Arab Spring started as movement for justice, but ended in catastrophe – ex-Tunisian president

The Arab Spring began with high hopes, but seven years on, it has turned the Middle East into an open wound. What went so wrong and what is next for the region? We ask the former president of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki, where the wave of revolts started.

Follow @SophieCo_RT

Sophie Shevardnadze:Mr Moncef Marzouki, the former President of Tunisia, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. Mr Marzouki, 7 years ago, the Arab Spring infected the Middle East with hope that popular uprisings would get rid of dictators and usher in an era of prosperity. We have now only one success story out of many. Why has Tunisia managed to make this work so far, but no one else?

Moncef Marzouki: Well, first of all, let me thank you for this invitation. Of course, here in Tunisia we are extremely sorry for what happened in countries like Syria, Yemen, Libya, even in Egypt. I think, it’s really a catastrophe because these people just wanted to be free, what happened to the Syrian people, what happened to the Libyan people etc. As for Tunisia is concerned, we’re very proud because we have achieved a peaceful and democratic revolution. But you know, we are still tackling a lot of problems, we didn’t solve all our problems. I wouldn’t talk about a success story, I would talk about a half-success story. I’m often asked why Tunisia is so different. In fact, if we had this small success, I can say, it has nothing to do with the fact that we’re smarter or different than Syria or Libya. It has to do with the very structure of the Tunisian society. I can say that Tunisia is very lucky because, you know, we’re a middle-class well-educated society. We’ve had a very strong civil society for many decades. Also we’re a small country, we don’t have oil, so we don’t attract greed of foreign powers and so forth. We’re also a moderate country, this is very specific to our history.    

SS: You were Tunisia’s first president after the revolution. So what was the biggest challenge for you then? Do you feel you have fulfilled the protesters’ demands and dreams?

MM: One of the main important reasons for the revolution was the high rate of unemployment, high rate of corruption, high unemployment among graduates. I can say that if we consider that objectively, we didn’t achieve much. We still have a corrupt society, corruption is everywhere in our society. We still have high rate of unemployment, we still have a lot of bitterness especially in the hinterland. So I would say that our success story is a half-success story once again because we have achieved the political objective, but we didn’t succeed in achieving the economic goals. 

SS: I heard you say that you had nightmares back then that there’ll be another revolution within the revolution. Was it hard for you to prevent another uprising from breaking out?

MM: Well, I hope that we could tackle the huge challenges we’re facing currently. Once again, we’re facing economic problems. If Tunisia can move forward, if Tunisia in the next election can stay on the track as a democratic state and improve the economic situation, I think, we can probably improve the situation as a whole. I think, Tunisian people are wise and moderate people, and I hope, we won’t have to resort to the new revolution. But if the economic situation would worsen again and again, I’m afraid, people will say: “Hey, we’re very impressed by the fact that we have the freedom of expression and freedom of association, but it’s not enough - we want to eat.” Then I would be afraid that they would be more interested in some autocratic regime that could bring social development. But the problem is that we had had this strong regime for more than two decades, I think, with a dictator etc. But it didn’t bring any social and economic improvement. The people of Tunisia have to understand the link between democracy and social development. And this link is not yet well-understood.

SS: Like you’ve said, there’s corruption, Tunisian unemployment rates are high, finances are in disarray, the tourism industry is threatened by terrorism - I mean, it’s not that much better than under the former dictatorship, so how can you explain to young people what this was all really for, if they don’t see much difference?

MM: Well, first of all, they see a difference because for the first time Tunisians don’t live in fear. Under the dictatorship the psychological situation in the country was very bad. Tunisians were afraid of the secret police, they were afraid of everything and they used to feel ashamed of being subject to the corrupt dictatorship. So that’s why they see the difference and they will never accept the comeback of the dictatorship even if we have this economic problem. All Tunisians know that if we have had this revolution, nobody would take to the streets just because he’s angry. People had taken to the streets because they were obliged to. Tunisians would no longer accept living under this high level of oppression, high level of contempt and poverty. In fact, the main responsible for the revolution is the dictatorship. It’s the same thing in Syria. If the Syrian people took to the streets it was only because of the Syrian regime. It was the same thing in Libya, in Egypt. You cannot say, you know, to the people: “Be very careful, if you revolt you will be punished and punished.” People wouldn’t accept this kind of blackmail, you know. If we come back to the same regime with the same problems, with the same diseases, the outcome will be the new revolution one way or another. It’s a matter of time.    

