UCLA – Center of Middle -East studies
First, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Asli Bali and the “Center for Near Eastern Studies” for inviting me, and I thank all of you for being here.
It is an honor and a precious opportunity, to address such an esteemed audience about such important issues for my country.
As you probably know, I am still a political actor, deeply involved in harsh political battles this is why I do not pretend to give here an objective political analysis. However, I promise to be as honest as a politician could be.
All I want is to present my testimony my personal view and draw some conclusions from my political experience.
The organizers of this symposium asked me -I quote- “to focus on my experience with the Tunisian transition and democratic elections and then connect that experience to some broader reflections on the current situation in Tunisia (particularly in light of the current protests) and the future fate of the region”.
Allow me to start with the “broader reflection”, the general picture, because I do believe that it is necessary to understand what is going on in the Arab world and in Tunisia.
Sometimes I ask myself whether I am witnessing the failure of what I call “the fourth dream of our people and nation”: the democratic project.
To understand why I call democracy our fourth dream and my concern about its future, allow me to put this project in our historical context. Let me list the other three preceding projects, the failure of which has facilitated and led to the appearance of the democratic project in the Arab world.
During the last fifty years, From my status as a young student very early involved in politics to my status as head of state, I have been witnessing in Tunisia and in most Arab Countries, the high and low tide of three ideological waves: Nationalism, Pan Arabism, and Political Islam.
An ideological wave is made up of, hopes, illusions, beliefs that the solution of all problems is within reach. All these psychological elements will be symbolized by intellectuals, leaders and political parties, seeking power to fulfill dreams and promises.
Our fathers would be extremely surprised and choked if they knew how the national state they fought their whole life for, had turned into a brutal corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy, oppressing the very people it was supposed to serve.
Their dream has turned into a nightmare.
In 1991, I wrote a book that was banned in Tunisia and published in Beyrouth, the title of which was “the second independence”. My thesis was that the national State, born in 1956 in Tunisia and in all the Arab countries during the twentieth century, freed us from foreign occupation but not from oppression. It was just the first step. Democracy would be our second independence, because it would free the people from a new and internal occupation represented by a State that hijacked the dreams of our fathers and the sacrifices of our martyrs.
It would be too simplistic to explain the obvious failure of the national state only by the fact that it was run by a stupid elite keeping its own privileges by imposing a harsh and brutal dictatorship.
An artificial State, created by foreigners and ruled by a local elite that embraces the way of thinking of the conquerors, and fights only for its survival and privileges, had no chance to succeed.
This explains the birth and rapid expansion of the wave of Pan Arab Nationalism represented by Nasser. This wave, that began in the 1950s, reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. But the end of the United Arab Republic, uniting Syria and Egypt in 1961, the humiliating military defeat of 1967, the struggles between the factions of the same Ba’athist party in charge in Iraq and Syria, quickly buried the dream of a united and strong Arab Nation, capable of liberating the Palestinian people who were the last Arab people without a State.
In fact, the failure of the dream was pre-programmed because dictatorships do not unite, each dictator seeking to be the one savior. Let us remember that The European Union was built on the ruins of dictatorship in Germany, Italy, Spain and later the communist dictatorships of the Eastern European countries.
It is on the ruins of nationalist and pan-Arab ideologies that the projects of political Islam and Democracy have flourished… They have reached their peak in the 1980s and found themselves in competition.
Three decades later, the failure of political Islam can no longer be denied.
Its armed wing has turned to terrorism and its record is catastrophic: Murder of thousands of innocent people mostly Muslims, return of foreign forces on Arab soil, reinforcement of dictatorships.
More serious still is the harm done to the millions of Muslims living in the West and the tarnishing of Islam’s image in the world.
As for the peaceful branch of political Islam, it has renounced everywhere to change the existing political system. The strategic choice whether in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco or Jordan is to be part of it. The exception here was Egypt where the established system refused to accept political Islam within it.
Now, what about the democratic wave that reached its peak during the Arab Spring between 2011 and 2013? Is it starting to decline and is it experiencing the same fate as nationalism, pan Arabism and political Islam?
As you know, the transition to democracy in Yemen, very quickly failed, not only because of the population’s tribal structure but also because of the massive intervention of regional powers supporting the forces of the counter-revolution.
It is virtually the same scenario in Libya that has led the country to chaos and civil war.
In January 2018, the main leader of the counter-revolution, General Hafter said in an interview to the magazine Jeune Afrique: “Libya is not mature for democracy, which may be a project for future generations.”
