In December 2010, the Arab Spring erupted through the impervious soil of authoritarian rule in the Middle East. The Arab awakening drove dictatorial and nepotistic rulers from power, first in Tunisia and then Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Popular protests swept the region — Syria, Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, and Sudan, with smaller demonstrations in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Djibouti, Oman and Western Sahara.
It all began with the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, who set himself afire after Fedia Hamdi, 46, a municipal inspector challenged him for operating without a permit. Her famous slap, heard around the world, and her confiscation of his produce, are disputed. She was found not guilty and freed after 111 days in jail. Bouazizi set himself afire because police would not return his confiscated cart and a governor would not hear his protest.
In two years, Tunisians have driven dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power (he now lives in Saudi Arabia), set up a provisional government, held fair elections and are now drawing up a constitution. The country has also experienced huge demonstrations, one assassination and harassment of journalists. A national election, initially scheduled for June, has been delayed. Nevertheless, compared with countries whose dictators have been toppled, Tunisia’s post-revolution casualties have been mercifully light.
Tunisia’s new ambassador to Canada, Riadh Essid, who took up his post in December, speaks frankly and passionately to Diplomat publisher Donna Jacobs about Tunisia’s difficult assignment — how to be a moderate, modern and Muslim nation — and a stable democracy, too. All of these goals, he says, are compatible.
The following are edited excerpts from the wide-ranging conversation.
Diplomat magazine: With so much at stake, how confident are you that Tunisia can be a model democracy in the Middle East?
Riadh Essid: We were pioneers in emancipating women, in abolishing polygamy, in family planning, in developing tourism, in making education free for everybody after independence from France in 1956. We gave women the right to vote [initially in regional/local elections]. We instituted a Civil Code — a pioneering thing in the Arab world.
This gave Tunisia a distinction among other countries in the Arab world. And now it turns out that we are also pioneers in democracy.
DM: Was the revolution completely unexpected, or were conditions building towards a revolt?
RE: What happened was surprising for everybody — including for the Tunisian people.
We had some signs two years earlier. There were riots in parts of Tunisia, because the government was undemocratic and also because some marginalized areas in [the interior of] Tunisia did not profit from the industrial development.
The Mediterranean coastal areas have been developed because of investment and tourism since the early ’60s — infrastructure, roads, hotels, promotion. Out of a population of 11 million, we used to welcome about 6 million tourists per year [before the 2010 revolution]. This is astonishing for a small country.
We didn’t think the protests were so important because we were accustomed to having a dictator who had a stronghold on the population. Nobody dared to speak out. But after 23 years of dictatorship, of gagging free expression, something exploded in Tunisia.
We discovered that we could be like any people in the world and we were close to being a developed country. There were a lot of demands and expectations at the same time and everybody was pulling for freedom of expression and human rights. Democracy is a very good thing. I am sure that we are going to succeed. But I can’t say the exact date.
DM: How do diplomats from other countries regard Tunisia’s revolution?
RE: Even diplomats with postings in Tunisia are very, very enthusiastic. They are attending something historical, not only in the Arab world but also in the world. The internet played a huge and significant role in building up the revolution, in pushing people to say “no” to the dictator.
We are in an Arab and Muslim space. We are under the influence of what is happening in some parts of the Muslim world. And you know there is a tendency [in some these countries] towards extremism.
After the explosion of the dictatorship, it was easy for some people to come back to Tunisia and to bring new [radical] ideas. Because we had this new freedom of expression, everybody had the right, and still has the right, to express himself, which is a very good thing. But we don’t know yet how to respect all the freedoms. We have to understand to play by the rules.
DM: Do other people from the Middle East, looking at what you have done in Tunisia, want this reform for their countries?
RE: We started the revolution but believe me, we didn’t intend to give any lessons to anybody. But Tunisia was taken as a model and, in a way, it is good for us. We proved that, at least, [the transition to democracy] can be more peaceful than in other parts of the Arab world.
Sometimes revolutions are associated with blood but Tunisia’s revolution was not. We had martyrs on the ground and we revere them. Without them, we may not have made this gigantic step towards a democratic state. Between 300 and 350 people were killed. We give thanks for their sacrifice.
DM: You moved quickly after the revolution.
RE: We had fair and transparent elections on Oct. 23, 2011, observed by many foreign people.
DM: What was the effect of the Feb. 6 assassination of Chokri Belaid, a moderate leftist politician and reformer?
RE: It was a shock, because we are a very stable country. The public emotion, the public reaction was fantastic. The people said “No, we don’t accept this violence.”
The popular perception is that Belaid was an outspoken opponent of the government and had the right to criticize. People who decided to kill him made a mistake. We cannot [allow them] to remove a person like that.
It could happen in any other part of the world. But it happened in Tunisia and all political parties condemned it. We would like to continue in this democratic process with national consensus because at least there was the initiative from Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who proposed to form [an interim] government composed of technocrats.
