NEW YORK — Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki affirmed that one aspect of the disagreement between Tunisia and Egypt revolved around the handling of the situation in Libya. He further warned of “a civil war erupting in Libya and the partitioning of the country, which would cause great damage to both of its neighbors and not just Tunisia; for gambling on a military solution is a mistake, capable of causing a civil war that would lead to the partitioning of the country.”
The Tunisian president also accused unidentified factions of trying to drive Libyans toward civil war, while Tunisia was encouraging them to work together and follow the Tunisian model [of governance], which includes secular moderates and moderate Islamists.
He added that Tunisia’s aim was to urge Libyans to work together “while other factions were pushing them in the opposite direction, toward civil war, which we are against.” In an interview with Al-Hayat on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Marzouki added that unnamed factions were seeking to interfere in the upcoming Tunisian elections “either through terrorist acts or corrupt payments, and they know who they are.”
He fears meddling by those factions in Tunisia’s upcoming elections, and expected “some Arab factions to back certain Tunisian parties, a possibility that we are greatly mindful of. We will strongly stand against and condemn any attempt by any faction to interfere in our internal affairs, whether through terrorist acts or corrupt payments. We have a good idea about where that terrorism is coming from, as well as a good idea about the source of the cash.”
Marzouki asserted that Tunisia did not endorse retired Libyan Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hifter, and explained that Tunisia’s position was to encourage “dialogue between the parties, the attainment of a political solution and the preservation of legitimacy. How could we support someone who resorts to violence?”
Concerning the Islamic State (IS), he reiterated his support for efforts to confront it, but criticized the fact that such efforts were limited to “narrow security and military considerations.”
He also described the Syrian regime as “the biggest criminal in the region, from which we want nothing except its removal. As such, we endorse all efforts leading to its overthrow. We must not choose between IS and the Syrian regime because they must both go, for the sake of a pluralistic democracy. In other words, choosing between them is like choosing the plague over smallpox.”
Marzouki described Tunisia’s relationship with the United States as “good,” but affirmed his country’s independent decision-making process.
The text of the interview follows.
Al-Hayat: Allow me to start with regional developments. What is your assessment of the coalition that includes five Arab countries formed to strike IS inside Syria; while keeping in mind that a difference of opinion exists regarding overall authority, and who must be targeted: IS or the Damascus regime?
Marzouki: For us as Tunisians and in my personal opinion, IS is the end product of decades of mistakes and political transgressions, and my first thought is that the Syrian regime bears much of the responsibility for the rise of this phenomenon. Furthermore, this same phenomenon is indicative of the pervasiveness of this disease within us. For, after decades of progress and modernity, we still find young people who espouse this vision and ideology, a problem that proves the dismal failure of adopted educational, economic and political strategies related to state governance. Such is the heavy price paid by those who tried to manipulate religion and politics. They thought that they could do so, but their strategy backfired on them, leading to the results that are so visible to us all today. We are paying the price of political sins engendered by 50 years of imprudent policies. The toll currently exacted is heavy, and we must ask ourselves what led to this point?
Al-Hayat: What about the military operations in particular? Were you surprised by them, and do you think that they will be limited to IS?
Marzouki: They did not surprise me. But, as a physician, I always differentiate between the symptoms of the disease and the disease itself. In other words, IS is a symptom, and the disease is the intellectual and political backwardness, as well as the misinterpretation of religion. Symptoms can be vigorously treated; but, if the disease is not treated, the illness will persist and spread.
Al-Hayat: Let me focus on the military operations conducted against IS in Syria by the United States, with the participation of five Arab countries. Are you with limiting them to this target, or would you like the United States and France in particular to implement their previous undertakings of targeting IS and toppling the Damascus regime as well?
Marzouki: As far as I’m concerned, there is an obvious need to confront IS. But the narrow security and military course will not solve the problem, and might, on the contrary, lead to a popular, national or religious backlash that would further exacerbate matters. To me, the issue of the Syrian regime is of utmost concern, as it is the region’s most criminal regime, and we should want nothing from it except its downfall. Therefore, we must support any efforts leading to this end. In any case, today we face a choice between the plague and smallpox. But we must choose neither IS nor the Syrian regime; both must go, for the sake of a pluralistic democratic system.
Al-Hayat: Let me address your region of the world, and neighboring Libya. Do you endorse taking similar operations and military raids against extremists and terrorist factions inside Libya?
Marzouki: Of course not. The situation is completely different, and it would be a grave mistake to apply the same tactic in Libya. When I learned that the French might intervene, I called French President Francois Hollande. He affirmed that France will not do so, which greatly pleased me, because all this military intervention will only exacerbate matters and the countries that did take part so far, only stoked the fire, which we need to put out and not enflame. The situation is totally different. Libya is neither Syria nor Iraq. There are many belligerent factions that are all partly in the right and partly in the wrong. Our aim is to push everyone into sitting down together and talking. The opinion that there are terrorists fighting a non-terrorist people, and asking for Western intervention, is simplistic, naive and far from being true.
Al-Hayat: You say that Libya is a dangerous neighbor to have. Yet, you coordinate with Algeria and not with Egypt, for example. Why?
