Conference, Oxford University; Middle East studies center
June 7, 2018
Thank you, Professor Rogan for this generous introduction and for the invitation to address this distinguished gathering.
I have always admired Oxford’s commitment to academic excellence.
It is, therefore, a great honor for me to be here at St Antony’s College.
I would like to thank you all for being here today and for your interest in the democratic transition still going on in my country.
December 12, 2011, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly democratically and transparently elected me as president. It has been a great honor for me to fulfill that mission. During thirty years in the opposition, mainly as a human rights activist, and during the three years of my mandate, I was both an actor and a witness of major changes in the social and political system in Tunisia and the Arab world.
What can I tell you from this experience?
Many countries have entered into democratic transitions since the seventies, in Western Europe, in Eastern Europe, in South America, or in Africa.
Tunisia is a new comer, however, it is an interesting laboratory dealing with specific problems unknown in Europe or South America.
For example, how can democracy reach a modus vivendi with Islam that is not simply a religion but also a political system?
How to survive in a context of serious economic crisis when it is difficult for the poorest part of the population to make the link between freedom and development?
The historical experiment is underway but there are already some great lessons that I learned and I would like to share with you.
The first lesson is about the very principle of transition to democracy. The idea evokes a rather peaceful and irreversible process that makes us move from one situation to a better or more advanced another one.
The reality is that the transition to democracy is an extremely difficult, chaotic process that takes a long time and may succeed or fail.
It can be a very frustrating period with some achievements but also many disillusions.
Allow me to begin with the achievements, just because it is easier and less painful than talking about disappointments.
When Ben Ali fled the country on January 14, 2011 and during the following months, what I found most inspiring was the collective psychological transformation.
I felt that the revolution was a kind of therapy that cured Tunisians of flaws they were ashamed of for so many decades: Fear, humiliation, and disrespect.
I watched with great joy the formation of new behaviors. People became less hostile, friendlier, and I can even say, happier. They even started to drive better and respect traffic lights.
The expectations were very high, so we can understand the disappointments.
However, despite all the difficulties, the Tunisians are aware of having accomplished something great: being a free people.
This hard-won freedom will not be easily taken away by any other Ben Ali The second achievement of the revolution is the establishment of the institutions of a democratic state.
A revolution is primarily a form of “Aggiornamento”, that is to say a process through which a people updates its political regime so that it reflects its goals and the actual balance of power within the society.
Today, the new political system in Tunisia is much more in line with the people’s aspirations and needs.
The election, on October 23, 2011, of the National Constituent Assembly, was a major achievement. For the first time in their history, Tunisians were able to freely choose their representatives, putting an end to the four decades long cycle of deceitful consultations, periodically organized by authoritarian rulers.
The main outcome, on January 27, 2014, was the adoption by the Constituent Assembly, of the first democratic constitution in the country’s history. Unlike the 1861 and 1959 constitutions, the 2014 constitution was not granted to the people by a patronizing ruler. The people, through its representatives, freely and
collectively chose its fundamental law.
More than the text itself, it was the process of its writing that was the innovative phenomenon. Hundreds of meetings, including in the most remote provinces of the countryside, hearings, and debates of outstanding quality, lengthy negotiations
sometimes around a single word, made the constitution-writing process a truly collective and deliberative process.
One of the most important provisions of the constitution is about decentralization.
Dictatorship is based not only on the cult of personality alongside the power of a single party. It also thrives on extreme centralization: a bureaucracy that is not at all accountable to citizens decides about every single matter.
For the first time in its history, the organs of power in Tunis had to cede some of their prerogatives to the periphery: municipalities and provinces in the future.
It was equally important to create structures independent of the state, to check and regulate its permanent authoritarian temptation. Three such structures were created: to organize and supervise fair elections; to guarantee pluralistic information, and to protect the independence of the judiciary.
Most importantly, the law on transitional justice established the Truth and Dignity Commission. The TDC was tasked with the critically important mission of examining human rights and political rights abuses of the entire postindependence era.
To this day, only one important element of the democratic mechanisms provided by the constitution remains to be created: the constitutional court. Political
conflicts have until now made it impossible to reach a consensus on its composition.
Does this mean that it will just take a few more years to fully consolidate our achievements? I would like to believe so.
