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Cooperation and economic dialogue: interview with Rafik Abdessalem

An interview with the former foreign minister of Tunisia and a senior party adviser to the Ennahdha party.

Flickr/Ministère Tunisien des Affaires Etrangères. Some rights reserved.Mariam Ali: Congratulations on Tunisia’s Nobel peace prize. What do you see as being the main successes of the Tunisian democratic transition process? And what are Ennahdha’s priorities for the coming period?

Rafik Abdessalem: In my opinion, the most important, vital aspect in Tunisia’s success is consensus building. The idea of consensus, for different political parties to be able work together, was the key that helped us overcome the transitory period with the minimum possible burden and costs.

One of the lessons we learned in Tunisia is the importance of various political powers working together. The main problem is not a split between the religious and secular, but rather between moderate and extremist forces—you can find both secular and Islamist moderates, just as you can find extremists on both sides. So the willingness of different parties to work together is very important for Tunisia’s security and success.

The other factor is overcoming the ‘zero-sum’ game, so that everyone feels they have a stake in the success of the democratic experiment, because each of the political factions has participated in the process. No party wins or loses everything—everyone must feel like they have won in the political transition process.

The main problem is not a split between the religious versus the secular, but rather between moderate and extremist forces.

MA: How did you reach this goal, of having each party feel like they got what they wanted from the transition process, and that each party had something to gain from consensus?

RA: The first step was cooperating in the first coalition government. Even immediately after the elections in 2011, we [Ennahdha] chose to work with two other parties. We did not choose the parties, the ballot box chose them—but we accepted to work together in the context of a coalition government, despite the fact that we could have formed a majority Ennahdha government.

Then, after the second election took place in 2014, when we came second rather than first, we worked with the other political parties to form another coalition government, a national consensus government, in which four political parties participated. Ennahdha played a partial role in this government, because the fundamental goal during this period was to contribute to the success of the democratic process. We put the interests of the country as a whole before the individual or party interests.

MA: And do you see that all the parties are working towards this end, prioritising national interests over their own?

RA: I can’t say that all the parties do, but certainly the major ones do, especially those that formed the coalition government; all have a stake in seeing the democratic transition succeed. We’re aware that this a transitory period, not a settled established democracy, which requires consensus, cooperation, and also mutual compromise, so that there is no one party controlling the outcome.

MA: What are the main obstacles to democratic transition?

RA: The greatest obstacles we face are economic and security challenges. The economy is still a problem—yes we have had political success, but this has not been in parallel with economic success. We still face economic difficulties especially that the revolution has raised the ceiling for people’s hopes and ambitions. The youth who instigated the revolution in 2011 have dreams that rely on the improvement of their economic circumstances, of their living standards, and right now they are not seeing any improvement in this regard.

The other aspect is security; we are still facing dangers and challenges. We have faced security threats due to terrorist attacks at Bardo Museum and in Sousse, and these are connected to the wider regional threat. We are living in a very dangerous regional environment, not just in neighbouring countries like Libya, where the security and political crisis reflects directly on our national security, but bearing in mind the regional environment as a whole, with crises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, everywhere—so we are not immune to this.

MA: What are the root causes of violent extremism in Tunisia and what steps is Tunisia taking to combat them? And how are the civil liberties won in the Tunisian revolution being protected, given the security situation?

RA: It’s a very delicate balance, taking into consideration the demands of the people for wider political participation and wider freedom, and at the same time preserving political stability and the country’s security. As with any older democracy, Tunisia’s young, new-born democracy tries to keep the balance between the demands of freedom and democracy and that of stability and security. Of course terrorism is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, it has economic, political, and social aspects. To face terrorism, we need to tackle all these problems, especially the socio-economic problems.

MA: And are all these aspects being tackled now?

RA: Not necessarily, not in the way they should be. To be honest, this is why we are still facing challenges. It’s only possible if we fix the economy. When we provide a good standard of living to all different sectors of society, especially the youth, university graduates who are looking for opportunities on the market…as long as there are no opportunities for a decent living, for employment, we will continue to face this problem.

This is not to say the phenomenon of terrorism is non-ideological—there is an ideological aspect of course, but it is only one element amongst others. There are economic and social factors also related to the wider political crisis in the region, all of these factors affect terrorism. I believe, if you fix these factors, terrorism cannot take root, regardless of ideology – it won’t spread.

The transitory period requires consensus, cooperation, and also mutual compromise.

MA: What of the economic reconciliation bill? There is a lot of controversy over it. Why is it being pushed through now? Is it really the only way to achieve stability as proponents say, given that it seems to go against the transitional justice process?

