Tunisia's president Moncef Marzouki (photo: Keystone/Martial Trezzini/AP/dapd)
Interview with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki

"Tunisia is attempting a democratic reconstruction"

One has to be prepared to work with the Islamists for the sake of social peace, says the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki. He told Edith Kresta and Renate Fisseler-Skandrani that this applies even if some of them reject democracy

Mr President, Tunisia has just made international headlines: a young woman was raped by two policemen, and then charged with offences against public morality. What's your view?

Moncef Marzouki: I invited her and her boyfriend to my office. That's my answer.

Is your country undergoing a confrontation between two models: a modern enlightened society and a paternalistic Islamic model?

Marzouki: That's always been the case. Part of society is very strongly rooted in the Arab Muslim culture, while another part is very open and Western. We live in a continuous conflict between tradition and modernity, and every Tunisian has this conflict within himself. And we can't play one off against the other.

But is that what's happening now?

Marzouki: There are two groups of extremists: the Salafists, who see themselves as traditional Muslim Arabs and don't want to know anything about modernity, and on the other side we have the modernists who reject anything religious or traditional and don't want to have anything to do with it. It's my job to work together with the troika – the three parties which make up the governing coalition: the secular CPR and Ettakatol, and the Islamist Ennahda – to reconcile the Tunisians with each other.

When you visited the US recently you said you had been surprised at the large number of Salafists in Tunisia who were attached to the Wahhabi movement. We find that surprising, since it is well known that at least 400 of the 2,000 mosques in the country are in the hands of the Salafists.

Marzouki: We weren't surprised at the numbers, we were surprised at the level of violence to which these people are prepared to resort. Part of the conservative-religious society in Tunisia was completely shut out of politics for a long time. Now, in the interests of the democratisation of our country and the maintenance of social peace, we have to work with the Islamists. But we forgot about the fact that some of the Islamists entirely reject democracy and rely on violence. For them, democracy is blasphemy.

The government has responded in a very reserved way towards Salafist violence, even after the attack on the US embassy. Why?

Marzouki: We allowed ourselves some time to react – we wanted to negotiate with these people.

Rally of Salafists in Kairouan, Tunisia (photo: Reuters)
Taking a firm line against radical Islamists: "These people have to be dealt with in the same way as right-wing extremists are dealt with in Europe: you have to set clear limits and use the law against them," says Moncef Marzouki

​​We are supporters of human rights, and most of the members of the current government have been in prison and have been tortured, so we find it difficult to respond in a brutal way to these groups. But now we've realised that they are not prepared to negotiate. So we have to take decisions.

Do the members of the Islamist Ennahda think the way you do?

Marzouki: Yes. Since the incident in the US embassy they have had to see that it can't go on like that and that the Salafists are doing great damage to our country and its reputation. And it's much more difficult for Ennahda than it is for us, since its right wing has very similar views to those of the Salafists. The only difference is that they try to push their reactionary interests through in a non-violent way. There's a crisis, a split in the Islamic movement which is often overlooked by the secular forces: the decisive confrontation today is not between the secularists and the Islamists but between moderate Islamists, who are the large majority, and the Islamist extremists.

What are you going to do against the extremists?

Marzouki: The law must punish these people. I've always said that these people have to be dealt with in the same way as right-wing extremists are dealt with in Europe: you have to set clear limits and use the law against them. But one should not make the mistake, as the dictator Ben Ali did, of putting them in prison and torturing them.

A woman has been charged with "immoral behaviour", two artists have been charged with offences against public order and journalists have been prevented from doing their work. Is Ennahda trying to use such methods to establish control over people's private and social life in the name of Islam?

Marzouki: Yes, there is this attempt and I'm fighting it. It's my view that one has to try and promote one's view in the framework of dialogue and the law. As soon as one leaves that framework, one leaves the national consensus.

What is your opinion of the attempt to define the role of women in the constitution as being complementary to men?

Marzouki: That's idiotic. It makes absolutely no sense. I'm for the equality of both sexes and for equal rights. And that's final!

So that's off the table?

Marzouki: Yes. This word will not be in our constitution.

Doesn't it make you sad that many people – above all women – say that fear has returned to Tunisia?

Marzouki: I think that's over-exaggerated. It's small groups and not the government who threaten the women. But these groups have a loud voice and people write a lot about them.

In the preface to the programme leaflet of an art action in the Medina of Tunis one could read the following: "What a paradox it is that things are now more difficult for artists in Tunisia that they were before." Do you share that view?

Marzouki: No. As a defender of human rights, I'm in favour of freedom of expression and artistic freedom, even if it's sometimes painful. I suffered much under the censorship during the dictatorship.