What I learned is that a transition does not end when democratic institutions are installed or when the best constitution is adopted. It takes a new turn that can be as difficult and as dangerous than before the fall of the dictatorship.
A transition process can stop or even reverse itself and this is, unfortunately, what is happening in Tunisia.
I have been extremely surprised by how quickly the old system resurfaced and took advantage of the new democratic freedoms.
The revolution brought freedom of expression…… but it was the corrupt media who benefited the most and used it to destroy the image of the revolution.
The revolution brought freedom of association….. However, some corrupt political parties financed by local and foreign money created electoral machines that have won more votes than the democratic parties that have fought against the dictatorship since the 1990s.
The revolution allowed free elections….. However, some corrupt political parties did not hesitate to buy the votes of thousands of poor citizens.
Counter-revolution forces have simply hijacked the very mechanisms of democracy to destroy democracy.
Why did we let the old system pervert the foundations of the democratic system it has always fought?
Let me emphasize the fact that those who took power in 2011 were all former political prisoners or human rights activists.
We were very proud that our revolution was one of the most peaceful ones in the world.
It was appealing to believe that we could avoid a repression -based transition.
However, we were wrong. This was the most painful lesson I learned. A revolution should not seek any compromise with the corrupt elite that has led the country to instability and revolt. Either you get rid of it, of course by legal and nonviolent means, or it eventually will come back and undermine the democratic system.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened.
The 2014 election brought back a significant part of the ancient régime to power and its methods of surveillance and repression quickly surfaced.
Amnesty International in 2016 began reporting again cases of torture that had virtually disappeared between 2011 and 2014.
Tunisian journalists declared February 3, 2018, a day of anger to protest the growing harassment of the press in the country.
In a report published last January, the “International Crisis Group” expressed great concern about the slowdown or even the reversal of the democratic process, and warned about the risk of a new authoritarian turn. ICG advised the president
to speed up the process of establishing the new institutions planned by the Constitution, notably the Constitutional court.
In 2017, the EU included Tunisia in the list of 17 countries considered tax havens.
That same year, despite fierce opposition from civil society and opposition parties, parliament passed an amnesty law granting immunity for financial crimes such as corruption during the Ben Ali era. This effectively serves as a pardon for the
pervasive corruption by the ancien régime’s businesspersons.
The establishment of the Truth and Dignity Commission, an independent structure for transitional justice, had been a great achievement of the revolution. The current government has done everything to sabotage its work.
At the end of April 2018, the parliament controlled by the president’s party tried to terminate the mandate of the commission.
Strong protests forced the government to back down. However, the commission continues to face the hostility of the government.
This is the current situation of the first objective of the revolution: to establish and promote democratic institutions.
What about the second objective: developing the provinces of the hinterland, promoting more social justice, and fighting corruption, unemployment, especially among graduates?
This is how a political official recently described the economic situation of the country.
He listed, I quote,
“The deterioration of the purchasing power of the Tunisian people.
The terrible collapse of all economic indicators.
The collapse of the value of the Dinar.
The huge financial crisis.
The reliance on debt to pay wages.
The absence of any vision for economic reform.
The antagonism with the social actors.
The unprecedented collapse of the state reserve of foreign currency.
The specter of bankruptcy threatening social funds”.
End of quote.
This conclusion is neither mine nor any other opposition leaders. It is a diagnosis proposed by Mr. Hafez Essebsi himself, the leader of the ruling party and the President’s son.
What does this mean in terms of social and economic development? That the countryside provinces -where the revolution started- are still waiting for development, that the hundreds of thousands of unemployed young people,
especially graduates, see their number increase and not decrease, and that the Tunisian middle class is getting poorer every day.
A number of factors have led to the current situation. First, the political instability since 2011 has made it difficult for any government to implement any long-term economic and social reform. Transitional governments cannot launch major
structural reforms that would absorb some of the massive unemployment. Both domestic and foreign investors are waiting for political stability.
In other words, both political and economic actors are essentially in a wait-and-see stand.
A second major cause of the current economic situation is the return to power of a large part of the business elite that is tied to the ancien régime, and the widespread normalization of corruption at every level of governance.
