The European: Mr. Secretary, do you feel that the term “Arab Spring” is still the right way to describe what took place in the MENA region during the last four years?
Abdessalem: I think it is the right term. This is a wave of political change in the whole region and what happened in Tunisia affected the whole region. Now we have a wave of counterrevolutions. And they again affect the entire region. But I think there is no escape from political change.
The European: Why?
Abdessalem: This is a strategic event for the whole region. You may have some difficulties here and there and you may have counterrevolutions by military institutions that want to claim back the political scene. But I think it is impossible to return to the era of Mubarak and others. The Middle East is in a process of change, a long process that takes some time.
The European: What do you mean when you say the process is strategic?
Abdessalem: Strategic in the sense that we had long suffered from political despotism and political stagnation in the name of political stability. That was wrong. There may now be many European politicians who think that they can go back to business as usual: Work with despots as long as they guarantee political stability. But I think it is a deceiving concept to consider despotic rule stable. It is really political stagnation – because you can’t ignore the aspirations of the people for political freedom and political change.
The European: But right now we have instability and bloodshed at the same time: In Libya there’s anarchy, in Syria there’s civil war.
Abdessalem: That is part of the challenge we have seen in the Middle East. What emerged in Iraq after the messy withdrawal of the Americans was a political vacuum, sectarianism between Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Arabs and Christians and Muslims. Syria was affected by the Arab Spring, but due to the complexity of the social tissue in Syria – where you have not only diversity but a lot of sectarian divisions – the revolution transformed into a sectarian and religious conflict. This is the hallmark of the challenge we have seen in the region. It suffered from political despotism for decades, since the Second World War. And when it encountered challenges it became messy. The exceptional case is Tunisia. But it is a process similar to what took place in Europe in the 19th and 20th century.
The European: How so?
Abdessalem: There were religious wars and other conflicts. I think it will take some time in a difficult and complex region.
The European: Do you remain optimistic in the face of recent events? In Egypt, the counterrevolution – as you called it – essentially rolled back the changes that had taken place during the Arab Spring.
Abdessalem: But it is impossible to go back to the era of Mubarak. Of course, the military benefited from the political divisions and the mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s how it managed to come back to the political scene – without ever having really left it. The modern history of Egypt is associated with the role of the military. After the political difficulties following the revolution of the 25th of June, it exploited the circumstances to resume business as usual. But we can’t ignore the demands of the Egyptian people for political participation, for political and economic reform. It is as important for the country as it is for the whole region.
The European: But isn’t it a paradox that people demand political freedom and yet give high approval ratings for President Sisi?
Abdessalem: The region is looking to synthesize the demands of freedom and security. After dismantling the regime of Mubarak and others, there was much space for freedom. The demands for security were also very high. You must understand that the military is now acting in the name of security. In Tunisia, we are looking at a delicate balancing act: to implement the aspirations of the people while at the same time guaranteeing the political stability that is necessary for any economic and political development.
The European: Would you say that Tunisia has profited from the chaos surrounding it?
Abdessalem: Maybe so. But we were also negatively affected by the regional environment: Our national security is affected by what happens in Libya. Remember that the region is deeply interconnected: There are failed states and military conflicts surrounding us. Luckily, the political elite in Tunisia recognizes the need for consensus and consolidation of the democratic process with all the challenges we face both internally and externally.
Demonstrations are better than stagnation
The European: Just last year, we saw the murder of the opposition figure Mohammed Brahmi. At the time, observers said that the process of change in the country was in danger. What has changed in the past 12 months?
Abdesslem: We have succeeded in stabilizing the country. The assassination of Mohammed Brahmi was a terrible signal. We don’t have a tradition of assassinations; it was the second one after the revolution. This pushed the political elite towards more consensus and dialogue. And after the assassination we decided to leave the government in favor of a neutral, technocratic government and succeeded in drafting a really progressive constitution…
The European: …in terms of?
Abdessalem: In terms of liberty and privacy, freedom of consciousness and decentralization of the state. Compared to other constitutions in the region, it is very progressive. We also fixed an election date. It is a success story when you compare it to the rest of the region. Of course that doesn’t mean that we didn’t face any difficulties or challenges. For example, the economic demands, mainly those of the people in the internal regions where the revolution started.
The European: Tunisians now go to the polls, shortly followed by presidential elections. Do you predict stability afterwards?