Protesters and police clash during a demonstration against charges of indecency filed against a woman raped by two police officers, in Tunis September 29, 2012 (photo: Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi)
"Many Tunisians complain about the brutalisation and the increase of violence in the country": a demonstration protesting against the rape of a woman by two Tunisian policemen. Marzouki says that Tunisia has many problems but that he's firmly convinced that the country will have a stable democratic system in two or three years time

​​The problem is not the government, but a small minority who are a problem for the government too.

Who are they?

Marzouki: The Salafists.

The journalists working in the newspaper group Dar Assabah have gone on hunger strike because a general director has been imposed on them who, in their view, doesn't come from the profession and is supported by Ennahda. What's your view?

Marzouki: All our institutions are currently being rebuilt. In a period like this, every party, many political groups and the government itself all want to dominate the situation. In this period of reconstruction and change, everyone is applying pressure.

Many Tunisians complain about the brutalisation and the increase of violence in the country.

Marzouki: Unfortunately all societies are violent and the violence is worse in transition periods. But I assure you that Tunisia was a very violent place during the dictatorship. There were many suicides which were covered up – everything was covered up and, from the outside, society seemed very stable. I'm a professor of public health and I wanted to do research on the suicide rate in Tunisia. I wasn't allowed to. There were too many suicides and there were many rapes which were covered up too. Now that everything is open, all the dirt can be seen.

As president, what can you contribute to the construction of a new Tunisia?

Marzouki: I am the moderator of the transition. The Carthage palace is open to all. Every Friday I invite members of the opposition and intellectuals for an informal exchange of views in the palace.

There are many Tunisians who say that the democratic process is paralysed.

Marzouki: The country is not paralysed, it's confused. There are many different forces and each of them tries to gain control. We are in a process of transition and struggle. Transition periods without clear structures are always difficult.

The Constitutional Assembly of Tunisia (photo: Hassene Dridi/AP/dapd)
Marzouki says that it is important that a new constitution is prepared quickly: "I hope the Constitutional Assembly will be able to offer it to the nation as a present for the second anniversary of the revolution on January 14th, 2013"

​​So I want to work out a new constitution as quickly as possible and establish a newly elected government so that the big economic problems can be dealt with. The next few months will be the hardest.

When will the new constitution be ready?

Marzouki: I hope the Constitutional Assembly will be able to offer it to the nation as a present for the second anniversary of the revolution on January 14th, 2013.

The revolution was above all a social one. What initiatives are there to fight poverty?

Marzouki: Foreign investors are hesitant during this transition period, but I believe that Tunisia has good prospects and it is receiving plenty of support. We need that support and we need new economic initiatives. I've had a look at the poverty reduction programme in Brazil. But not much will happen here until a long-term government is properly set up.

That's too long for the poor to wait.

Marzouki: It's the heritage of the last fifty years. And we've been in government for just eight months. As a government, we are supporting civil society associations in every part of the country in order to get economic projects under way. We're planning projects in energy generation, in agriculture and in the industrialisation of the interior of the country. But we can't conquer poverty from one day to the next.

Mr President, you were in the US, in Peru and in Brazil. How do you present the country?

Marzouki: As a country with problems and difficulties, but a country which is attempting a democratic reconstruction after fifty years of dictatorship in a difficult economic situation and a difficult environment – Libya, Syria, the European crisis – and as a country with a courageous civil society. I'm firmly convinced that Tunisia will have a stable democratic system in two or three years. You need to help us, not pray for us.

Interview: Edith Kresta / Renate Fisseler-Skandrani

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

© Die Tageszeitung 2012

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

Moncef Marzouki, 67, was voted in as transitional president of Tunisia by the country's Constitutional Assembly on October 23rd, 2011. He is the founder of the Congress for the Republic (CPR), which holds 30 seats in the Assembly and is its second largest party. The CPR, the secular Ettakatol (21 seats) and the Islamist Ennahda (90 seats) make up the government coalition, the so-called troika.

Marzouki studied medicine in Strasbourg where he was awarded his doctorate in 1973. In 1979 he returned to Tunisia and worked as a professor of medicine at the University of Sousse between 1981 and 2000. During that time he established a medical centre in a poor city district and became committed to the idea of public health for the benefit of the poorest.

In 1981 he joined the Tunisian League for Human Rights and became its vice-president in 1987 and its president between 1989 and 1994. In 1994, he spent four months in prison after having tried to stand against the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in presidential elections. In July 2000 he had to leave the University of Sousse for political reasons and went into exile in France. He returned to Tunisia on January 14th, 2011.

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