The question today for many Tunisians is: Have we gone from a corrupt dictatorship to a corrupt democracy?
Other important lesson: In the success or failure of a transition to democracy, the social and economic issues are as important or even more important than the political issues.
During the municipal elections campaign last month, I traveled the country to call the citizens to vote. Everywhere people, especially the youth, seemed suspicious, bitter and disappointed with the political class and less and less interested in the
For the poor and middle classes, social and economic rights take precedence over freedom of speech and freedom of association. I am afraid that in Tunisia like in other Arab countries, the majority would tend to accept a Chinese-style regime if it brings them prosperity, more than they would accept a British-style regime if it brings them only poverty and instability.
One must not forget that in the 1950s, parliamentary regimes established in countries like Egypt, Iraq or Syria, were swept away by coups. No one regretted them, because they had brought only more privilege to the minority and nothing to the majority.
This is probably the most important lesson of our transition. Reform of political institutions in a country that is tackling a huge unemployment problem, like Tunisia, is not sufficient to build democracy on a solid foundation.
If the Tunisian democracy fails to solve the social and economic problems of the people, it may end up being a mere intermission between two dictatorships.
Of course, we will do everything to avoid such a disaster.
I am convinced that Tunisia can recover and continue the transition. Why?
I am often asked why is it that the Tunisian Revolution proved more successful than the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions; and how Tunisia avoided the chaotic power struggles that are presently undermining other Arab states.
It is true, we have so far been relatively more fortunate. However, it is not because we are different or better. If Tunisians escaped the dismal fate of Libya, Egypt, Syria or Yemen, it is essentially because of the very structure of the Tunisian society.
Unlike Syria, Tunisia is a quite homogenous society, with no major ethnic or religious divides. Unlike Libya or Yemen, Tunisia is a society with limited tribal influence and has a strong civil society. It also has a significant educated middle class. The Tunisian military, unlike its Egyptian counterpart, does not interfere with political or economic matters.
Tunisia is away from the Middle East battlefields and does not have enough oil to attract the greed of regional and world powers.
The country has maintained a strong connection with Europe, especially with France. This means that ideas that prevail in Europe make their way into Tunisia and have a deep and lasting impact.
For all these reasons, Tunisia has often been the first Arab country to initiate important modern social and political reforms.
Several years ago, a Syrian friend and I, were chatting about the early stage of the human rights movement in the Arab world. I inadvertently said that, with the creation of the Tunisian Human Rights League in 1977, the movement was born in Tunisia.
My friend got quite upset: “I am so fed up, he said, with how Tunisians claim to be the pioneers in all matters”. He then reminded me that, the first Arab league for Human rights was born in Syria in 1961.
I have learned since then, to be more cautious when talking with my fellow Arab friends, about Tunisia’s place in the Arab world.
I now say that Tunisia is among the first Arab countries that have granted key political and social rights to its citizens.
In fact, Tunisia was the first Arab country to abolish slavery, in 1841, well before the USA.
The first in 1861 to have a Constitution ….
The first to have powerful labor union movement that emerged as early as in the 1920s.
The first since 1956 to abolish polygamy and to implement a consistent policy in favor of women’s rights The first to have a robust and organized civil society appeared in the 1930’s.
Finally yet importantly without any possible dispute, Tunisia was in 2010 the first Arab country to start a democratic and peaceful revolution that transformed the entire region.
Once again, Tunisians can be proud of what they have achieved but they must never forget that this relative success is mainly due to historical, geographical factors that do not depend on them.
Because they have good cards in their hands, it would be a crime to waste them.
They must continue their fight for a democratic state and a more just society and be very Patients and determined.
A revolution is just a turning point in a democratic transition. It is neither its end nor its beginning. Indeed the transition always begins decades before the outbreak of the revolution
You need a coup to establish a dictatorship, but there is no such thing as a coup to establish a democracy.
In Tunisia, the transition has begun in fact four decades before the first free and fair elections in October 2011.
It was in the 1970s that democratic values slowly began to spread within the elite and the rapidly expanding middle class. It is also during that time that Islamist ideas began to conquer hearts and minds in the same social circles.
The worldwide decline of the communist ideology also benefited the rise of both, the democratic and Islamist ideas.
