Conference organised by European centre-right parties with Tunisian Islamists comes under fire by leftists.
Tunis, Tunisia – A right-wing group in the European parliament has rejected the accusation levelled by an alliance of Tunisian leftists that it is representing a new trend of neocolonialism.
In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Daniel Hannan, secretary-general of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR), stressed the aim of organising a summit of centre-right-wing parties in Tunisia was not an attempt to impose Western norms on Muslim-majority countries.
Hannan said the aim of the event was, on the contrary, an attempt to stress shared principles on both sides of the Mediterranean through strengthening mainstream free-market and conservative parties in emerging democracies in North Africa and the Middle East.
Al Jazeera: What is the initiative you are launching from Tunisia?
Daniel Hannan: The Conservatives and Reformists Initiative brings together moderate centre-right parties from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East united by shared principles: the rule of law, personal liberty, open competition, national sovereignty, low taxes, sound money, parliamentary supremacy, religious pluralism, private property.
Al Jazeera: What is the purpose of this initiative?
Hannan: The CRI aims to strengthen mainstream free-market and conservative parties in emerging democracies in North Africa and the Middle East. It runs practical programmes designed to strengthen the organisational capacity of each political party, supports campaign and communications operations and assists with policy development.
Al Jazeera: Why did you choose Tunisia as a host country for the event?
Hannan: Tunisia is a success story in a region that currently needs success stories.
Here, at least, few people regret the Arab Spring. Some neighbouring countries have replaced one autocratic regime with another; others have collapsed into lawlessness. But Tunisia is arguably happier, wealthier and freer than at any time in its history.
Sadly, not every nation has followed Tunisia’s trajectory. Authoritarian regimes have a way of calling into existence authoritarian opponents.
Many strongmen in North Africa and the Middle East justified their despotism by presenting themselves as the only alternative to Islamic fundamentalism. Such arguments have a way of becoming self-fulfilling. If people are told often enough that the only alternative to brutal, self-serving, oligarchic regimes is religious extremism, some of them will come to believe it.
Al Jazeera: How can this initiative help Tunisia and other countries of the region?
Hannan: It is worth recalling what sparked the revolution in 2010 – which spread from Tunisia across North Africa and the Middle East. The risings began when Mohamed Bouazizi, a market trader, was driven to the horrific extreme of self-immolation because he had been denied ownership of his own goods and the right to engage in commerce.
His was a protest against the violation of property rights, and he was not alone.
In an authoritative study of the Arab Spring, the Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, chronicled many other cases of entrepreneurs in Arab countries being driven to suicide by police corruption and harassment.
The Arab Spring, in other words, began as a movement against arbitrary government. Citizens were fed up with living under regimes that could make up the rules as they went along, seizing property without due process, rigging the law in favour of their clients.
Gathering in Tunis as conservatives, we recognise Mohamed Bouazizi and those who followed as heroes of our cause. Theirs was a battle for freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, freedom of association and, not least, freedom to enjoy your own property.
Al Jazeera: The leftist parties in Tunisia say that the event is no more than a family reunion of the centre-right parties. What do you think about that?
Hannan: It’s true. Socialists have their Socialist International, and good luck to them. Conservatives, too, should learn from each other’s experiences and work together in a common cause.
We have 200 delegates from over 30 political parties from around the world. They come from different countries and creeds, but they share a belief in free nations, free peoples and free markets.
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Hannan: It’s the precise opposite of the truth. Liberty is a universal aspiration. Nothing could be more false than the idea that free markets are somehow a Western imposition on Muslim countries.
Islam was the only major religion founded by a businessman – a businessman who refused to regulate prices when asked to, and who used his last sermon to declare that property was inviolate.
The early Islamic world was the centre of global commerce.
As one of our conference speakers, Benedikt Koehler, has argued, the earliest origins of capitalism can be traced not to the first commercial firms in Holland and England, nor to the trading ventures of the northern Italian city-states – but to two Islamic institutions: the joint-stock venture that invested in merchant caravans; and the waqf, a form of charitable trust which created a civil space between government and citizen.
If anything is a Western imposition in this region, it’s not the ideology of free markets. Rather, it is the debased creed which led to Nasserism and Baathism.
Al Jazeera: The Ben Ali regime had also used the word “reformism” as a cover under which corruption and lack of opportunities reigned. How will your initiative benefit local communities that are disillusioned and traumatised already from past “reformist” approaches?
Hannan: The Ben Ali regime was a classic example of an extractive state: It was an oligarchy in which the law served the ends of the rulers, not the general population.
Private property and free contracts, enforced by an independent judiciary, are the way to ensure that the general population, not just the elites, benefit from growth.
We need more freedom on both sides of the Mediterranean. That’s what we mean by reform.