Former human rights activist turned politician, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki still defends an inclusive approach to succeed in democratic transition – much to the discontent of the opposition and large parts of civil society. Sarah Mersch spoke with him about the political status quo, the challenges of the post-revolution period and his role in it.

Mister President, you’ve always sought agreement and moderation between the various political forces. After the assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid in early February 2013, is this strategy still justified?

Of course, more than ever. Because if this country wants to tackle its socio-economic problems, it needs political stability. I want us to find a consensus with respect to the constitution and the government. We need a message of reconciliation to bring peace to the country so that we can continue with the peaceful transition to democracy.

Tunisia has not yet overcome its crisis. How do you think the new government under the leadership of Prime Minister Ali Larayedh can find a solution?

We’re dealing with the problems of a country that has just gone through a revolution and is in the process of building democratic structures. Comparing it to other democratic countries, you can see that we, too, are leading a democratic life, that people take to the streets to protest. Looking at other Arab states, you will notice a clear difference. If you look at the timeframe, you will notice that Portugal needed eight years for democratization, Spain took three and we’re doing it in two. Tunisia has gone through many political crises but the country has always remained stable. I think we’re making good progress.

In which areas is Tunisia making progress?

Two years ago, we still had a dictatorship without freedom of expression, without the freedom to demonstrate and without the opportunity to set up non-profit organizations. Now, we have got these freedoms. The press criticizes the government and the president from morning to night, there are no journalists in prison anymore and the media can work freely. More than a thousand non-governmental organizations and more than a hundred political parties have been founded, and there are free demonstrations. So in this respect, the transition is complete. But we are lagging behind on the socio-economic front because we realized that the situation is a lot worse than we thought. We are working on it, but we don’t have a magic wand. We do not stop to explain this: we cannot just build a factory somewhere from one day to the next. But even if we did not manage to solve the unemployment problem so far: we are getting the country on track.

You mention press freedom, but the government has repeatedly nominated new directors at the head of public audiovisual media in an arbitrary manner, and the independent regulation body for audiovisual media (HAICA), which has been established by law in November 2011, still has not been created. 

I would have been able to create it, but I did not because I prefer reaching a consensus. We are currently rebuilding and reforming state institutions. We are taking time so that not only the media regulatory body, but also the election authority and the law on independence of the judiciary are all based on a consensus as wide as possible. It will guarantee that these institutions are built on solid ground. But it’s a long, complex and frustrating process. Sometimes you just want to take a decision and execute it.  We are losing an unbelievable amount of time and energy. But it is a true democratic learning process.

The constitution was supposed to be finished by the end of last year. Aren’t you afraid that the population will lose patience?

Tunisians are not used to their deputies arguing, even if this is the case all over the world. They are used to being ordered. Today, they need to learn and to accept that democracy also means discussions, slowness and loss of energy. This is the price to pay for a constitution which will represent all Tunisian citizens. Of course a committee of experts could have drawn up a constitution for us within two weeks. But we chose the complex path, which will guarantee us the most long-living constitution possible.

In the meantime, the country is shaken by strikes and rising food prices. What can be a way out?

The economy is one of the tree priorities of the government of PM Ali Larayedh, along with security and elections. But the rising prices are largely due to factors which we can hardly influence. For one, there are the one million Libyan refugees living in Tunisia, which dispose of a lot more money than Tunisians. A then there are a lot of goods smuggled across the border, and prices for primary products are rising on the world market. We try to curtail smuggling and to increase border controls, but this is a very complex matter and unfortunately many factors slip from our hands.

More than a month after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, the suspect still hasn’t been arrested; at the border with Libya, Kalashnikov guns are being sold for 200 Tunisian Dinars (100 Euro), and Tunisia has become a transit country for arms trafficking. Are the Tunisian security forces overstrained?

For more than twenty years, the only task of the Tunisian security system was to defend the regime, and by all means, even by torture. Today, their task is to defend the country. Some police officers complain today that they arrest a lot of people and most of them are liberated again shortly afterwards, due to lack of prove. Before, Ben Ali gave an order and the judiciary’s only job was to execute it. We cannot ask a country to be democratic and at the same time apply the means of a dictatorship to guarantee security. We work closely with the Libyan and Algerian authorities to master the situation. We cannot judge Tunisia by isolated elements but need to see the context.

So shooting demonstrators with bird shot, like it happend in Siliana [a regional town about 220 km Sout-West of Tunis] in November 2012, was an isolated offence?