Marzouki: In fact, we are coordinating with Algeria and the Europeans, such as the Italians and the French, as well as with all other powers that seek a political solution. We will not accept a military solution, and consider that gambling on one will be a mistake that will lead to civil war and the partitioning of Libya, which will be detrimental to both the latter’s neighbors, and not just Tunisia.
Al-Hayat: You avoided any mention of Egypt in your answer. You said that you are coordinating with everyone, but did not mention Egypt. Are relations strained with Cairo?
Marzouki: I would have hoped for better relations. But it is obvious that we have diverging viewpoints vis-a-vis addressing internal problems or dealing with external ones. Our hope is for opportunities to arise allowing the harmonization of ideas.
Al-Hayat: Going back to the issue of Egypt, Mr. President. What is the nature of your disagreement with Egypt? Does it have to do with the Muslim Brotherhood?
Marzouki: Again, we consider Egypt to be a big brother, and we want to have the best of relations with Cairo. Contrary to claims, we never attacked Egypt, but we do have a different point of view and different perception of things. Simply put, we represent a model of governance that is different than its Egyptian counterpart.
Al-Hayat: For the sake of argument, many people believe that had the Muslim Brotherhood not been overthrown in Egypt, the Tunisian experiment would have never had the opportunity to evolve into a positive example of Arab Spring changes.
Marzouki: I do not espouse this opinion. The situation is completely different. Ennahda (Renaissance) party is not unique in its characteristics. It is a Tunisian Islamist party that always played a positive role in achieving national consensus, and exhibited a great deal of responsibility when it agreed to relinquish power — at a time when it was not obliged to do so — simply to guarantee the holding of elections. The comparison therefore is not accurate.
Al-Hayat: The secretary-general of the Muslim Brotherhood, Rashid al-Ghannouchi, himself conceded to a lot when the Brotherhood was toppled in Egypt. He accepted the de facto changes, yet you refuse to do so. Is that because your presidential aspirations compel you to take the Muslim Brotherhood into account?
Marzouki: Absolutely not. From the beginning, we chose to follow the Tunisian model built upon the sharing of power between moderate Islamists and secular moderates. Our society is a melting pot and all components must be represented in the power structure, as we constitutionally guaranteed. On the contrary, from the very start, we advised the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to share power and search for consensus. They agreed but did not implement. In any case, once again, I reiterated that my concern is not the Egyptian issue. I have a responsibility to solve Tunisia’s problems and not Egypt’s. We, in Tunisia, do not desire to meddle in the affairs of any nation, nor do we want any nation to meddle in our affairs. So let them leave us alone.
Al-Hayat: How are they meddling in your affairs?
Marzouki: We have concerns that, in the upcoming elections for example, some Arab factions will offer support to certain Tunisian parties. We are well aware of that, and are cognizant that some factions might try to compromise the elections, either through terrorist attacks or the disbursement of corrupt cash. We will strongly oppose and condemn any faction that attempts to interfere in our internal affairs. Again, we do not meddle in the affairs of any Arab country, nor do we aspire to teach anyone a lesson. But, leave us alone; our only desire is to develop our country.
Al-Hayat: Are you accusing Egypt of such deeds?
Marzouki: Not at all.
Al-Hayat: Who then? Who is it that you are accusing?
Marzouki: I am simply saying that there are various groups from a multitude of sources. They know exactly who they are.
Al-Hayat: But I do not know. Would you help me understand?
Marzouki: Let us keep things ambiguous for now. I will reveal more if those policies continue, and if our security agencies catch those responsible red- handed.
Al-Hayat: You talked about terrorism. But what do you mean by corrupt cash?
Marzouki: Terrorism and corrupt cash. We have a good idea about where that terrorism is coming from and a good idea about the source of the cash.
Al-Hayat: Do you consider [Ennahda leader] Rachid Ghannouchi and Ennahda party allies in your quest to reach the presidency?
Marzouki: First, as you have seen, I submitted my candidature without the endorsement of any party, not even the Congress for the Republic that I established, despite the fact that it backs my ideas. But I said that I do not want to run on behalf of a bloc representing my own party, let alone Ennahda. I will run as Moncef Marzouki, the rights activist, the person who performed his duties throughout these years, and I expect to receive considerable support from the political factions that share my goals, which revolve around protecting Tunisia’s independence and safeguarding the country’s self-determination. Tunisia’s independence is important to them, as is the preservation of the political process guaranteeing rights and freedoms: all rights and freedoms. I am proud to say that I did not send a single journalist to prison, and proud that freedoms are all guaranteed in Tunisia. My goal is to protect Tunisia’s independence and freedoms, as well as improve the overall development of poorer regions of the country.
Al-Hayat: Who are your rallies in this campaign? Who wants to see you become president?
Marzouki: All those who have confidence in me as a person, and those who share my aims … namely, the protection of Tunisia’s independence, its sovereign decision-making process, and its freedoms and rights, including human rights, as well as the comprehensive just development of the country, and improving the situation of poor segments of society. Furthermore, our goal is to embark on a national dialogue, achieve national reconciliation and refrain from resorting to the typical ideological bickering that takes place between secularists and Islamists. Those who agree with the above, are those who will support me.