DM: But he resigned in February.
RE: Yes, he resigned because he consulted all the parties and failed to get agreement. The head of government can propose to the president. It was not accepted by the Troika.
[The Troika consists of a member from the three parties with the most seats in the National Assembly. The majority party, the Islamist Ennahda Party, chose Hamadi Jebali as prime minister, the Ettakatol party put forth Mustapha Ben Jaafer as president of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), and Congress for the Republic party chose Moncef Marzouki as president.]
DM: There have been newspaper reports that the assassination was government-driven, that it was political. What can you say about the ongoing investigation?
RE: The information is not yet complete. It seems that two young people killed him. Of course, there would have been someone who told them to kill him, some one who resorted to killing an opponent. It was a mistake. It backfired.
After the assassination, I said to colleagues: “If, in the next two or three days, nobody is killed from any party, we will be fine.” There was something else at stake: democracy, our tolerance, our stability.
These are very important for us. We have to find a way to convince extremists who are Tunisians but who have lived abroad and returned with new [radical] ideas. Some of the people who returned are peaceful. Some are not. So if they resort to violence, we have to find them, but not to kill them. Not to torture them. We don’t use the same means [as the dictatorship]. We have to show the world that we are worthy of democracy. We have to show that we could be democratic. Whether you are Muslim or Christian or Jewish, you can be democratic. It is not a religion, democracy.
DM: When are the next elections?
RE: Before the assassination, the election was set for 23rd of June but the independent body for elections wanted to postpone it. Maybe the new government, the National Assembly, will decide when we have the elections.
It is very important to reassure the Tunisian people that the democratic process is on track. But it is also important to reassure the international community to bring investors back and also to bring back tourists. These are interlinked.
DM: Has anything beneficial come out of the assassination?
RE: You see, in other parts of the world, that hundreds of people are killed every day. We had only one person killed — and it shook the whole population.
Half of the people who demonstrated were women. This is a good sign. Even if they [assassins] kill someone else, I am still optimistic because I know the Tunisians. I know they are peaceful. And one day or another, we will win. At what cost, I don’t know. But let me tell you what I saw: 1.4 million people in the streets and 400,000 at the funeral including women, which is unusual in a Muslim country. This means that Tunisian women felt involved in the process.
Women are very afraid of losing their independence. Some segments of Tunisia would like to restrain women’s rights. But the women are resisting. The Troika pledged to reinforce women’s rights.
Sometimes from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from Saudi Arabia, from Iran, from Syria, preachers are invited by Muslim associations of Tunisia to give conferences and lectures.
And they are invited by very few people who say that the niqab [a face-to-shoulder veil only open across the eyes] is good for women. They say that females have to wear the niqab from the childhood. This is not good but you cannot prevent these preachers from entering the country. We don’t want the niqab because it’s not Muslim and it’s not in our tradition.
In my opinion, women’s freedoms are not going to be touched. They will be shaken but, in the end, they will be [secure] because the Tunisian woman is an educated woman. She knows about her rights. She is emancipated. And she would like to play a role. Even when the government organized demonstrations to protest the assassination, also there were a lot of women — many, but not all — who were veiled.
The people who killed Belaid — they must be biting their fingernails because they turned him into a hero, along with his wife, Basma, who incarnates modernism. She is a lawyer. She was criticizing and accusing. Nobody talked to her about it because they knew she was emancipated.
We don’t have proof, but extremism comes from everywhere and [is backed by] some money, some weapons. Weapons also come from Libya because of proliferation of weapons there. Many things have come together to be against the revolution in Tunisia.
The people who rule Tunisia now, most of them used to be in prison. They knew torture and sometimes they don’t want to give orders to torture and [seize] people. And the Salafists [fundamentalist Muslims] are profiting from this, which they see as weakness.
Some Salafists are extremists, some are not. We are not here to judge them. We would like this trend to be under the control of democracy. We would like to let all people express themselves, whether they talk about religious things or not. But we want them to do it peacefully, because it is in accord with our traditions and our religion.
DM: What are the biggest problems you have faced?
RE: We helped the Libyans a lot [during their revolution]. It took from us a lot of energy, a lot of money also, because we had to deal with about 900,000 refugees, which is not easy for a tiny country like Tunisia. The foreign aid helped but it did not cover these costs. We lack milk, juice and diapers. We have a shortage of pharmaceutical products. Do you know where they are going? They are going to Libya.
Add these problems together — extremism, external debt, reduction of tourist numbers, falling industrial and agricultural production with unemployed people going on strike or people striking for higher wages. Small Tunisia couldn’t bear all this.
DM: What was your economic situation before the unrest and the revolution of 2010?
RE: We had quite a prosperous economic situation as a country which was relying more on human resources rather than natural resources. We had developed tourism and the economy. We even had an agreement of partnership with the European Union, which started in 2008 and was working well.
