Doctor and human rights activist, Moncef Marzouki is interim president of Tunisia as it struggles to convert the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 into a stable democracy. He talks to Alan Philps about his fears that people will lose patience with the process of drafting a new constitution
In September Tunisian Salafists – we might call them jihadists – invaded the US embassy. This was a great shock to Tunisia’s friends abroad. How did this happen?
This attack was a surprise for me and the government. We didn’t realise how dang-erous and violent these Salafists could be. The minister of the interior thought it would be just another rally. We have had so many. We saved the life of the US ambassador by sending the presidential guard; but the image of Tunisia was badly damaged in the United States and in Europe.
How serious a threat are these Salafists?
They are a tiny minority within a tiny minority. They don’t represent society or the state. We have a military that is very disciplined. We have developed civil society. We have a consensus among the parties. They cannot be a real danger to society or to government, but they can be very harmful to the image of the government.
Still, the view that Islam and democracy are incompatible is gaining strength in the western world. How can you prove the sceptics wrong?
We cannot talk about Islam as a religion in this context. We have to talk about Islamism as a political trend rooted in Islam. Islamism is a very wide spectrum, going from the Taliban to Erdoğan [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey]. We have the good fortune in Tunisia to have the central part of the spectrum in the form of the Ennahda movement. The worst mistake is to consider Islamism as monolithic. It is not. You probably know that now the worst enemy for Ennahda are the Salafists.
You are in a three-party coalition, two secular parties and Ennahda, which dominates parliament. How is that working?
Nobody was prepared for power. Not Ennahda, not me. We spent so many years in prison, exile and jail. To run a government or ministry you need more skills than just opposing a dictator. We are trying to gain those skills, but we have to learn them very quickly. I hope we are good pupils but we never had the chance to learn how to run a country. Still, we have to stick with this coalition. The centre has to hold together. What I really fear is a misunderstanding with the moderate Islamists.
What happens if the coalition falls apart?
It will be a catastrophe for Tunisia.
You’ve said Tunisia is in a race against poverty. What happens if you lose?
We will have a revolution within the revolution. People do not fear the government now. They would take to the streets if we don’t give them reason to hope that their condition will improve. This is my obsession. We have to do something. But it takes time – five years to improve the condition of the poorest part of the population. And we are short of time. They have high expectations of getting everything and they want it now.
You were chosen as interim president for a year, but that time has passed and still there is no agreement on a constitution. How long will this transition period last?
The problem is first to reach consensus about the political system, whether it will be presidential or parliamentary. We still have a lot of differences between us and Ennahda. And we will need time to discuss the electoral law. This will probably be more difficult than the constitution itself.
I’m guessing you’ll be interim president for another year before elections can be held?
I am afraid so. Why do I say, I’m afraid? We need stability. All the investors, foreign or Tunisian, are waiting for the new constitution and new government. The situation is getting worse by the day. Without inve-stment and commitment we cannot attack economic issues. We have to hurry. Otherwise Tunisia will be in a mess.
Should it be a presidential system or a parliamentary system?
It will be a mixed system. The problem is to avoid having a new dictatorship. We can have a new dictatorship by two ways – by one-man rule or one-party rule. In its first year of independence Tunisia had a parliamentary system and [independence leader Habib] Bourguiba was the prime minister. But because he had a majority in the parliament, he turned out to be a dictator. Tunisians don’t want a new experience like this.
There has been outrage that a draft of the new constitution describes the role of women as ‘complementary’ to men, which sounds like second-class status.
Forget about this word ‘complementary’. It has become a joke in Tunisia. We are not going to use this word in the constitution.
What does it mean when people say Tunisia is recovering its Arab-Islamic identity?
The identity of Tunisia is a superimposition of layers. We have the Phoenician layer, the Roman layer, the Arab-Muslim layer which is the thickest part, and then we have the European and French layer. French is part of our culture. Modernity is part of our culture. We have to assume all of this complex identity. Some Tunisians say they feel closer to Europe, others that they feel closer to the Middle East. In fact we are both. We are close to Arab culture but we are deeply rooted in Western culture. We have had this history of confrontation and co-operation with the West for more than 3,000 years. You cannot expect to get rid of this heritage.
Some say the Salafists are supported by foreign governments. Is that so?
No. It’s a network of terrorists. I cannot imagine any country we are dealing with could support such people in Tunisia. But if we talk of private funds from the Gulf region, I can imagine that.
Do they get weapons from Libya?
Yes. Libya is in turmoil and the government does not have full control of the land. The Gaddafi regime accumulated weapons and now some are in the hands not only of Islamists from Libya, but also from Alge-ria and Tunisia. The danger now is that all these guys will go to Mali and train and make a holy war like in Afghanistan, and then they will come back to Tunisia. Our main foreign policy challenge for the next three years is to restore order to Mali.
Being president of Tunisia sounds rather grim…
Not at all. I lived under the dictatorship of Ben Ali and everyone said dictatorship would never end. They told me: ‘You will die in exile like your father.’ My father was an opponent of Bourguiba and is buried in Morocco. No, I said, I believe we are going to have a peaceful democratic revolution. People laughed at me. But this is what happened. I define myself as a pessoptimist.