Al-Hayat: But, this notion of an alliance between Islamists and secularists is one that is no longer relevant today.
Marzouki: It remains relevant. In fact, it is of utmost importance today. Had they wanted, in Libya or anywhere else, to adopt a stable national model, then their only recourse would be to espouse such a notion, for only it can shield them from polarizing policies, from a cold or violent war between secularists and Islamists. This, in fact, is the Tunisian model, built on an alliance between secular moderates and moderate Islamists.
Al-Hayat: Allow me to convey some of the remarks about you that abound in Tunisian society. It is said that, historically, you were viewed as an opposition figure, but are now considered to be a victim of your personal ambitions.
Marzouki: That is only the opinion of those espousing that position.
Al-Hayat: You, for example, may God give you long life, are 69 years old, and approaching your 70s. Yet, this is the revolution of the young; what is the role played by the youth? Why are you running for the presidency? Why would you want to become king, instead of remaining kingmaker and counseling a young candidate from the shadows?
Marzouki: I am the only president who takes with him young people abroad. You have perhaps seen young people and students accompanying me everywhere I go. I am the only president surrounded by a staff whose median age is 35 years. I am forming a generation of youth, but I am also now fighting a battle, which is just as dangerous as the battle for the revolution. The counterrevolution is gaining strength in Tunisia, and there exists a real danger that we revert to the old system of governance and that I fail to complete my mission. I will bow out as soon as that mission is accomplished, because nothing is more important to me than writing, reading and taking walks in the countryside. Contrary to what you think, I am not infatuated with power.
Al-Hayat: How do you respond to those who also say that you are absolutely honest — that is their characterization not mine — they say that you are an honest president but that you have accomplished nothing.
Marzouki: That is the characterization of my opponents, and it is not surprising for them to say that my productivity was nil. I contend that my productivity was not nil; I contend that my accomplishment was in maintaining national unity. National dialogue began in Carthage Palace two years before it began outside the palace. I, too, opened Carthage Palace to the people. It used to be an impregnable fortress, now it is open to regular people as well as intellectuals. Despite the fact that my powers do not include fighting poverty, I did work with several organizations to combat poverty in the country. I represented Tunisia in all international forums; I represented it with honor and played a key role in attracting investments to and opening its economy to African markets. As president and commander in chief of the armed forces, I contributed in rearming and strengthening the army. Once the electoral campaign begins, people will realize how much I did give to the country and how proud I am of my accomplishments.
Al-Hayat: Allow me to ask about international relations. How is your relationship with the United States?
Marzouki: The relationship is good. Tunisia has no strategic importance for the United States, except that, politically, the Tunisian model must succeed. In any case, the most important thing is to maintain Tunisian sovereignty. Our decisions must remain independent from theirs.
Al-Hayat: In relation to the serious situation in Libya particularly; is anything specific being asked of you? You share a border, with refugees pouring in. You did warn, before the Council on Foreign Relations, of the impeding danger approaching Tunisia through the Libyan border. With whom are you coordinating and, specifically, how are you coordinating with Algeria? Is it military in nature?
Marzouki: Coordination occurs on a variety of levels; the most important is coordination with Algeria, because we share the same border and the same problems, with coordination on a security and military level being extremely good. In addition, there are regional countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Chad and Niger, which also share a border with Libya and which coordinate on a security and military level. Politically, we coordinate with the Europeans and Americans because we are the only party able to engage in dialogue with all other factions without any problem. Our aim is to push our Libyan brothers, whatever their aspirations, to work with us; while there are other parties that are pushing in the opposite direction, toward civil war, which we are against.
Al-Hayat: What is your opinion of Maj. Gen. Hifter in Libya. Do you support him?
Marzouki: Absolutely not
Al-Hayat: Why is that? Would you tell me the reasons?
Marzouki: We back dialogue between the parties. We are for a political solution and adherence to legitimacy. How can we back someone who resorts to violence?
Al-Hayat: Others are using weapons as well.
Marzouki: We back all parties that strive to reach a political solution.
Al-Hayat: How? What is the road map toward a political solution in Libya?
Marzouki: We are in contact with all the parties involved and are employing every political means to convince and compel them. We hope that they will discover, sooner or later, that the Tunisian model and solution is best for them.
Al-Hayat: Until that time, what is the way out of the vicious circle of violence? Libya seems on the verge of total destruction and devoid of state institutions, where violence and weapons prevail. Let us be pragmatic, Mr. President: What is the road map for Libya’s salvation? You claim that dialogue is the way, which is very commendable, but is that enough?
Marzouki: On the surface, there are the things that you see and hear. But, behind the scenes, discussions and dialogue never stopped. In the end, when the ongoing negotiations succeed, the guns will fall silent.
Al-Hayat: Who is negotiating?
Marzouki: Libyan factions among themselves, Libyan factions with the Europeans, and Libyans with the Algerians. We are currently preparing and pushing for a meeting between Libyan factions. Diplomatic and political efforts continue unabated behind the scenes and, God willing, success awaits.
Al-Hayat: Thank you.
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