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'We would have been in danger if not for the Libyan uprising': Tunisian President

Tunisian interim President Fouad Mebazaa gives his views on the chaos of the moment and the bumpy road to a brighter future, six months after Mohamed Bouazizi set off revolution in over four Arab countries

Salma Hussein in Tunis, Friday 17 Jun 2011
Fouad Mebazaa
(Photo AP)
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On 15 January, Tunisia had a new president, its third in 24 hours.

Fouad Mebazaa, who was president of the lower house of the parliament under Ben Ali, was sworn in as chief of state in less than a day after the former president fled the country and handed power to his prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi.

On 17 June, six months after Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest, Tunisians are overwhelmed by their own achievement and concerned over their transition to a fully democratic state. On assuming his position the interim spoke to a small group of journalists who were visiting Tunisia about how the interim government is dealing with the current economic crisis, which political system he prefers and the perilous impact on Tunisia of revolutions and uprisings in neighbouring states.

“It's very important that Tunisia should get back on its feet in the future. The constitution and the elections are not the end. It's only the beginning.”

Mebazaa sees the daily sprouting of political parties as a sham. “I know it is quite normal, but they have not yet played the role they should be playing; it is all electoral posturing,” he said.  There are some 90 new parties to date, all created after the January 14 revolution. “They must develop programmes and lobby for their visions for their future implementation.”

The parties will compete in the upcoming Constituent Council elections, initially scheduled for 24 July  and subsequently postponed to 16 October. The elections should be a model for Tunisia’s special new electoral system. The 78-year-old president argues that political differences will not affect the vote much. “For now, only the economic programmes will count, everybody knows the economy will be prioritized over politics.” Tunisia has been witnessing mass strikes and sit-ins since the ousting of the old regime. Tourism is stagnant and growth is slowing down to nearly one per cent.

Yet nothing could be further from consensus than the current debates on how to deal with the economy “When we seek help from the United States or Europe and friendly countries, people say, ‘You are selling Tunisia.’ But what is there to sell? We have received officials from Switzerland and Africa, they all show support for the revolution. We urge them to help us and to invest [in the country]. If one seeks foreign investment one is doing so for the sake of the future.”

As a gesture in support of the Arab Spring, the G-8 summit announced an aid and debt package of some $20 billion for Egypt and Tunisia. Like Egyptians, Tunisians expressed irritation with the idea of foreign debt. Mebazaa, however, looks at it differently: “All countries go in debt, even the richest, starting with the United States.”

The interim president eschewed making a statement on Ben Ali when asked to do so. He also avoided the word “revolution” as the term for what happened in Tunisia, insisting on “evolution” instead -- focusing on the path he sees Tunisia following. “For me Spain is a model of transformation and effort, especially economically. We must follow the Spanish model of revolution, or rather evolution. Throughout my political career, I saw revolutions, changes and reforms in many countries. I think Tunisia will follow a successful path once it has been through this difficult transition. I am an optimist and I keep providing myself with energy to continue to be.”

When asked if he had changed his mind about runing for president in Tunisia’s first ever presidential elections -- Mebazaa had announced he would not be -- he unhesitatingly said no.

“I said no when all this started and I have not change my mind: I won't run for  the presidency. I am only here for the interim period. This country was always built by the young, whether before independence or after. I remember those thousands of young people who abandoned their studies or their work to contribute to the newly independent Tunisia by taking on menial tasks. I have been in politics since December 1960. At my age I should have a cushy retirement.”

Yet it is thanks to his age, it is believed, that Tunisians have been willing to accept a face of the former regime. Mebazaa has no decision-making power, however; that remains in the hands of the Commission for the Achievement of the Objectives of the Revolution and Democratic Transition. It was created right after the revolution, bringing together women and young people affiliated with official “opposition” parties and various Internet bloggers as well as figures belonging to the former regime.  

“The future political system is a matter that will be decided by the Higher Commission for Transition. On a personal note, I think we need a mixed system. We cannot have a parliamentary system like what they have in Italy, but neither should we fall into the trap of a presidential system that can turn to a dictatorship. We must establish a presidential system monitored by the legislative council.”

Contrary to many, the interim leader sees the effects on Tunisia of what is happening in Libya in a positive light. “I don’t think there are dangers. We would be in danger if it wasn't for the Libyan problem. Because Colonel Gaddafi said from day one that Ben Ali should not go. And I personally think that he was rallying all those forces against Tunisia: the troops and the mercenaries from Africa. Fortunately there was an awakening among the people of Benghazi. If there hadn’t been, Tunisia would have been the target. And because of the refugee problem, by receiving a few shots every day, we are helping both sides, because we are contributing to them disarming.”

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