You know the fate of democracy in Egypt after the July 2013 military coup.
I am curious to know how the western nations will react to the future presidential election in Egypt, when it is clear now that it will be won by fraud and terror.
What about Tunisia considered as the only success story among the Arab spring countries.
I understand that, friends of my country will not like the idea that, even Tunisia might be failing its democratic transition.
However, I have to admit that I am afraid such an outcome is not beyond the realms of possibility.
So far, we have been lucky, but it has nothing to do with what the naïve narratives say.
If we did not go through the fate of Libya, Egypt, Syria or Yemen, it was not because we were different, smarter or more moderate, but because of the very structure of the Tunisian society.
Unlike Syria, we are mostly a homogenous society without ethnic or religious minorities. Unlike Libya or Yemen, Tunisia is a society with limited tribal influence and has a strong civil society. It is also a country dominated by a very largely modern and westernized middle class.
Contrary to Egypt, we have an army, that is not involved directly or indirectly in politics or business.
The peaceful transition was relatively easy because of the agreement between two secular parties including mine and the Islamist party Ennahdha.
Thus, Tunisia had all the cards to become a true democracy.
Unfortunately, things did not go as the Democrats had hoped.
From the beginning of my term in December 2011 until its end in December 2014, I watched in astonishment and anger how the anti-democrats seized the mechanisms of democracy to pervert it and to democratically prepare a comeback for the corrupt system that was defeated by the revolution.
Freedom of expression has been widely used by journalists and the media of the dictatorship to ferociously attack me, spreading all kinds of rumors and false accusations. The worst was their undermining of the revolution, mobilizing people against a government grappling with the social and economic legacy left by the dictatorship and with a new threat: terrorism.
Freedom of association was used the same way. Suddenly suspicious businesspersons established political parties, using money of unknown sources. Surprisingly, in the 2014 parliamentary elections, through media propaganda and voter corruption, they won more seats than did parties that fought for years against the dictatorship.
Many people would ask: why did you not take the necessary steps to protect the fledgling democracy?
To repress corrupt media that has taken part in the political battle, would lead to being accused of attacking the freedom of the press.
Prohibiting clearly corrupt or foreign-manipulated political parties, had to be based on laws that did not exist yet.
One must not forget that we had against us not only the worsening economic situation, the corrupt media, but also the “deep state” left by the dictatorship and the business community, which never accepted the revolution.
To make the situation more complicated, there was a deep divergence of views within the government itself.
I was a proponent of a policy of firmness vis-a-vis the forces of the counter-revolution. However, Ennahdha the Islamist party was afraid of a new confrontation with a still active political system, mainly represented by the “deep state”. Here I come to the main reason that allowed anti-democratic forces to use the very mechanisms of democracy, to come back to power “democratically” and undermine once again the democratic project they have always despised.
This main reason is a choking and surprising alliance between the counter-revolution’s political parties and the Islamist party that owed its own access to power to the revolution.
To understand this alliance, which is today the pillar of the government in place, we must return to the coup in Egypt in July 2013.
The Islamist party has come to the conclusion that, the Arab Spring has been crushed by the civil war in Libya, Syria, Yemen and by the coup d’état in Egypt, and thus it would meet the same fate one way or another in Tunisia.
Therefore, they decided that it would be safer for them to reach a consensus with the representatives of the counter-revolution.
Thus, an electoral agreement between the remnants of the dictatorship and the most represented party in the parliament; brought back to power those who had the most fought the very regime the Islamists were the backbone of.
It is true that the election of the Constituent Assembly, which elected me as President of the Republic, was free and fair for the first time in Tunisian history.
However, the complaints that I filed with the court in 2014 about numerous frauds during the presidential election, have never been investigated, probably because of political pressure on the judiciary.
In fact, Tunisia has been the victim of an incredible paradox. The revolution brought democracy, and democracy brought back the counter-revolution. Now the counter-revolution is about to control that same democracy and will eventually destroy it.
This is not the fear or the opinion of a political opponent who lost the last presidential election speaking from a feeling of frustration and bitterness.
On January 17, 2018 the French newspaper Liberation, headlined “Essebssi in the footsteps of Ben Ali”.
The title of the article may seem shocking and exaggerated. It expresses however, the concern of the population and foreign observers about the regime’s drift towards an autocratic state.
