Tunisia- Mohamed Moncef Marzouki was the first democratically elected president of Tunisia after the January 14th Revolution in 2011. A neurologist by profession, he spent many years defending human rights during the dictatorship of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which was toppled by the Arab Spring uprising. He founded the Congress for the Republic party but in 2015 he launched a new political party named al-Irada (the will).
In an interview with Majalla, Marzouki analysed his tenure as president and the “Torika” alliance, he assessed the causes of the present-day bipolarity in Tunisia, flagged concerns about the state of the media and detailed the priorities of his al-Irada party.
Q- Where are you living since leaving the presidential palace and how do you spend a typical day?
Since I moved into the presidential palace, I vowed not to become a prisoner of it. For this reason, once I finished my work every Friday evening, I would return to my normal environment in Sousse to spend the weekend at my house and reading books. This is what I did during my three years in office.
When I left the palace in January 2015, I returned to my house. I was conscious of the importance of preserving my normal lifestyle and to not become distant from my family, friends and people around me so nothing has changed in my life since leaving office.
Q- Several years ago you established the al-Irada Party. Why this party, and what are its goals and priorities? And why did you leave the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) which you headed when you ran for the presidential elections in Tunisia in 2014?
I ran in the 2011 elections as leader of the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR). I won and became part of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). I then assumed the presidency because my party came second after the Ennahda Party, and we made a power-sharing agreement.
Unfortunately, however, political conflicts led to division. When I ran for the presidential elections in 2014, I reached the second round in the race where I ran against the current President, Essebsi. I received 1.4 million votes while my party (Congress for the Republic), received 120,000 votes in the legislative elections. This paradox clearly demonstrated that the majority of my supporters are not from my party. So, the idea of establishing a new party that brings together the largest number of my supporters came up and the Movement of the Citizens Party, which was later named al-Irada, was established.
I believe this party has a future. I’ve noticed that people are very interested in the present and are overloaded by day-to-day problems that are caused by the lack of planning for the future. If our predecessors had planned for 50 years in advance, for example, as many countries do, we could have avoided what we are experiencing today. Therefore, we decided to look beyond conflicts and circumstantial tensions and think and plan for the next 50 years. We prepared a document titled Tunisia 2065, which includes major reforms required in sensitive sectors such as health, education, culture and economy by adopting a new way of thinking. We have begun to build the foundations of the project which covers the next 50 years because the party takes a deeper and more long-distance approach than the other parties.
As for the position of the party in the political scene, and according to the French perception that divides parties into right and left wings - an old and outdated concept – al-Irada is a right-wing because it adheres to the Arab Islamic identity. Right-wing parties, however, usually have their own positions when it comes to economic and social issues but my party is leftist in this regard as it focuses on economic and social issues. But it also focuses on rights and freedoms, which are characteristic of centrist parties. In conclusion, al-Irada is a right-left-centrist party, which affirms that such classifications have become outdated.
Q - Since your time in office ended, during which you were part of Troika alliance (the unofficial name for the alliance between the three parties (Ennahda, Ettakatol, and CPR), your relationship with the Ennahda Party have worsened. What is the main reason behind this disagreement?
My party members and I believe that Tunisia has the right to break with the old system of the Socialist Destourian Party, which was headed by former president Habib Bourguiba, and was later renamed the Democratic Constitutional Rally under Ben Ali.
The party’s leadership and members were the reason behind the people’s revolution in 2010. They played the role of the counter-revolution after the fall of the regime in January 2011 and are today pushing towards the perpetuation of the system of corruption and tyranny. For all these reasons, we saw that just as Russia could not have progressed without abandoning the Communist Party, and Germany would not have advanced if it had not left behind its Nazi past, we have chosen to break with the old system, associated with the period of tyranny, and move towards a system that adopts a new way of thinking and practices and believes in democracy and freedom.
However, because the Ennahda Party is keen to maintain security and stability and preserve national unity, it chose to go along with the old system and form an alliance with it. While, for our part, we see this old system as the biggest reason behind the instability faced by Tunisia, and it pushed people to storm the streets and protest, and it will certainly do this again if it gets the chance to rule the country. Thus, the main reason behind our disagreement with the Ennahda Party is its attitude towards the old system.
Some people might describe me as a revolutionist, but history proves that you cannot build something new out of something old. They now want to build the new system using the same old methods, and the evidence is in the results of the agreement between the Ennahda Party and Nidaa Tounes. Nevertheless, the outcomes under “Troika” were better than those achieved under the Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes’s alliance as we wrote the constitution and achieved better economic indicators and figures.
Q -How do you evaluate your tenure and what did you do for Tunisia?
When we took power as a tripartite alliance in 2012, the corrupt media launched a terrible war against us. It was said to be the most difficult period in the history of Tunisia and that we failed while the figures proved the opposite. The value of the Tunisian dinar, for example, has now dropped considerably compared to when Troika was in power, and so is the balance of payments. The country’s debt has increased, people have become frustrated and freedoms have decreased. Thus, the comparison is in favour of our governing years from 2012 till 2014 compared to recent years.
In addition, judging a leaders’ performance is usually based on an assessment of the extent to which they have achieved their goals and whether they have succeeded in their duties. Troika was not required to solve all economic and social problems. Instead, it governed for a specific period in which we were asked first to draft a new constitution for the country, preserve national unity and restore power to people. All these goals were achieved as a new constitution was written, and it was a consensual constitution, national unity and security were preserved in Tunisia unlike in many other countries and power was restored to people by organizing free, fair and democratic elections in autumn 2014.