SS: There are street rallies in Tunisia and people are setting themselves on fire - just like in 2011. But with less restriction on dissent, with free public discourse, with elections, will the discontent just dissipate away, or is it putting real pressure on Tunisian politicians?

MM: Yes, of course, for the first time, here in Tunisia (it’s because of the revolution, of course) we have the public opinion. The public opinion is now playing an important role to put the pressure on politicians, to improve their way of behaving. I think, it’s very important for the country like ours that people have become real citizens. Before the revolution they were just subject to the dictatorship, now currently they are citizens, they are free, they are proud to be free. For the first time we have the public opinion, and every politician is well-aware of the fact that he’s well-watched by this public opinion, by the youth, by the social media etc. And that’s our main gain from the revolution that for the first time we are free people and we are proud to be free people. And now we have to use this freedom.

SS: Sorry to interrupt, but you’ve just said it: “We’re free people.” Does the fact that you’re free people who are able to speak their minds freely means that there’s less chance for a revolution, because they say whatever they want?

MM: Yes, but this freedom is mainly used to fight the main problem. The main problem that led to the revolution is corruption. Our main problem in this country and other Arab countries is corruption. We have the corrupt elite, and this elite uses the state to its own benefit. For the first time in 3000 years of our history in Tunisia we have public opinion, we have people watching what’s happening in the state, watching the level of corruption...  

SS: But if you’re saying that you have public opinion and people watching the politicians does that mean that there’s less pressure on the politicians because there’s no danger of a revolution?

MM: Yeah.

SS: So politicians can just continue doing whatever they want because there’s no pressure, because there’s no fear of a revolution any more?...

MM: No, we’re going to have elections. And everybody knows that the elections now have nothing to do with the elections before the revolution. So, this is also a kind of pressure. You cannot change the situation overnight. We have to be patient, we need some more time. But as Tunisia is now a democratic state, I think, we will stick to this new freedom and we will not give up. Look at the situation in Libya, Syria, Yemen. You will see that people are still fighting for their freedom, they didn’t give up, even with the high amount of blood, repression and violence by the counterrevolutions. People are still fighting for their freedom. This is the new phenomena in the Arab world: no matter what the old regime would do people would fight for their freedom. This is very new and very promising.   

SS: Talking about the Arab Spring in the region as a whole, the uprisings can’t be traced to just Mubarak or Gaddafi or Saleh, since they happened in so many countries at once, but is it fair to bundle all these revolts together? I mean, surely different Arab states had different reasons for the uprisings, or did they not?

MM: I think, we have the same problem everywhere. The same problem is once again dictatorship, harsh dictatorship with massive human rights violations. All those human rights violations were hiding the most important problem which is corruption. Huge amounts of money have been spent by the local elites everywhere in the Arab world. This is unacceptable, especially for the new generation. The Arab leaders didn’t understand that they are facing the new generation, I call it the “E-generation”. This is the generation of young people, well-educated and well-informed, being aware of everything happening in the world, being part of the international social network etc. This E-generation has nothing to do with older generation, my generation, for instance, when people were not educated and could accept everything. I don’t like the word “Arab Spring”, I always talk about Arab volcanoes or earthquake. What happened in 2011 was just the first outburst of the volcanoes. And even now you can be quite sure that you will have new eruptions of volcanoes everywhere where the local regime and the local elite don’t tackle this problem of corruption and social justice.     

SS: The Libyan and Syrian cases led to all-out war. Talking specifically about Libya now, the Gaddafi regime managed to uphold the tribal power balance in the country; with Gaddafi gone, the tribes have gone to war. Do you think it’s irresponsible to start a revolt without thinking about how to keep the country together after the revolt? Basically my question is  - is it worth removing the dictator but losing the country in the process?

