraw and return to the barracks, but taking into consideration these (hard-line) groups and the push and pull among the parties, we thought that the situation still needed what we have had.
As for 23 October, it is the anniversary of the elections, and a group of parties and societies wanted to put an end to the legitimacy of the state on that day, and we were compelled to pursue the control of the situation with the support of the army; however, the issue ended in a normal way, and no problems occurred. With regard to the term coup d’etat you used, the Tunisian television channels stopped broadcasting due to a technical problem in the broadcasting station, and hence some people linked that to the anniversary of the elections, and some commentators on the social contact websites brought up these rumors. However, all that is happening is that the national army, with our gratitude, is exerting great effort in supporting security according to requirements, and the more the security organization regains its role and its efficiency, the more the army relinquishes this mission, which God willing is taking place.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the lack of stability in Tunisia purely due to security reasons, or is the situation being politicized?
[Al-Areed] Part of this is a security issue stemming from the reality of the Tunisian street, as there are those who exploited freedom to commit some types of criminal activities, such as drugs, alcohol, thieving, and other activities. This is purely a criminal part.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that the rate of criminal activity has risen recently?
[Al-Areed] It has not risen above the previous rates, but it has risen with regard to the prisoners who had escaped during the revolution; there are a large number of these. We have been able to bring back to prison a large number of them, but there are some who still are at large. We say a real part is a security issue on the basis that it is ordinary criminals, and like in all other countries, they have exploited the freedom, and the weakness of the state at the time of the revolution as the country is recovering gradually.
Another part is due to social reasons, as the people protest because they want development, employment, and projects quickly.
There is another part, which is the political exploitation. Sometimes you find that some social, political, or media sides undertake some kind of mobilization, instigation, and justification of the violent operations, when these operations are hiding under the cover of a social demand, such as a person staging a sit-in demanding employment and then he carries out a violent action, such as highway robbery or setting a security building on fire. As he has been raising the slogan of unemployment, he will find justification, cover, and support from some sides. We say: You can protest by any means, but do not reach the level of violence or anything criminalized by law.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can we say that some opposition parties are creating security problems, and work to escalate them?
[Al-Areed] I cannot say that they create the problems, but there are some parties that pump into the society an address and practices that contain frightening, incitement, tension, and major political polarization. When you see an individual delivering a speech that defends violence, defends the one who practices violence, calls for releasing him, casts doubt on everything, and says that this is a nihilistic government, such speech contributes to hysteria, but the speech of criticism does not contribute to anything other than construction.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] According to reports, corrupt businessmen from the Ben Ali era are working to overthrow the government. There are also statements by politicians who accuse French Intelligence of helping to fan the fire of the Tunisian situation, and of cooperating with these businessmen. What is your comment?
[Al-Areed] Part of this is true, and it is one of the slogans of the Tunisian revolution against tyranny and corruption. Whenever we advance one step in besieging corruption, there is someone who reacts in various ways, including the incitement of others to act. We receive information about some people who might dispense money to the demonstrators to continue with their rallies, to some people who stage sits-in, and to highway robbers. There are some people, who do not want the combating of corruption to advance, and we know this, and we have expected what will take place, but naturally we are handling the issue gradually.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Political Police that operated during the Ben Ali era has been dissolved, how do you do obtain information on the ground?
[Al-Areed]What has been dissolved is the State Security institution, which was known to the Tunisians as the institution that hunted down the politicians, the trade unionists, the artists, the human rights activists, and the journalists, and that made their lives a misery. This organization has been dissolved. As for the information services, which exist in all democratic countries, and which are concerned with the protection of the security of the state so that it is not infiltrated from within or without, and its national security is not threated, such services – the same as in all other countries – are subject to the law and the judiciary, and still are working, but they no longer have anything to do with the personal life of any struggler or partisan work, and are only interested in what affects national security. Because of this, we have been able on many occasions to thwart operations to bring in weapons, or to undertake violent operations, or even terrorist operations. This has been due to the obtaining of information concerned with our national security, and not about the individuals and their personal lives, or the societies and their various activities.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The state of emergency has been extended for another three years; why is this the case?
[Al-Areed] The principal reason is that we consider that our security situation still requires such state of emergency, according to which the army can come out and help the security. This is because if you lift the state of emergency, the army automatically ought to be in the barracks, but we still need the help of the army, especially in guarding a number of vital installations, and in intervening to support the security forces when this is needed. This is the first reason.
The second reason is the confrontations that take place every now and then against some groups, which are nurtured by the political and even social address, because such interventions require this legal framework to exist in order to be able to deal effectively.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there coordination between the security organizations and the army?
[Al-Areed]There is complete integration, joint sessions, and joint planning on a daily basis, and at all central, regional, and local levels. The situation is good.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you explain the continuous tension despite the fact that the government is an elected one?
[Al-Areed] The first reason is that the agenda of the elections date has not been set up in its final draft; it will be set up when it is ratified by the constituent national council. The government has proposed dates, but the constituent national council has not yet ratified the date. There is some ambiguity, which generates some worries.
However, there are three other main reasons. There is the political reason, which is represented by the existence of groups and sides that do not want this government to succeed or work; they want to confuse and exhaust this government, and they want to arrive at the elections and say that the government has not achieved anything.
The second reason is an objective and real reason, namely that the Tunisians would like the development to be achieved quickly, and to find employment, dignity, and prosperity. This is a legitimate reason, but the disagreement is over the time and money required to achieve it. There also are some administrative obstacles, and there is a need to remove the barriers; we have achieved some progress in this field, but the Tunisians want us to progress faster.
The third reason is the groups that commit crimes against the public right. Also there are the hard-line or politicized religious groups, which are considered as criminal as the former groups, but they have a political or religious starting point. This is a phenomenon that exists nearly in all Arab societies, and they were completely suppressed and oppressed before the revolution, but now they are out of control, and we need time to tame them, and also to apply the law to them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have anything to add?
[Al-Areed] I would like to reassure all that the overwhelming majority of the people are proceeding on the way to achieve the aims of their revolution, which are freedom, development, and security, and that the Arab Islamic identity of the people is deep-rooted. The people want to open up to all countries, and they want in particular to be integrated with the Arab and Muslim countries. I would like all to know that whatever they hear about situations and conditions – they frequently are portrayed in an exaggerated way – this will not stop us, God willing, from proceeding to achieve these aims.