Doha, Qatar – Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s first president after the 2011 revolution, says he fears what may happen if he goes home.
In an interview with Al Jazeera ahead of Tunisia’s parliamentary elections on Saturday, Marzouki said the country’s current leader, Kais Saied, was part of a “counter-revolution” against the 2011 uprising and attempting to return to the pre-revolution political system, starting with the new constitution the president introduced after a July referendum.
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“Once again, [it is] the rule of one man, all the power gathered by one man,” Marzouki said. “And this is exactly what we didn’t want after the revolution … The will of one man has destroyed Iraq, has destroyed Syria, has destroyed Libya.”
“This guy, he’s coming back to the old political system, and he will face the same problems faced by his predecessors, because one man cannot rule a nation.”
Saied is a populist figure who was elected as Tunisia’s president in 2019 on a platform that blamed the country’s economic woes on the political elite that had run Tunisia since 2011 – including people like Marzouki.
Since then, he has gradually entrenched himself in power. Prior to the new referendum, which changed the country’s system from a hybrid parliamentary one to a presidential system, he suspended and then dismissed parliament in July 2021, and opponents have accused him of returning what had been regarded as the Arab Spring’s main success story to a dictatorship, and cracking down on his opponents.
Marzouki explains Saied’s rise by arguing that more time was needed for the revolution to bear fruits, and that he had seized on the populace’s frustrations.
“Democracy cannot deliver immediately,” Marzouki said. “People are impatient because they have suffered for so long under the dictatorship … And then you have this kind of politician coming [and saying] ‘hey, look the democracy is not delivering anything, they are just talking, look at the corruption.’”
Not everyone agrees with Marzouki’s analysis.
Many in Tunisia, including Saied’s supporters, say Marzouki and other political figures who dominated the post-2011 years, such as Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahdha, once the biggest party in parliament, failed, and that change was necessary.
Some even refer to the past 10 years as “the black decade”.
But Marzouki swats away those criticisms. While admitting to some mistakes – such as a lengthy three-year transition period where little was done to improve the economy – the former president said the main problems had resulted because of an anti-revolution attitude among “regional powers”.
“The failure of Tunisia is in fact the failure of the Arab Spring as a whole,” Marzouki said. “Democratisation in any country is no longer a domestic issue; it’s a regional issue, and an international issue. It means that Tunisia couldn’t succeed by any means because of the decision taken at a regional level, by regional powers, to stop and to sabotage the democratic transition.”
When asked, Marzouki did not specify the regional powers he referred to. However, the United Arab Emirates in particular has been accused by members of Tunisia’s opposition of undermining Tunisia’s democracy.
While avoiding any direct public statements on Tunisia’s internal political affairs, the UAE reaffirmed its support for the country’s government following the suspension of parliament and has largely backed Saied.
Marzouki said Tunisia’s opposition, which was unable to organise a unified front even during the constitutional referendum campaign earlier this year, was deeply divided and unable to counter Saied’s narrative, even if the turnout for the referendum was low.
“I am working hard in Tunisia to make them sit together, talk together, forget about the ideological differences,” said Marzouki, who established one of Tunisia’s main left-wing parties. “[But] even in Tunisia we couldn’t overcome this gap between the secularists and the Islamists … I think the change will come from within the society and not from the political parties. Political parties will join the wave, but probably they [are] not going to drive it.”
And Marzouki believes that change is inevitable, because of what he argues is the inability of Saied to deliver. But he worries about future protest movements.
“What I am afraid of is that it [the protests] could be more violent … because the level of frustration and anger among the youth is extremely high,” said Marzouki. “The governments are afraid because they do know that the next revolution there will be no transitional justice or pardons.”
“Talking about an Arab Spring is not the most accurate image, [the most accurate image would be] an Arab volcano,” Marzouki added.
“You look at the volcano and it’s stable … but at any time the volcano can burst because the pressure inside the volcanoes is mounting.
“The pressure is poverty, is humiliation, is frustration, is anger. And all these ingredients are working inside the volcano. Nobody knows exactly how, and nobody knows exactly when the volcano will erupt, but you can be sure that the volcano will burst.”