The police did not use live ammunition, but bird shot. This would not have happened in other countries, don’t forget this. We have put in place a fact-finding commission and the persons responsible for this will be charged.

Speaking at the European Parliament recently, you said that the post-revolution period is more difficult than the revolution itself. What’s the biggest challenge?

It’s a psychological challenge. People think that problems simply disappear after a revolution. But they don’t, they just change. We used to have the problems of a dictatorship, now we have the problems of a democracy. Of course there are immediate concrete results of a democracy: the fact that people aren’t afraid anymore is great. But economic expectations are so high that there is also disappointment. It’s impossible to meet the demand that corruption should end overnight and everyone should get jobs. Asking for the impossible means not obtaining it.

What do you do concretely to calm the situation and avoid new uprisings?

There won’t be a second revolt, even though we witnessed several attempts to use the frustration of the population to launch a second revolution. But a revolution against whom? Against a democratically elected government, people fighting against corruption and trying with limited means to satisfy the unlimited needs of the people? And if somebody else took power, what would he be able to do? Just quadruple the state budget? People know this, and this is why the country stays stable, despite all the demonstrations.

You stress that the uprising in Tunisia mainly had social and economic reasons. But if you follow the debates in the Constitutional Assembly and the media, then it’s largely about questions of identity.

There are two kinds of extremism in Tunisia, religious and secular. That first category includes Salafism, which is only a façade of a social problem. The “Lumpenproletariat”, the impoverished working class that is lacking the minimum, has been rising up against the Ennahada party, which they consider to be a bourgeois islamist party. On the other hand, you have secular extremists who develop an allergy when they hear of Islamists or just the word „Islam.“ These people are a problem for us because they create false problems. But for the majority of Tunisians, the important questions are bread, water, electricity and economic development. Some think that the problems within the Troika [government coalition of Ennahdha, Takatol and CPR] are between religious ones and seculars. This is completely wrong. I have never even discussed headscarves or personal freedom with Ennahdha, we agree on these things. But we disagree on the development model for the country. I am a social democrat, they are liberals. You can notice this by looking at the budget – this is where the real problems are, and this is real politics.

The burnings of mausolea over the last months…

Are provocations by occult forces. We cannot even be sure that the salafists are behind this, but we have reasons to believe that former members of RCD and supporters of Ben Ali are, who want to bring chaos to the country in order to mount Tunisians one against the other.

So religious extremists don’t put the security of the country in danger?

They are first of all a problem for the image of the country and for tourism, but not for the security of the country. They will not bring chaos to the country. Especially the international press looks out for every incident, but the journalists don’t speak about the fact that we are writing a constitution, that we lead a continuous dialogue, that I convey all the opposition parties at the presidential palace on a monthly basis. Sometimes people really don’t see the wood for the trees anymore: the trees of the salafists hide the wood of economic development and the construction of a Tunisian model of democratization.

How do you see your role in the process of democratization? You had thought about stepping down at certain moments.

I thought about it once. When Baghdadi Mahmoudi had been extradited against my will and without my knowledge, I wrote my letter of resignation. This was an attack against the honor of Tunisia.

Why did you not resign in the end?

I asked myself which would be the downside of my resignation, as I am a stabilizing element of my country. My goal is to keep the country stable until elections. As the current phase is very delicate, all actors need to behave responsibly, which sometimes means to swallow a bitter pill.

As a well-known former human rights activists, did you not fear to lose parts of your credibility in this situation?

I’m not interested in credibility, but in what I can achieve in this position. When I assumed office 200 prisoners where in the death tract, even though the sentence was never executed. I transformed it into life-long detention. I amnestied about 13 000 prisoners. I created a de facto independent national human rights council that can inspect prisons and police stations without prior notice and at any moment to assure that nobody is being tortured. I am here to guarantee that the ideals I fought for become reality. I think I can be proud of some things that I have achieved.

Many countries in the European Union long supported former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Today, the EU supports the new government, but also criticizes the strengthening of Islamists. Do you still see Europe as a credible partner?

The EU is our most important partner and we want it to stay that way. It’s true that many Europeans equate Islamists with terrorists. They will have to change their perception and learn that there are different kinds of Islamism. As a human rights activist, I take great satisfaction from the fact that we managed to snatch a large number of people from the islamist spectrum, which is in parts very conservative and even salafist, and make them to democrats. It is a victory for the Arab democrats to be able to democratize parts of Islamism. Just like the Christian Democrats in Europe, we will have Islamic Democrats who are conservative, but respect democracy.