RA: We [Ennahdha] are in the middle on this…we are for economic reconciliation but we are also for amending the current bill. We don’t accept it in its current form, it needs amending, and we have notified the head of government and the head of state. But in terms of economic effects, it will remove obstacles for businessmen. Many of them faced a lot of hold-ups after the revolution, their passports were held and they were banned from travel, this affected internal investments.

MA: But were these businessmen in any way involved in corruption or financial abuses?

RA: To a limited extent. Definitely some of them benefitted from the previous system, but I can’t directly and exclusively point the blame at them—they were part of a whole system. It was impossible to do business without having political connections in one form or another. So how should we figure it out? First of all, in return for economic reconciliation there must be an economic return, i.e. the funds gained illicitly by these individuals must be returned to the state. Then there is economic reconciliation with the demands of transitory justice; this is why we’ve asked for the bill to be amended.

But there is a problem: the transitory justice process is long-term and far-reaching, and will include all cases going back to independence in 1956, of abuses by various political factions including leftists, nationalists, Islamists, unionists—and economic justice cannot wait. We are in need of quick measures to get the economy going. Our main condition is, however, that stolen funds must be returned to the treasury and put to the public good, and that businessmen must focus their investments to develop infrastructure in the inner cities, which are the most deprived parts of Tunisia and the most deprived sectors of society.

MA: And what steps can be taken to maintain or guarantee economic transparency and political and economic accountability for the Tunisian public in future?

RA: We’re in the process of changing the whole economic and political system. We’re on a new path and in a new stage, based on transparency, justice, the sovereignty of the judiciary, the rule of law civil society oversight, freedom of the media and press…Checks and balances of power are necessary to face any form of corruption. So we’re heading in this direction; these are the main guarantees so that we do not repeat the same scenario that we had with the previous regime. All these elements are crucial to face the phenomenon of corruption.

We believe in an open and free economy, but in the context of social justice.

MA: And you think this can be achieved by an amended economic reconciliation bill?

RA: Absolutely. Well, it will help. I can’t say that economic factors are a magic wandbut it will help us head in the right direction, overcome the legacy of the past and face the future, and have these funds transform into investments in inner-city areas, while at the same time providing all the necessary guarantees and mechanisms to protect the country from the repetition of past experiences, from which we suffered for long years.

MA: What have been the most important changes in Tunisian foreign policy that have taken place over the last few years? Internationally and regionally?

RA: In my view there hasn’t been a qualitative change in Tunisian foreign policy, since it is not based on ideology or personal or party politics, but on the geopolitical conditions of the country. Tunisia at the end of the day is a small or medium sized country, and we are a multi-dimensional country—we have the African, Mediterranean-European, and Maghreb aspect—all these elements have to be taken into consideration in our foreign policy. So our foreign policy has not really changed qualitatively.

Perhaps the only area where there has been some amendment, is that we are more focused on the African aspect, because since Tunisian independence we have neglected it, especially during the Ben Ali regime, despite the fact that Tunisia is historically African. Our presence in African economic activity has increased; there is more of a move towards economic diplomacy because Africa is full of opportunities and potential, and we want to benefit from them. Certain African countries are recording the highest development numbers in the world. So the old narrative that Africa is associated with disease and political and military crises, is not accurate—there is another face of Africa, which we have to look at.

MA: What about national projects, such as privatisation of services, or loans from financial institutions—is there a plan to fundamentally change policies regarding these issues, and is there a plan to include the Tunisian citizenry in any debate around the change?

RA: Yes. We have had political dialogue and managed to reach political consensus, and there is agreement amongst the political class that, in the same way, there is a need for economic and national dialogue over the economic problems we face, so that our economic policies are agreed upon by all the political powers. We need an economic as well as political consensus.

Of course, the challenges and risks or let’s say the burdens are great on the economic side, but in my view at this stage we cannot completely get rid of our debts because the economic potential of the country is limited. We need a unified strategic economic vision so that we can achieve and maintain self-sufficiency, and in order to do this we need to attract more investment, foreign investment, and we need economic reform. At this stage we are making reforms that will take some time, to ‘grease the wheels’ of the economy.

MA: Regarding a unified economic vision, are there points of agreement between the various political powers that could lead to this?

RA:  To some degree—at least among the political groups forming the government. We have two main approaches: we believe in the free market, but based on social justice—this is the main thing. We believe in the importance of entrepreneurship and an open and free economy, but in the context of regulations to ensure social justice and consideration for the marginalised segments of society, and affording citizens dignified living conditions. This is the balance that we need, between a free independent market and implementing the aspirations of the people in terms of social justice.

MA: The "wnou el petrole" group had campaigned for greater transparency and accountability specifically from the energy and petrol sector. What steps, if any, have been taken to achieve this? And have they had any spillover effect in other sectors?

