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Tunisian President Marzouki: On Being The Secularist Partner Of Islamist Majority

"Tunisia Has Not Become Islamist..." So declares newly installed President of the Republic Moncef Marzouki, a longtime opposition leader, now considered the secularist counterweight to the majority Islamist party, Ennahda.

Moncef Marzouki
Moncef Marzouki
Taïed Moalla

TUNIS - A year after Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia, longtime opposition leader Moncef Marzouki, 66, has spent the past month settling in as the new resident of the Carthage Palace, as Tunisia's new President of the Republic. The trained neurologist and avowed secularist, whose party came in second after the Islamist party Ennahda in October's election, met us in his presidential office.

Le Temps: Are you getting used to being called "Mr. President?" How does that feel?

Moncef Marzouki: The problem is not about getting used to the title, but the responsibilities. We are facing a tsunami of problems, for which we are more or less prepared. We have to act fast. And above all, learn fast and well.

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali (of the Ennahda party) has made it understood that Tunisia's relationship with Saudi Arabia is more important than the request to the Saudi government for the extradition of Ben Ali. You instead have demanded the extradition. Don't you have the impression that the official position is not clear on this point?

Whenever there are two people sharing space, it is perfectly normal to have a certain difference in perception on certain points. Both of us are looking out for Tunisia's interests. I don't want to endanger our relations with Saudi Arabia. But at the same time, one of the ways to promote the relationship is for Saudi Arabia to accept that it has to deliver Ben Ali to us, that it stops protecting him. Asylum rights are sacred when it comes to protecting someone who has had his rights violated, but you can not give asylum to a criminal. We have 300 martyrs, and he is largely responsible for those political assassinations. That's without even discussing the colossal sums of money that the man stole from the country. For me, it is obvious that Ben Ali is a criminal and a killer.

Is it possible to imagine a middle ground, such as Ben Ali's extradition to The Hague or some other place?

We have suggested that to our Saudi friends. We just want them to tell him to leave their country and to seek refuge elsewhere. Then, at that moment, we can send out an Interpol notice against him.

The results of the October 23 election (with Ennahda scoring a comfortable victory) were greeted unenthusiastically in the West. Is there a lack of understanding regarding the Islamic vote?

Westerners look at things through the lens of their own culture and habits. They have to be able to open themselves up to other ways of thinking. Let me remind you that there are Christian Democrat parties in Italy and Germany. They are conservative parties, more or less to the right, that have a strong religious association and that play along in the game of democracy. We have to stop confusing Muslim with Islamist and Islamist with terrorist. Tunisia is a normal country with a normal political range from the extreme right to the extreme left. Ennahda is a center-right party that formed a coalition with two secular parties from the center-left. Tunisia has not become Islamist. That is the reality, and the rest is just fantasy.

Many people in Tunisia have said that your rhetoric has become more "Islamized" in the past couple of weeks...

That is a false perception. There was even a news wire report that had me saying that we had to accept the vote for the Islamists because Islam is the solution. I never said that! All I said is that we have to accept the choices made at the polls. There's a certain amount of intoxication. We have to continue to emerge from the fog that has been spread by the people who are not happy about having lost power and who do not accept the revolution.

You have prolonged the state of emergency to March, but at the same time you are calling on tourists to visit Tunisia. Isn't that contradictory?

The state of emergency allows us to give a legal framework to a situation that continues to be explosive, with all the strikes and protests. I certainly hope that in the next three months we will be able to lift the state of emergency. At any rate, the trouble is strictly local. No one here has ever attacked a tourist.

Are you against the niqab (the full veil) in universities?

I am for the freedom of dress, but there are obviously some security principles that need to be respected. I also told the academics, when I spoke to them, to stop concentrating on that. It is really trivial, considering that there are 700,000 unemployed people in the country. We can't work ourselves up just because there is a woman who wants to where the niqab. We are not going to make that a governmental question.

The thing that particularly concerned people was your differentiation of Tunisian women based on what they wear.

That is an unjust accusation. I have never stopped saying that equality between men and women is a red line. My desperate political adversaries are prepared to jump on any phrase and take it out of context.

What did you think of the cries of "Death to the Jews," coming from some people who came to welcome the Palestinian leader of Hamas, Ismaïl Haniyeh, last week at the Tunis-Carthage airport?

It is grotesque and deplorable. I condemn it in the most absolute way possible. They are idiots who say stupid things.

Several French publications have not been distributed in Tunisia for the past couple of days, and it is not clear why. Is this censorship?

I am deeply attached to the freedom of the press, including the freedom to defend atheism and to attack Islam. But you have to know where to stop when you are offending others' religious sensibilities.

Will you be a candidate in the next elections?

I don't know. I am taking my time to see. But, in the end, it is the people who will be the judge.

You have always expressed your opposition to the death penalty. Do you think you will be able to to be first Arab-Muslim head of state to abolish it?

When I became president, I found 93 people, including three women, on death row. They have been pardoned (Marzouki is apparently referring to the fact that the sentences were commuted to life in prison). I will never sign an execution order. I am a convinced abolitionist. Considering the composition of the Constituent Assembly and the public opinion, I am not sure if we can abolish the death penalty. But we can get a moratorium that would make the practice impossible, even if for now we cannot abolish it in black and white.

Read more from Le Temps in French

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