[On September 26, 2023, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy held a dinner with former Tunisian President Mohamed Moncef Marzouki. This is my summary of highlights of the program, not a transcript. Use of the first person is for convenience only. For a video of the entire discussion click here.]
Mohamed Moncef Marzouki. How do we know that the Arab spring has failed? It is too soon to tell. There is the second revolution. We lost a battle in 2011, but we shall win the war. Democracy has been interrupted for a while. The counterrevolutions are also facing a lot trouble. Tunisia is a failed state. There was a veto of democracy by autocratic Arab states. Poverty, corruption, and brutality are still there. Politicians like geologists know that the volcano will explode; we just do not know when. The issue is dignity and Arabs in general feel their dignity is put down by the autocrats. The detained are prisoners of war. Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria are prisons with populations behind bars.
Q. Why did Tunisians elect Saeid?
There were high expectations after the revolution, but the economy was very unstable leaving people vulnerable to populists. The tools of democracy were used against the democrats.
Q. What do you make of the lack of international pressure?
We were very disappointed. Western governments prefer to deal with dictatorships. Any criticism they offer is for public relations. But there is a shift of power to regional powers mainly Iran, Israel, the Saudis, and the Emiratis; this is a new situation.
Q. An overlooked internal factor is the Tunisian left that didn’t stand up for democracy.
The intervention of political Islam was a divine gift to the dictatorships that allowed them to claim they were fighting against terrorism and appeal to the middle class. We in Tunisia, and I speak as a secularist, had a moderate form of political Islam, but we could not convince the left of this.
Q. Comment on the coming elections.
I was four years in prison accused of inviting foreign countries to interfere in the sovereignty of Tunisia. Tunisia lost its sovereignty and you in America should support the release of the political prisoners. All the freedom fighters were imprisoned, attacked, or harassed. We are not asking you to send the military; we have seen the consequences of this policy in Iraq. Just don’t help the regime. Europe is understandably concerned about the influx of people from Africa but the dictatorship is perpetuating the conditions that drive this flow.
Q. How can you be optimistic when the opposition in Tunisia cannot unite to salvage the economy.
Remember in 1958 when progress in Algeria seemed to have collapsed. Yet four years later Algeria was free of the colonial state. My generation has done everything it can to end the internal colonization. My message is to the next generation to continue the fight. We are not going to stop. Everywhere in the Arab world this process will not stop. I want to bet on the constructive forces.
Q. Is the problem something endemic to the Arab world or to external meddling?
It was because the Tunisian revolution was against the standard Arab model of rule by one man, one family, that the regional powers intervened to foil it. When I say democracy must be adapted to our situation, I do not mean adapting to the autocratic model; I mean that we must link freedom to social justice.
Q. Highlight the key principles that guided your leadership.
It is easier to give an example. I am unpopular across the Tunisian political spectrum because I will not accept human rights violations against anyone. The declaration of human rights is my guide.
Q. You are right that the Tunisian state was a police state from the beginning and the revolution was against the police state and the counterrevolution is to reestablish the police state. But the political class sought to expand the state. The political parties, all of them, made no room for youth. Isn’t it time to step aside?
It is up to you.
Q. What is the role of the international community now?
Don’t help the dictator.
Q. You used the term brutal elite. What is the policy to rid yourself of a brutal elite without violence?
Syria demonstrates what this kind of regime can do. If you try to resist with violence, you make it easy for that regime to crush you. If you use nonviolence, think of the path of Mandela: try to stay as peaceful as possible but refuse to deal or compromise with the existing system.
Q. After this counterrevolution there is no dignity or freedom, yet the population is asleep. What can be done to wake them up?
I remain optimistic. It’s my job.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute