Ahead of a visit to Germany, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki tells Deutsche Welle that his country could take a leaf from Europe’s book as it struggles with the transition to democracy.
Deutsche Welle: Mr President, you've always emphasized agreement and moderation between the various political forces. Is this strategy in Tunisia justified after the assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid last month?
Moncef Marzouki: Of course, more than ever. That's because if this country wants to tackle its socioeconomic problems, it needs political stability. I want us to find a consensus with respect to the constitution and the government. We need a message of reconciliation to bring peace to the country so that we can continue with the transition to democracy.
Tunisia has not yet overcome its crisis. How do you think a solution can be found with the government under the leadership of Prime Minister Ali Larayedh?
We're dealing with the problems of a country that's just gone through a revolution and is in the process of building democratic structures. You can see a clear difference compared with other countries: Portugal needed eight years for democratization, Spain took three and we're doing it in two. Tunisia has gone through many political crises but the country has always remained stable. I think we're making good progress.
In which areas are things going well?
Until two years ago, we had a dictatorship without freedom of expression, without the freedom to demonstrate and without the opportunity to set up non-profit organizations. We've now got those freedoms. The press criticizes the government and the president from morning to night. More than a thousand non-governmental organizations have been formed and more than a hundred parties. So in this respect, the transition is complete.
But we are lagging behind when it comes to the socioeconomic area because we have to admit that the situation is much worse than we thought. We are working on improving it but we don't have a magic wand. Besides, we're currently rebuilding and reforming state institutions. We're taking time so that the media regulatory body, the election authority and the law on independence of the judiciary is based on as wide a consensus as possible. But it's a complex, long-running and frustrating process. We are losing an unbelievable amount of time and energy. But that is a real learning process in a democracy.
You stress that the uprising in Tunisia mainly had social and economic reasons. But if you follow the debates in the Constitutional Assembly and the media, then it's largely about questions of identity.
There are two kinds of extremism in Tunisia - religious and secular. That first category includes Salafism, which is only a façade of a social problem. The impoverished working class has been rising up against the Ennahada party which considers itself a moderate Islamic party. On the other hand, you have secular extremists who get hot under the collar when they hear of Islamists or just the word "Islam." But for the majority of Tunisians, the important questions revolve around bread, water, electricity and economic development.
You recently said at the European Parliament that the post revolution is more difficult than the revolution itself. What's the biggest challenge?
It's a psychological challenge. The people think that the problems will simply disappear after a revolution. But they don't, they only change. Earlier we had problems stemming from a dictatorship, today they're from a democracy. Of course there are immediate concrete results of a democracy too - the fact that people aren't afraid anymore is fantastic. But the economic expectations are so high that it leads to disappointments. It's impossible to meet the demand that corruption should end overnight and that everyone should get jobs.
Many countries in the European Union long supported former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Today, the EU supports the new government but also criticizes the strengthening of Islamists. Do you still see Europe as a credible partner?
The EU is our most important partner and we want it to stay that way. It's true that many Europeans equate Islamists with terrorists. They will have to change their perception and learn that there are different kinds of Islamists. Just like the Christians Democrats in Europe, we will have Islamic Democrats who are conservative and at the same time respect democracy.
What do you expect concretely from Europe?
Germany has plenty of experience in building up a constitutional court. It can support us in the same endeavor. We're very happy that Germany has accepted to divert a part of Tunisian debt into development projects. Besides, we'd like to set up a German-Tunisian university and work together in key areas such as energy.
Since the revolution in Tunisia, the significance of local regions has become all important. Is the German federalist model interesting for Tunisia?
Yes, absolutely. I've suggested a project in which Tunisia would be divided into seven regions that would be largely independent when it comes to economic development. It would be great if Germany would take over a kind of sponsorship when it comes to all areas - civil society, regions and state.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki is visiting Germany on March 21 and 22. He studied medicine and psychology in Strasbourg and worked as a doctor in France. In 1979, he returned to Tunisia where he headed the Tunisian League for Human Rights from 1989 to 1994. He spent four months in prison after he tried in 1994 to run in elections against former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.