January 11, 2018 the “International Crisis Group” has published a report expressing great concern about the slowdown or even the reversal of the democratic process. The Essebsi government is described as tempted to return to authoritarianism. The group advised the president to speed up the implementation of the constitution. He was advised in particular, to set up the Constitutional Court, provided for in the constitution, but still does not existing.
When we see the president’s reactions to press articles on Tunisia, in the international media, I doubt he would follow such recommendations.
His attack on the international media that had reported the latest events, is reminiscent of Ben Ali’s discourse, accusing foreign media of not understanding anything about Tunisia.
It is widely admitted currently in Tunisia that freedoms, including freedom of expression, have declined in the last three years. Many Bloggers, journalists and protesters are in prison.
February third was declared by Tunisian journalists, a day of anger, to protest the growing harassment of the press in the country.
The government is trying to display a bright image out itself and Tunisia.
In fact, the country’s image has been seriously tarnished by the inclusion of Tunisia in the list, published in December 2017, of 17 countries considered by the European Union, as tax havens.
The government gave the EU new promises, and the name of Tunisia was removed from the blacklist, only to be placed on a… gray list.
In 2017, despite fierce opposition from the youth and a large part of the political class, the parliament voted an amnesty law forgiving corruption offenses in the civil service.
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, including by putting a lot of pressure towards the adoption of such a law. The main purpose of that Commission was to address the problem of corruption.
For the public the arrests from time to time, of corrupt businesspeople, are mere struggles between groups within the severely corrupt political system, mainly at the level of the president’s ruling party.
With regard to the economic and social situation, demonstrations took place throughout the country during last month, including in the suburbs near Tunis. These nightly demonstrations were often violent, sometimes reminiscent of the early days of the revolution in 2010.
As you know, the main problem that led to the revolution, is the widespread poverty in the peripheral regions and the massive unemployment of young people, especially among the educated.
During the presidential campaign, the president-elect promised to put an end to the economic problems that were unsolved by the government of the Troika, which ruled the country between the end of 2011 and the end of 2013.
Nevertheless, three years within his mandate, his government’s record appears very thin and worrying for the future.
The economic growth has not started. Unemployment has worsened. The standard of living of the middle classes is declining year after year, as the country’s debt explodes.
Add the political instability, with three governments in three years, and you would understand how fragile the country’s condition is.
For most Tunisians the question is very simple:
Have we gone from a corrupt dictatorship to a corrupt democracy that prepares the return of dictatorship, as it has happened in Egypt?
When we draw this general picture of the situation, depending on opinions and prejudices, two attitudes will emerge:
- Peoples feeling some sympathy for the Arabs will be very sorry by such a distressing record.
- Racists will rejoice, confirmed in their prejudices that democracy is a Western value and that Arabs are not able to create and maintain democratic regimes, for cultural or even genetic reasons.
Many thanks for those who have sympathy. As for the racists, no need to argue, one just has to ignore them.
Try to remember the hardships endured by the Chinese people between 1840 and 1940, or those experienced by Europeans between 1914 and 1945, to understand that all nations are subjected to the iron fist of history before reaching a certain equilibrium.
This is exactly what has been happening for a century in the Arab world.
Sometimes I imagine a collective spirit engaged in a gigantic experiment repeating to itself: Let us try nationalism; it does not work, throw it away… Let us try pan-Arabism; it does not work either, throw it away too… Why not trying political Islam? It is not more functional, throw it away… How about democracy? If it does not work, no problem, we will have to find something else.
In fact, we are not dealing with a succession of failures but with a slow and chaotic evolution towards more complex and mature political and social structures.
In this march towards the solution of the eternal problems, there are always gains acquired at each stage.
Of course, the national State has failed to secure for its citizens, freedom and prosperity. However, at least we had a State of ours that we could confront and take back from the hands of corrupt elites, to have it serve the majority of the people.
Of course, the pan-Arab ideology has failed to create the United Arab States, but it has created a strong sense of belonging to the same nation. It is not by luck that the Tunisian revolution had such a big impact on Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, more than it had on Peru or Zimbabwe.
Of course, political Islam has nowhere been able to create that perfect Islamic State of its dreams. However, it has created social solidarities overcoming the inadequacies of the State, maintained the hope of a better world and given to peoples who are disoriented by globalization, a base for their identity and dignity.
Of course, Democracy is largely corrupt in Tunisia; and in Egypt, its only purpose is to hide an increasingly fascist State.
However, behind the political scene, you have extraordinary phenomena such as the empowerment of women, the rise of the middle classes, and the passion of what I call the e-generation for freedom of expression, the growing role of a civil society, which is not ready to give up its right to exist and play an important role.