And we discovered there is no difference between a Tunisian and an Italian, or a Frenchman or German and we were aspiring to this.
Tunisia’s image abroad is amplified in negative aspects. In some parts, yes, there are riots. Many, many tourists in the last few years did not have any problems.
DM: And unemployment?
RE: We used to have unemployment, but it was not so bad. It became worse because more than 150,000 Tunisians who were employed in Libya returned during the Libyan revolution and would like to have jobs. But we cannot distribute jobs like bread. This is a very, very painful situation for us.
And jihadists are coming from abroad. [They] are used to participating in civil wars. These are new notions which were not present in daily life in Tunisia. Tunisian people are not violent people. They are not jihadists. So we are going to become another society. If we do not accept [jihadists], there are going to be some differences, some conflict, even some violence from time to time. They will find people are discontented and stir them up.
If you have a national dialogue with them and convince them that they are outnumbered — and they are outnumbered— they cannot impose anything on us. They numbered about 3,000 [demonstrating] the day after the funeral. During the funerals, the demonstrations, there were about 1,400,000 people. It gives you an idea of the [real] picture.
We would like to conciliate Islam with modernism. Islam is not against democracy. Even the Prophet Mohammad, when he used to take decisions, most of the time, he used to consult the Comité des Sages, the wise people — a form of parliament. In Carthage, about 3,000 years ago, we had a kind of parliament even before Rome was founded. Rome’s senate was inspired by ours. So we have in our DNA this kind of experience.
I know the Koran. I know Islam, and it is not against democracy. Extremism doesn’t exist in [the] Koran. Koran says if you kill someone, whomever this someone, you go to Hell, because you don’t have the right to remove a life. Only God can do it.
Jihad is something else. It’s war, maybe Holy War, with certain conditions. Let’s say that you are an Iraqi in Iraq and you are going to put a bomb in a market. This is not a jihad. You are going to kill an Iraqi civilian; you cannot be called martyr or jihadist. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all speaking from the same God: You cannot kill anybody. God gives you permission only if you are defending yourself.
These jihadists who are 22 or 23 didn’t even finish high school. They go to school where they are taught precepts. I am sorry, this is not an education. It is a behaviour. I am a Muslim and I am profiting from my state as a Muslim but modern at the same time. I am living in my century, in my world. These are backward ideas that have come to Tunisia and they are facing modernism.
Take the American embassy attack [by some 5,000 protesters who set fires and looted equipment that injured dozens of people and left four demonstrators dead] last September.
What happened that day was the result of a long process which started in the Middle East and involved a response to a film about our Prophet Mohammed. The numbers of protesters were much bigger than we expected. And it wasn’t spontaneous. Things got out of hand. Tunisian forces had not faced a threat of that dimension. We were very shocked because we never consider Americans or Europeans as enemies. Never.
DM: With your constitution partly drafted, what do you need to become a full-fledged democracy?
RE: We are on the right track but we should maybe turn [more] to some democratic countries, like Canada, to know more about the democratic experience.
We have quite a regular exchange of parliamentary delegations but we need more because Canada can contribute a lot. During the recent visit of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in December, he discussed this with the prime minister, speaker of the house and foreign minister.
[Mr. Baird also met with Leila Bouazizi, sister of Mohamed who set off the Arab uprisings, to wish her well during her studies in Canada.]
Mr. Baird could see there were very positive steps on the way to democracy. We are learning. Some Tunisians are not satisfied with the current process. So we need to be accompanied by our partners, like Canada, the European Union, the United States, Latin America, Asia and Africa — places that have had a positive experience with this such as East or Central Europe, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, where I was a diplomat.
But we are insisting that ours should be a democracy tailored to local criteria. We are not only Muslim, but we are a North African country, a Mediterranean country and an African country.
DM: Amnesty International published a report last year titled One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? One Year since Tunisia’s Landmark Elections. It documented excessive, sometimes lethal, force used by security forces against demonstrators and other civilians, suppression of evidence by military courts and anti-democratic articles in the penal code.
[The Ennahda party proposed a bill with punishments of up to two years in prison or a fine for offences against “the sacred.” “These articles,” says Amnesty International, “date back to the Ben Ali era which prescribe punishments for violating sacred values, disturbing public order and morals and have been used to stifle journalists, bloggers and artists.”]
If Tunisia doesn’t change these, how can there be freedom of speech?
RE: I am against this legislation. It is a reaction because a few people, especially in the arts, wanted to provoke the extremists and deliberately committed offences against Islam.
My president [Moncef Marzouki] won the 2012 pro-democracy Chatham House prize and was second in Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers in the World award. When I served as his diplomatic counsellor, I met Hillary Clinton, Alan Jupé and Lech Walesa, who said every revolutionary process takes six years.