RA: I think the issue was somewhat exaggerated—Tunisia is not really an oil-producing country; under the best circumstances we only produce about 50 percent of our oil needs. Which means we have a 50 percent deficit in our oil needs. Of course there was some corruption in this sector, but to counter this we have, first of all, oversight from parliament and parliamentary institutions. An energy institution in the parliament oversees all economic activity associated with energy; we also have press and civil society oversight. We want to improve all oversight mechanisms to prevent corruption…but the wnou el petrole campaign was politicized—as though Tunisia was a major oil producer floating on a sea of oil. This is untrue.

MA: Why then was oil used to spark the transparency campaign, or given so much importance, given that Tunisia is not an oil producer?

RA: I think it started with rumours that Tunisia is an oil-rich country, which is not accurate. It was shared on social media that we have a production much greater than we do, and that’s what sparked this agenda. But the truth is that Tunisia’s oil production is limited. In the best of circumstances if we could even become self-sufficient regarding our oil needs, it would be an excellent outcome.

MA: Are you hopeful about achieving success in the next phase of Tunisia’s future?

RA: I’m personally optimistic for the simple reason that we have made good progress politically. We have solid political institutions, have drafted a progressive constitution, had recognisably transparent elections, and an active civil society. I think we also managed the situation of the transitory period in a rational way, based on consensus between the different political players.

We’re still facing economic and security problems but I’m sure that we can overcome all these risks and challenges with the will and awareness of the people, and the political class’s sense of responsibility. Tunisia has already taken steps to this end, and I think the worst part is over. The coming stage for Tunisia is that of development and progress.

Whatever our assessment of Bourgiba, he was very inclined to keep the army in their barracks.

MA: Do you see Tunisia’s successes as being transferable to other Arab countries, or are there exceptional characteristics that have allowed Tunisia to succeed in the democratisation process in ways other countries cannot?

RA: In my opinion circumstances are similar all over the Arab world. If Tunisia succeeds, why can’t Egypt, or other Arab countries? This is the importance of the Tunisian model—if we succeed in Tunisia, we send a very positive message to the region, that democracy is possible in the Arab world. In my view one of the lessons that we have drawn from the Tunisian revolution itself, is that Tunisia is a small country but when you had a revolution it affected the whole regional environment, and when you had a coup d’etat in Egypt it also affected the whole regional environment; the geopolitical conditions in the region are deeply interconnected. If we succeed in Tunisia, this means we can generalise this experience elsewhere in the Arab world. Egyptian youth are no less conscious than Tunisian youth, on the contrary their ambitions are very high and similarly in other Arab countries.

MA: On a practical level I’m interested in whether there have been attempts at networking between Tunisian and Egyptian or other Arab youth, to transfer the important lessons taken from the Tunisian experience of revolution.

RA: I think there is no need to have a program of support from the Tunisian experience. We are living in a globalised world, where geography is interconnected. Based on social media, people are following what is happening in Tunisia and the youth affect each other anyway. When the revolution broke out in Tunisia, Egyptian youth were affected, and then Tunisian youth were in turn affected by what transpired in Egypt, so Arab youth are connecting and sharing their experiences through social media and new technologies.

MA: Even if there’s no organized networking?

RA: You don’t need it; people will connect anyway.

MA: I hope that we can see some of the same successes in Egypt—

RA: I think you have a long-rooted legacy in Egypt, and face the difficulty of the military coming back onto the political scene, but it’s a matter of time I think. I’m very optimistic.

The situation in Tunisia is less complicated than in Egypt for the simple reason that Tunisia is a small country and we have a very homogenous society, we haven’t got sectarian or religious division, in addition to that we have had a neutral military situation since the beginning of independence. Whatever our assessment of Bourgiba, he was very inclined to keep the army in their barracks and outside the political scene, which is not the case in Egypt now. In fact, the modern history of Egypt since Mohammed Ali in the nineteenth century was deeply associated with the role of the military and its intervention on the political scene. But I think there is no escape from democratisation.

Although I strongly believe that the Muslim Brotherhood made a lot of mistakes—one of the mistakes that they made, was not allowing other political parties to work together. They assumed that they could control everything based on the ballot box, which is not compatible with the transitory period.

MA: How can other countries provide support in the right ways, in ways that promote democratic practices in the Arab world? It’s a tricky question. Are there particular ways that you think the international community helped or hindered Tunisia? Or do you not think it has had much of an effect?

RA: There is international support but it is limited, to be honest, bearing in mind that the international community is divided over the crisis in the region; over Syria, Iraq, Yemen and everywhere. We have financial and political support but it is limited, and there is a gap between the aspirations of the people and resources.

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