MM: Yes, this is exactly what many people would say everywhere. But I can’t respond to this. Who’s responsible for the Libyan situation? I think, Gaddafi was head of state for more than four decades. Why didn’t he do anything to promote education, to promote social justice etc.? Imagine that this dictator would promote the minimum of democracy, the minimum of social justice - I think, Libya would probably be now one of the richest and most stable countries in the region. But this didn’t happen. Once again, what happened in Libya, the outbreak of the revolution and the aftermath of the revolution, it’s the responsibility of Gaddafi. It’s also responsibility of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the responsibility of the dictatorship in Tunisia. Imagine that all those dictators would behave differently, imagine that in Syria Bashar al-Assad would accept the minimum of freedoms, the minimum of social justice, you wouldn’t have this catastrophe in Syria. So you don’t have to blame the people for revolt against corruption. 

SS: We’re talking about things that didn’t happen and that we can’t change. My question was with the things standing the way they stand right now - is it worth losing a country by removing a dictator?

MM: You can’t say to every country living under dictatorship: “Look, imagine, what would happen if you get rid of the dictatorship; so, please, accept repressions, please, accept corruption, please, accept everything; it would be worse if you stand for your dignity, for your rights”. If you talk to people like that, you can imagine any country living under harsh dictatorship: be careful because your fate would be worse. No, you can’t talk to people like this. The lesson would be to talk to the dictators everywhere and say to them: “Look, you have to do something for your country because if you don’t you can have your regime, your people and your country destroyed”. This is what should be said to the dictators and not to the people. This should be the lesson of the Arab Spring.

SS: Yeah, but do you think dictators are listening now?

MM: No, they are not listening because the dictator is the dictator, he doesn’t listen to anybody, he’s convinced that he’s right all the time etc. But, once again, if you have social and economic problem in the country, you can’t blame the people, you must blame the regime because the regime has the upper hand. When you have the upper hand, you’re responsible. You can’t ask the people to accept you just because it can be worse if you’re removed. 

SS: The uprising that led to the Russian revolution in 1917 started chaotically, but was quickly saddled by the organised underground revolutionary parties. Why didn’t the Arab Spring uprisings have an organised political force to lead them and focus them?

MM: When you leave under dictatorship the dictator will do everything to prevent any kind of peaceful organisations, political parties and so forth to lead the revolution. This is what happened in Libya: Gaddafi has done everything to prevent any kind of organisation, whether it was political or just NGOs. So when he was overthrown, there was a kind of vacuum, and when you have this vacuum, of course, you can have everything, you can have this violence going on. Fortunately in Tunisia, because we have had this strong civil society for many decades, even before the independence, we were lucky because we have had this group of people leading the revolution. And this is why we didn’t have this civil war and so forth.

SS: The Arab Spring protests got a lot of people really excited - the Western leaders, western media, local activists - but in the wave of excitement, what happens to the voices of people who didn’t want to come out to the streets? For instance, while people in Benghazi wanted Gaddafi out, people in Tripoli were not as excited over the idea. While people in Homs wanted Assad out, people in Aleppo were very sceptical over that proposal. Is it inevitable - ignoring this one side that isn’t yelling as loud?

MM: You know, within a society you have the loser and the winner. The society have people who are happy with the regime because they have everything they want from this regime. This is quite normal that in Syria, and even in Tunisia there are whose who are not quite happy with the fall of the dictatorship because the dictatorship is not just one person and his family that enjoys life having lots of money etc. There are thousands of people living very well under the dictatorship, so I can imagine that in Syria etc.  

SS: Do you see the danger of painting everyone who isn’t partaking in the revolutionary fervour as this “government” or “regime” as you put it all the time and you end up presenting them as a faceless mass of people without a voice? I mean, that’s how civil wars start…

MM: There’s always a majority and a minority in the society. I can assure you, that the big minority were extremely unhappy with the outcome of the Arab Spring. Look, when you have a crisis, an important political crisis, like the one we’ve had before the outbreak of the revolution, what is the solution? You cannot express your feeling as a majority, when you have no fair election. You have to take to the streets. You cannot tell people: “Look, there are people who don’t agree with you because they are happy with the regime.” You cannot tell them: “You have to be quiet, because if you revolt we are going to have a worse situation, we are going to crash you, we are going to kill you, we are going to burn the country.” You cannot tell this to people. People will take to the streets or will try to express themselves because people can no longer accept the situation they live in. That’s the reality, you have to accept this also. 

SS: Alright, Mr Marzouki, thank you very much for this interview very much. We were talking to Moncef Marzouki, the former President of Tunisia, discussing the impact of the Arab Spring seven years on in Tunisia and other Arab countries.