Abdessalem: I think the country is moving towards stability. Even if there are demonstrations within a democratic context, it’s better than political stagnation. But we are looking for an inclusive government that consists of different political parties, actors and forces of the country to provide more stability. The simple reason that we are overcoming the transitive period means that we are moving towards stability. There is a constitution, there is a five-year term for the next government: That provides time for the economic and political reforms the country needs.
The European: How do you think the political extremists can be integrated in that process? One could argue that the value of a democratic system depends on how well it includes the extreme left and right or the extremely religious.
Abdessalem: That is a dilemma if you live in a traditional democracy, let alone in a newborn democracy. It depends on whether you have peaceful extremists or not. You can integrate them if they are peaceful. But for violent groups and elements you have no solution other than defeating them by security or military forces – if they jeopardize the security and stability of the country. That is why we need to differentiate between peaceful and radical groups.
The European: That sounds more easily said than done. During the revolution, the protests were often classified as a threat to peace and stability in order to defeat them with security or military forces. Any government has the tendency to see the protests against it as dangerous or harmful to democracy.
Abdessalem: But it depends on the kind of demonstrations. As long as they don’t jeopardize the stability and the foundations of the country, they must be allowed. And that is also what we need to meet the demands of freedom and political stability and security: a regulated freedom that is based on the law. And by that I mean international values and principles.
The European: There is a certain tradition in the region that countries interfere in each other’s domestic affairs, be it directly or by financing opposition groups, terrorists, etc. Do you fear that the process of democratization in Tunisia – which is widely seen as a role model – could lead other leaders to fear such changes in their own country and in turn interfere in yours?
Abdessalem: Unfortunately, that is the case in the region – regimes using money and media to stop the process of democratization and to jeopardize the political progress. We see this in Libya, in Syria, in Iraq and so on. We suffered it in Tunisia as well, but we overcame it due to the broad consensus between political forces. Maybe we benefited from geography: We are much closer to Europe than the other countries of the Middle East. We received a very positive message from our European partners about our process. And I feel that we really rely on the awareness of the Tunisian people. They are fully aware of external interferences in our international affairs. And they are very keen for the process of democratization to continue.
It is not up to the state to impose a religion
The European: What are the economic prospects of the country? Freedom is one thing, but most of the protests were sparked by rising costs of living.
Abdessalem: This is the dilemma of the Tunisian experience: Making good political progress but struggling to implement the economic aspirations of the people. The real challenges are the high expectations of those people. At the end of the day they will say: “We have more political freedom, but what about everyday life? What about unemployment or health care?” It makes me hopeful that we were able to lay the foundations of the new political system, of the newborn democracy of the region. And I think it is time to build economic achievements on top of that. Democracy can help a lot.
The European: Explain…
Abdessalem: Many people make a distinction between democracy and the economic perspective, but democracy is also an economic investment. When there is transparency, representative government with checks and balances, it will help a lot. When the government started, the unemployment rate was more than 19%. Now it is about 15%. If you have a lot of young people graduating from university with no prospects for a job, it is a real challenge. Democracy needs to rest on two pillars: an economic and a political one.
The European: Are there still old policies in place that are hindering this process?
Abdessalem: We are facing difficulties but are not in a dramatic or catastrophic situation. We are moving to a more balanced economy – we are almost back to the old number of tourists, the industrial sector is functioning, internal and external investment has been improved. Of course we were affected by the transitive period because a lot of investors were not fully confident yet and were waiting for the next election. I think the situation in Tunisia is manageable.
The European: What role does religion play in Tunisian politics?
Abdessalem: Religion is part of the political culture. At the end of the day, the identity of the Tunisian people includes Islam. Of course, it could play a constructive role – as in any democracy – if it has an open space for different expressions as long as they are based on the principles of tolerance and openness. During the regime of Ben Ali, everything, including religion, was controlled by the state. That is no longer the case. Tunisia is an open society now; we have different expressions of religion and different ways of life. It is not up to the state to impose a religion; it is up to the state to manage the public sphere in a rational way whilst staying neutral.
The European: That sounds quite optimistic. Is the state not feeling pressured by religious leaders? I assume it is sometimes hard to reconcile the values you are promoting with certain teachings.
Abdessalem: Like any great religion, Islam is subject to interpretation. Some of these interpretations are healthy, others are terrible – like al-Qaida. But religion is also affected by the environment it exists in. In a democratic society, the interpretations focus on the values of solidarity and civility – as you can see in Europe. In Germany, Protestantism even played a crucial role in the rise of capitalism and the modern state. In Tunisia, we want to achieve the same thing.