Tunisia’s first freely elected president: The ‘Arab Spring’ is a European creation – Souad Mekhennet/The Washington Post
Beji Caïd Essebsi, 89, was elected president of Tunisia in 2014 after running for the secular Nidaa Tounes party. Previously, he served as prime minister in 2011 and as foreign minister from 1981 to 1986. He sat down with The Washington Post at his presidential palace a few days before the country’s Independence Day, which it marks Sunday, to discuss the five years since the uprising in Tunisia and security challenges in the region.
The interview, which has been edited, was conducted in Arabic and French.
Mr. President, congratulations on Tunisia’s Independence Day. Thank you very much.
What do you think when people congratulate you on the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring? The Tunisian Spring.
Why not the ‘Arab Spring?’ Because the ‘Arab Spring’ is a European creation; it is neither a Tunisian nor an Arab creation. The first time I heard of it was during the G8 meeting in Deauville, France, in 2011. My reaction then was that there was no Arab Spring.
Why do you call it a Tunisian Spring? It began in Tunisia.
Is the Tunisia we see today, the Tunisia people wanted when they took to the streets five years ago? Of course! The people made a revolution for freedom and dignity. There is no freedom without social progress at the individual level. Dignity means that the Tunisia that had lived for more than 23 years under an authoritarian regime — I don’t like the word dictatorship — was deprived of freedom and dignity.
What does dignity in combination with the Tunisian Spring mean? Dignity means that everyone has a job, poverty reduction, economic recovery in underdeveloped and marginalized provinces, and when the individual feels he or she is a citizen and that they can take full part in the management of the affairs of their country.
You are the first freely elected president in your country. What does that feel like? I am proud. First, it is the culmination of a very long career. You congratulated me on the anniversary of [our] independence. On Independence Day, I was here. … I’m thrilled to celebrate this 60th anniversary, and congratulate my people.
It seems that you are very much liked by women, Mr. President. I saw that the vast majority who voted for you were women. Because Tunisia is the only country in the Arab and Muslim world that freed women. In all Arab and Muslim countries, women are second-class citizens except in Tunisia and this has been the case since the early days of independence. Today, women in Tunisia have the same place as men. This Tunisian spring was the natural result of the historic reforms undertaken during the last 60 years, namely in education for all, and women’s liberation.
The Islamist party, Ennahda, is one of your partners. How do you explain this to your voters? Because we are aiming for a democratic country. … The party I founded came in first in these [parliamentary] elections with 86 seats, and second was Ennahda with 69. These are realities. If you are a democrat, you cannot tell them they don’t exist. We took this fact into consideration and now we have a stable state much better than in other countries. If Ennahda hadn’t worked with us, there was a risk of the Egyptian scenario.
Which would have been…? It would have been a total political fracture, a social divide and a coup.
You published with President Obama an opinion piece in The Washington Post entitled: “Helping Tunisia realize its democratic promise.” Is there enough help coming from the United States and European countries? Yes, there is support, but it is not enough. I voiced it during an official visit to the USA. I said what should be said, but each country has its own problems. Tunisia cannot live through begging. … If our friends are keen to help us, we will be happy. We cannot compel them to help us if they cannot afford it.
When you say it’s not enough, what would your country need? We need everything. I’ll tell you the two main things: military and economic.
Is Tunisia’s success story at risk? The success story is always at risk unless it is protected and sustainability is ensured. Democracy takes practice and needs time. There should be economic progress. Tunisia has several economic weaknesses and if we cannot offer jobs … the experience will be threatened. Moreover if we cannot restore security, mainly at our borders, of course, the experience will be endangered.
There have been lots of terrorist attacks. Your presidential guard has, in fact, been attacked, and also recently, the army in the border region with Libya. Tunisia in its fight against terrorism is at the forefront to protect Europe from a terrorist invasion. … Combating terrorism is a global effort and we should have a joint strategy to fight it … but on the practical level, a joint strategy is lacking. Tunisia is practically almost defending its territory alone.
What is more important at this stage, freedom or security? No freedom without security. We need security to safeguard freedom and without security it is chaos.
Do you think that your country can withstand the threats of terrorism without giving up the freedoms and the reforms that people who took to the street five years ago aspired to? Absolutely, we have to safeguard freedoms, and my personal mission is to safeguard freedom for all Tunisians, even for those who insult me every day.
Tunisia has avoided becoming another Egypt, Syria, Yemen or Libya. At the same time, you have thousands of Tunisians who joined the Islamic State Why do you think they have chosen to join the group? Because we are facing a very high unemployment rate. We have a population of 11 million people, but Tunisia today does not provide jobs to everyone. We have 618,000 unemployed people; among them, we have 240,ooo unemployed university graduates. They have not found jobs since the Revolution. Therefore, these people are an easy target. They can be manipulated by Islamists and extremists. Indeed, there are organizations that specialize in the recruitment of these desperate young people. We must offer jobs to the unemployed. This is why I said that the success of democracy is related to economic development.
Some of the people who joined the Islamic State or al-Qaeda might want to return to Tunisia. How will you deal with them? If someone comes back, are they going to prison immediately? No, because we have laws that preserve every individual’s rights and freedom. We are no longer under the former regime. … We cannot imprison someone without trial. They are under surveillance and if they do not abide by the law, they will be charged. … We don’t have the funds to develop our economy so we are not going to allocate our resources to building prisons.
So, if you say you cannot put everyone in prison, are you concerned that some could commit terrorist attacks? Yes, of course, there is a risk. … We cannot prevent them from returning to the country. They are Tunisians after all. We are going to monitor them. However, there is a risk that some of them will remain harmful.
The Islamic State seems to have gained more ground in your neighboring country Libya. What can Tunisia do to help stabilize that country and what should other countries in the region do? We are in the best position to know the Libyan problem because we have very old, historic relationships. We took the initiative to convene all of Libya’s neighboring countries. We will have a dialogue on the best ways and means to find a permanent and durable solution.
Your U.S. partner would like Tunisia do more, to use Tunisia in order to have more surveillance flights over Libya and perhaps station some troops here. Do you think that the USA is not flying over Libya?
The question is whether Tunisia would allow U.S. troops to be stationed here or possibly establish a base in Tunisia? First of all, the U.S. does not want any base. They don’t need it. … They have the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. I visited the U.S. fleet. They have 5,000 troops on one vessel. They don’t need a few more soldiers in Tunisia.