Some small political parties, more or less tolerated by the authoritarian ruling party, stood for the democratic project. However, it was mainly the civil society that pushed this project forward in Tunisia, from the 1970’s to the years 2000.
Beginning of the years 2000, the struggle against dictatorship turned into a more openly political struggle. As chair of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, from 1989 to 1994, I realized early on that civil society can limit the cruelties perpetrated by dictatorship, but cannot bring down the entire system. This is
simply not its role. This is why I decided to get involved in politics. I ran for president in the election of 1994, in order to challenge the rule that was then tacitly accepted through the Arab world, and according to which the president is there for life and no one can confront him.
That cost me four months in solitary confinement. However, in 1999 and 2004,
the dictator felt pressured to organize false pluralistic elections. This was already a step forward.
I knew that the process would continue and that we would eventually have real democratic elections. In 2001, I created a political party “The Congress for the Republic”. Its objective was made clear and public from day one: to defeat
dictatorship. Unsurprisingly, the party was banned and its members severely harassed.
Few people know that in 2003, the main opposition parties met in Aix en Provence in France. After three days and two nights, a text was adopted, and provided the basis for the first draft of the future constitution of 2014, and that some of the people participating in the discussion would form be the first democratic government in all the history of Tunisia.
In 2006, during a live Al Jazeera show, I called on the Tunisian people to engage in civil disobedience to end the dictatorship. I had to wait four years before seeing my dream come true.
These are just some of the key moments that have paved the long, difficult and dangerous way to our current democratic system.
It is more than likely that the challenges ahead are just as numerous and maybe even more dangerous if we consider the regional and international context.
I turn now to the last lesson about the importance of external factors in the success or failure of a transition.
The Tunisian revolution was spontaneously led by a youth that could no longer accept its economic and political marginalization.
It took everyone by surprise, including all the secret services, friends and foes alike.
Its rapid contagion to Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen alarmed the conservative Arab regimes who feared that the wave of democratic revolutions could sweep over their countries and take away their thrones.
Very quickly, the United Arab Emirates launched a crusade against the Arab spring in general and against Tunisia in particular, through financing the counterrevolution. Everyone in Tunisia knew that money from the Emirates was behind some
important media and political parties among the most hostile to the revolution. In all the countries of the Arab Spring, the transition has had to face the hostility and determination of the Arab reactionary regimes, especially the Emirates and
It was clear that the counter-revolution in the Arab world had decided to abort the Arab Spring through the civil war in Libya, Syria, Yemen, through the coup in Egypt and through the confiscation and perversion of the mechanisms of democracy in Tunisia.
Unfortunately, the support of Western democracies has been modest and we have even seen major Western countries accept without hesitation the coup in Egypt.
This is why we can rely only on ourselves and the support of the western civil society.
And this is why Arab Democrats should have a common strategy and work together to defend and promote common values and interests again against the Arab dictatorship policies united in their decision to prevent any process of democratization wherever it begins That is why a council for the defense of democratic revolutions was created three years ago in which politicians, civil society activists and young people from many
Arab countries meet and coordinate their actions.
In conclusion, I can say that today in the Arab world the transition is at a standstill even in Tunisia.
The revolution seems to have failed, but the counter-revolution too. Men and women have been fighting for seven years in Libya, Yemen and Syria preventing in bloody wars the return of the dictatorship. In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the populations are even more disappointed by the return of the ancien regime than
by the revolution. Economic and social problems have worsened in both countries.
For me, the problem is not whether there will be a second wave of revolutions but when.
I believe that in Tunisia at least, we will not have to start all over again but to resume the process where it stopped.
In spite of all the present challenges, I do believe that the current phase will not last long because the people’s vigilance remains strong.
While this collective energy and renewed civility have been undermined by the ongoing difficulties, it remains an important asset for the democratic process.
The younger generation will never accept to live under the types of regimes that oppressed the previous generation, and that had led our countries to the catastrophic current situation.
Having spent the last few years speaking to thousands of Tunisians about the revolution and its aftermath, I am confident that their thirst for social justice and freedom is still strong.
I am steadfast in my commitment to working with the Tunisian people to advance social justice and protect our democratic gains.
Thank you for your attention.
I look forward to your questions and insights, and to discussing the long road ahead.