All these phenomena, rooted in massive social and economic transformations, will make the return to dictatorship, even in Egypt, a suicidal operation in the short and medium term.
This is why I do believe that behind the obvious failures, the democratic process even shortly stopped, is still powerful enough to resume its course.
However, one must not be naive. Democracy is not a fate that we cannot escape.
What I have learned in the opposition or as a head of the state, is that Democracy has to meet three conditions to survive in Tunisia and in the rest of the Arab world.
- Democracy must be linked to a social justice policy. For the poor and middle classes, social and economic rights take precedence over freedom of speech and freedom of association. They 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, as in Iraq. We must not forget that, in the 1950s, countries like Egypt, Iraq or Syria, have experienced parliamentary regimes being swept away by coups d’état. No one regretted those parliamentary regimes disappearance, because they had brought only more privileges to the minority and more poverty to the majority?
- Democracy must be rooted at the local and regional level, so that it is under the protection of as many political and social actors as possible. Dictatorship is based on a centralized State where all power is in the hands of a minority. Democracy can only be based on a decentralized State where political power is shared among the largest number of citizens. The national parliament is not enough. Regional structures are needed. This is why I have enshrined in the Tunisian constitution the principle of decentralization and the distribution of political power between the State and the elected representatives of the regions.
- Democracy must protect its mechanisms and instruments against corruption, through tough laws and an independent judiciary under the watch of a very demanding civil society.
These are the general conditions, and they are valid for all Arab countries. However, there are conditions specific to each country apart. For instance, I do not see a viable democracy in Egypt with an army that is involved in politics and business.
The question now is who will achieve these conditions? It is obvious that risky, complex and long-term policies need to be put together, and carried out by democratic forces that are constantly struggling against those powerful forces that are determined to sabotage democracy or to pervert and use it for the benefit of the same corrupt elites that had backed dictatorships.
When you examine, one by one, the social and economic political forces necessary for the establishment of a true and lasting democracy, you always makes the same observations.
The forces that can build democracy are the same ones that could destroy it.
Many democratic parties today in Tunisia are riddled with corruption, simply because they cannot exist without the support of suspicious businesspersons, or even foreign dictatorships.
It is the same situation for many NGOs.
One cannot imagine a democracy without free media. However, the level of its corruption in Tunisia or Egypt has made it, by far the main threat to democracy.
The business community has the most to gain from the rule of law, which alone can provide the political stability it needs. However part of that community is born and raised under the dictatorship and sees only its short-term interests.
Finally yet importantly, the youth that I call the e-generation, largely filled with democratic values, is the great chance for democracy.
Unfortunately, it despises politics and politicians. By refusing to vote, a large part of the youth is democratically sterile. It passivity leaves room for the older generations who systematically vote for the most backward and anti-democratic social forces.
I am not saying that Democracy is a hopeless case in Tunisia or in any other Arab country.
I am simply saying that, within the political parties, NGOs, media, economic community, youth, there are forces pushing towards the acceleration of democratization, and that others within these same structures, are holding back or sabotaging it.
What we may take for sure is that, a gigantic experiment is in progress but nobody is able to predict the result. Mainly because no one knows how the very serious economic and environmental crisis –in progress too- will evolve.
Now what do you do when you don’t know, and when at every crossroad you have no choice but to decide what to do?
As far as I am concerned, I have some very simple basic principles:
- Stick to moral values. Ideas change constantly. What was true or believed so yesterday can turn out to be wrong tomorrow. However, values are stable. Values that were true centuries ago would remain true the centuries to come. One can always rely on values because they summarize the completely Human experience over endless times.
- Keep going with one’s dreams. Democracy for instance, which is our last hope, should be given all its chances, despite and because, it is “the worst political system except all the others” as Churchill put it.
- Accept that, negative forces of destruction are part of the natural process of our world; that destroying ideologies, states, whatever and how terrible the price could be, is necessary for building something better and more sustainable.
- Be confident in the positive forces of construction that are always at work, even in the darkest phases of history.
- Be open to all the surprises that are ahead. The only thing that must not surprise you is surprise itself. That is probably the most important feature of our current social, technological and political environment.
- Be convinced that we fail, not because cannot reach our objectives, but simply because, we abandon them. To combat discouragement one has to accept that: trying to change the world alone might be naïve, but failing to try, amounts to a crime.
Thank you for your attention