Title: “It may not be easy to change the world, but it is criminal not to try.”
Subhead: An interview with former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki
By John Gunnison
On October 6th, Moncef Marzouki visited Fletcher for the first installment of Shapers, the Dean’s Lecture Series. The first democratically-elected President of Tunisia after its uprising in 2011, Marzouki offered personal reflections on the Arab Spring to an audience of students and faculty.
We spoke with President Marzouki after the event to learn more about his perspectives on revolution and democratization.
The Fletcher School: What stands out about the current protest movement in Iran? Are events in Iran connected to the experience of the Arab World after 2011?
Moncef Marzouki: I’ll tell you a story from 2013. I spoke with the then-Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for two hours at the Islamic Summit. I knew that the Iranian government was extremely upset by our revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. They believed there would be contagion, so we Tunisians were wary of Iranian intervention.
I tried to persuade Ahmadinejad that what was called the Arab Spring was caused by internal problems related to our dictatorship, and we did not intend to export our revolution. Of course, he didn’t agree with me at all. He said what was happening in Tunisia was a Zionist plot, an American plot, not a real revolution, etc. I understood that he was very afraid of the Arab Spring.
He was right to be afraid, because what we’re now seeing in Iran is very similar to the Tunisian Revolution. Iranians were watching what happened in Tunisia carefully. They saw that when people take to the streets to defend their rights, they can win. This was a very important lesson.
In Iran, I see a democratic revolution where women play an important role, just like we had in Tunisia. Iran has a tough and brutal dictatorship. It’s a religious dictatorship, which is often worse than a secular dictatorship. So, let’s hope for the success of the Iranian revolution.
Having experienced a successful revolution in Tunisia, what advice would you give Iranian protesters about how to succeed?
I would like them to unite. This is the first condition. They also must be patient and keep struggling, because you never have a change of regime overnight. It sometimes takes months or years. And importantly, they must accept some sacrifice, because we always must pay a heavy cost. I hope that they’re not going to pay the cost that the Syrians or the Yemenis have paid, but I’m afraid that removing this religious dictatorship could be very costly.
If a revolution is successful, the next challenge is to build a new system. What key pieces of advice would you give to countries in this position?
The transition must be as short as possible. In Tunisia, we took three years to build the political new system and draw a new constitution. This was too long, because when you have this political transition, you always have instability. With instability, the economy comes to a standstill. You will have less productivity and poverty will grow. People will get disappointed with the revolution because their expectations are very high, that overnight their life will change. They feel that nothing is genuine if things are worsening economically. My advice has always been, your transition to democracy should be as short as possible. In three months, you should have a constitution, set a new government, and then immediately tackle the economic problem.
In Tunisia you built a coalition between religious conservatives and secular liberals that each believed in democracy. Could it be a model for polarized places like the United States?
I think the most important thing for any political system is to be as inclusive as possible. The problem is that in any society, you have people who are not interested in that – people who are interested in confrontation, even civil war. We had religious extremists and we had secularists who refused to deal with anyone Islamist. Democracy is about inclusion. It is about negotiation and accepting pluralism in society. Do you want to make democracy with yourself? It’s impossible, like marrying yourself.
Politics is based on discussion between different political parties. I am very upset when I see polarization. It is a new kind of disease, spreading everywhere. Preventing polarization, trying to make people reach consensus, is the best way to have civil peace. Otherwise, I can assure you that violence is not far.
Small states diplomacy is area of focus for Fletcher. How can a country like Tunisia make an outsized impact?
I was proud of Tunisia after the revolution, because suddenly everyone was hearing about Tunisia, a small country. Tunisia was setting a new model for the Arab nations, for 400 million people. We were the light, the example to follow. I was very proud at that moment.
Now, I’m deeply sorry. Many Arabs say, you were the first to establish a democracy, we were proud of you, and now you’re backsliding. I always tell them, look, it’s just an accident. We are going to resume our progress to democracy, just give us a little time.
Our situation was a model in in 2011, and now we are known as a problem. It’s very difficult for me to accept that we have become a problem after being a model.
I believe the current counter-revolution in Tunisia will fail, because it has no solution to any problem. The counter-revolution is the problem. This is why it won’t last. There will be a new revolution and we will resume our progress to democratization.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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