I know my president. Two hours after a journalist was arrested, he wanted a press communiqué issued by the presidency against this arrest. He did it for journalists who used to insult him. And when they were arrested, he objected.
[In March, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression sent a letter, signed by some 25 international media-freedom organizations, to Ambassador Riadh and cc`d to Foreign Minister John Baird and Canada’s trade commission office in Tunisia. It cited the ban on journalists covering the National Constitutional Assembly, death threats and physical attacks on journalists, anti-media rhetoric in some mosques and during rallies of the ruling Ennahda party and the granting of broadcast licenses to Ennahda party supporters. It called for implementation of the media laws guaranteeing media freedom.]
DM: What are the solutions for Tunisia?
RE: We have in the Arab world, and even in Africa, the biggest proportion of diploma holders and they don’t have a job. We would like to find projects, such as factories and companies so people can work. When you work, when you have a roof over your head, when you have a car, you don’t make revolution.
We need investment and we need tourism. Last year, we had about four million tourists but it is not enough. Tourists who went there discovered that it is still a peaceful country. We have beautiful beaches and have developed archeological tourism. Tunisia has three very famous stages of history: The first was Carthage, where you’ll find perhaps the world’s second-best preserved colosseum.
The second was the Christian era, which lasted about six centuries. And the third period was the Muslim stage where, for about four or five centuries, Muslims were at the forefront of science and poetry. When the Moors were expelled from southern Spain, they settled in Tunisia for its similar climate and agriculture and they brought their science, technology and agricultural skills with them.
We have one of the best-quality olive oil in the world and have been cultivating olives since the Punic Wars. We export olive oil to Europe. In countries like Italy, they take our olive oil and they put it in bottles and that say: “Made in Italy.” Everybody in the Mediterranean knows about this.
DM: You export textiles, food products, petroleum and chemical products, including phosphates.
RE: We are one of the world’s major producers and exporters of phosphates. And we do have problems. People who are unemployed are blocking the work of these kinds of factories because the workers there are not from the region. And after the revolution, people demanded that they be able to work there. It is their right. It is not a state-owned industry, but close to it. Since the revolution, we have recruited a lot of people to ease the tension.
DM: What investments are you pursuing?
RE: We have called for some countries to come to Tunisia. Delegations from Turkey, U.S., Germany and France toured the south, the inner part of Tunisia where we had problems. They made feasibility studies to open factories. If they only recruit people from there, it’s enough for us. It can be agriculture, textile factories, phosphates.
You invest not only in an economy. The western world has to understand that it is an investment for democracy first. We are not asking for money. If we recover our frozen assets from abroad, we won’t need much money from abroad.
DM: How much in assets will you collect?
RE: We don’t know. In terms of figures these people have assets here [in Canada] and in Dubai because those people ruling us unfortunately used to behave like Mafia. Why did they steal that money? They invested abroad and we cannot regain it because of very harsh judicial procedures, which we respect.
DM: Do you know where Ben Ali’s friends and family invested in Canada?
RE: I don’t want to give details because it is confidential. Negotiations are going smoothly. The Canadian government has already frozen the assets. I was talking to them and it seems that the Canadian authorities understand the problem very well now. It takes a lot of time because some assets were well hidden.
DM: Ben Ali’s brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi, fled to Canada and is living here. What is his status?
RE: I don’t want to talk about his case because it is under discussion. He came here to stay but his residence permit expired a few months ago. He asked the court to review it and he gained another year.
It is one of my missions to expedite things, to recover the assets, but also we don’t want this kind of person to benefit from Canadian generosity. Canada is known for its hospitality. Political refugees we can understand as immigrants, but not this kind of person.
DM: What other solutions are you seeking internationally?
RE: We would like universities to open their doors to Tunisians because many Tunisians have studied here, or come through immigration or are directly recruited by companies. The people I met recently were in high positions and perfectly suited to their job.
I tell you, yes, there are certain things which are not good now in Tunisia.
You talked earlier about behaviour of the army. But don’t forget the army was the country’s salvation. Ben Ali ordered the soldiers to shoot people. The last days before the end of the revolution, when they were forced to defend the president, soldiers refused to shoot the people. The army chief of staff could have been killed for rejecting the order, but he refused to fire on the people because, he said, there was no threat to the country.
[Contrast this with] what is happening in Syria now, where you may have 300 people dying every day.
When Tunisia doesn’t kill 10,000 people, the media don’t speak about it because it is a small country. Because it is peaceful. Sometimes this is a very bad side of journalism. When you find people dying every day, you become important [to the media].
There are a lot of things to do in Canada. I want to change the perception of Tunisia.
If you don’t accompany us on this democratic process, it will be much harder for us because we are being forced by a global tendency in the Middle East to change things in a radical manner. We have to avoid it.
Donna Jacobs is Diplomat’s publisher.