We achieved these three goals and handed over power to those who won the elections
Some criticized us because we did not address the social file (poverty, unemployment, purchasing power). This is normal because the expectations of revolting people are major, and we could not have achieved better than we did under the difficult circumstances at the time.
Q- Why did you lose in the presidential elections?
Everyone knows that I have been subjected to a systematic and intensive media attack and despite the enlistment of the media against me and despite the corrupt money, the difference of votes between Essebsi and I was slight. I can say that my defeat in the elections was an honourable one.
Q- How do you read the political scene today?
It is widely acknowledged that the political parties that have presented themselves as having solutions to all the country’s problems have failed to establish social stability and achieve the desired economic growth.
Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes party’s promises to achieve prosperity have not been realized despite leading three successive governments since 2014. All indicators in Tunisia are in decline today, and Tunisia has been added on the money laundering blacklist. Torture has also returned to the headlines, bloggers have been arrested and the psychological situation of a large sector of the Tunisian people has deteriorated. Therefore, I say that the current governing system has failed. It is still struggling with many problems and they only have seven months left in power until the upcoming elections which they will be defeated in if the elections are not manipulated. And since I know them well, I am afraid they will not allow the elections to be held, but people will not accept any electoral fraud to happen.
Q- Can you not see that bipolarity between Islamists and modernists has turned the conflict between them into an ideological one and that people’s real problems have been sidelined?
I see the opposite. The real problems are now dominating the scene and they are mainly related to purchasing power, the hike in prices and the cost of living. When the ruling class feels it is unable to control this, it resorts to bipolarity to distract people.
The best proof of this is the rise of the gender equality issue while we are at the peak of the governing system’s political crisis and its inability to manage the country's problems. Thus, bipolarity and ideological differences between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes parties are raised as a cover for their failure.
Moreover, when I was the president, the heads of the three governments I worked with were not members of my party, yet we did not disagree. While the heads of the current executive authority– Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and President Essebsi ــ are fighting although they both are from the Nidaa Tounes party.
Q- How do you rate the compatibility of the Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes parties?
Compatibility exists between those who have the same project and the same goals and have a common history. But Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes don’t have the same principles, history, objectives or intellectual or political background. So, their relationship can be described as a deal between two parties that want to form an alliance with one another to achieve specific goals. The alliance between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes does not serve the country but serves the two parties’ interests.
Q - A significant percentage of Tunisians are frustrated with the political class because of the low level of political discourse and the absence of democratic conflict. What is your opinion in this regard?
They have all the right to be frustrated, and the low level of political discourse is due to the corrupt media system, which is controlled by partners in corruption. This media intentionally wants to discredit politicians, parties and the political discourse to alienate people from politics and elections and leave the political scene open for the corrupt, and this is dangerous and scary.
Q- Who do you think is responsible for Tunisia’s current difficult economic and living conditions, and what are the solutions?
Parties and politicians are the ones responsible for the country’s current conditions because they lied to people and promised them prosperity, and nothing has really been achieved on the ground.
I think the main reason for these economic difficulties is due to the unstable political environment. The economic machine can only move in a stable political environment. After the revolution, seven governments were formed, a rate of one government almost every year. This change in governments prevents stability. Tunisia will only be able to end its economic crisis and achieve positive results when it achieves political stability.
Q -What could threaten the elections scheduled to take place later this year?
The major threat facing this year’s elections is electoral fraud. The biggest problem now is the absence of a constitutional court, which we hope is formed soon.
There are also the problems of corrupt money, the media being under the control of one party, and the low-level political discourse that could affect the upcoming elections.
Q- How will the al-Irada party participate in the upcoming legislative elections? And will it form allies with some other political forces?
Our party will participate in all the electoral elements, and we will announce our lists and candidates’ names before summer. We are also talking with some parties about the possibilities of forming alliances and presenting joint lists, and we will participate in individual lists composed of members of the al-Irada party in a large number of bodies.
Q - Will you run for the 2019 presidential elections?
It is too early to talk about that now. I can’t confirm my candidacy or deny it. I don’t want to announce my final decision now since I am still discussing this issue with a number of political parties. The final decision will be taken and announced before the end of summer.
Q - You recently said that you made mistakes during your presidency but that they were made in good faith. What were these mistakes?
Every human being makes mistakes and this is normal. What not normal is not to be asked about these mistakes. My mistake was underestimating the extent of the old system's ruthlessness, its severity and the threat posed by the counter-revolution. We were tolerant of it while it was fighting us by spreading lies and rumours. This happened in 2014, but we will take new measures this year, and we won’t repeat the same mistakes.
Q - How do you rate freedoms in Tunisia today?
There has been a major decline in freedoms. Some bloggers are in jail now, and the Tunisian press is ranked very low compared to many other countries. The reality is generally scary. We will fight alongside people to prevent further decline.
Q - What is your opinion on the declared war on corruption and corrupt individuals?
This war is not serious since those who are fighting corrupt individuals have come to power through corrupt money. They are fighting their opponents while they are from a party that is formed of many corrupt people, and they are supposed to be tried first.
I proposed a draft law to question politicians about their wealth and influence. I sent it to the parliament, but it was not approved until I left office
Q - What are Tunisia’s priorities in the next phase?
I hope that the current phase passes peacefully so that we have the chance to hold elections in the autumn in which a group of honourable politicians win.
Q - What is your view on what is happening in Algeria?
We wish our Algerian brothers all the best because what affects them affects us, and we hope that the country remains stable and it's people united. We also support all of their decisions.
Q- What about the situation in Libya?
The situation in Libya is a matter of concern, and we support holding talks between Libyan parties to resolve this complex issue. We are also with the legitimacy and with the Government of National Accord (GNA). We support this government and hope that Libya will emerge from its crisis as soon as possible.