On November 29th, 2022, HKS Student Policy Review Senior Editor Samriddhi Vij sat down with the former President of Tunisia Moncef Marzouki to discuss democracy in the Arab world, with a special focus on civil movements and women’s rights.
Moncef Marzouki was the first democratically elected president of Tunisia after the January 14th Revolution in 2011, a seminal moment in modern Arab history which heralded the onset of multiple popular revolutions throughout the Arab World. Elected to the presidency by the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly, President Marzouki is Tunisia’s first president in modern history to arrive at his position through fair and transparent elections.
Upon assuming the presidency, Moncef Marzouki embarked on a mission to “open the doors” of the presidential palace through campaigns of transparency, participative democracy, and by encouraging a safe public space for civil organisations to flourish.
During his mandate, Moncef Marzouki was a voice of social and revolutionary activism, calling for civilian rights, curtailment of the security apparatus, and economic sovereignty, and transformed the presidency into a position of service to the Tunisian public. Occupying a middle ground between secularist and Islamist political standpoints, Moncef Marzouki was instrumental in creating a dialogue between all political, social, and religious tendencies in Tunisia, clearing the ground for an inclusive, stable, and consensus-based Tunisian democracy to take root.
Samriddhi Vij is a Senior Editor for Democracy, Politics and Institutions at Harvard Kennedy School’s Student Policy Review. She is also a Master’s in Public Policy student at the Kennedy School. She focuses on Middle Eastern policy and politics, peacebuilding and programming in conflict-affected areas. Previously, she has worked with the Executive Office of the Secretary General at the United Nations.
The transcript below has been reproduced to reflect the original language of the interview as closely as possible, and has only been lightly edited for clarity, length and grammar. The opinions presented below are the personal views of the interview participants, and are not the official stances of the HKSSPR or the Republic of Tunisia.
What do you think has been the major challenge to furthering women’s rights in the Middle East in general and Tunisia, specifically?
Well, it’s a very difficult question because it’s related to the deep culture of the population. In Tunisia, women have been given all the rights by the state, while society is more reluctant to accept equality between men and women. But we have done a lot. In another country in North Africa, Mauritania, which is also an Arab Muslim country, you have exactly the opposite situation. Culturally, women have more rights than men, but the legislation is far behind. So you have different situations, and I think in the Middle East, the problem is that the society is backward and legislation is also backward, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia. Now things are improving. Even in Saudi Arabia, over the last decade, women are gaining more and more rights. This is due to a new generation of well-educated individuals. Things are improving very fast. It’s a general phenomenon everywhere, but in the Arab world, the level of education among young girls is getting better than that of boys. I have seen this myself when I was a professor of Public Health at the University of Sousse. Year after year, there were more girls than boys. There is a new problem as there are now more educated girls than boys. This is very new for our society. So what I mean is that our society is extremely moving and trying to adapt to new values. It won’t take a long time before we reach the same level as Europe.
Can you point out any major challenges that are inhibiting this, or do you not see any challenges?
The main challenge is the fact that this society is extremely conservative. Maybe because we also have a rise in the Islamist wave who accept some kind of equality but not that much. Given this rise of the Islamist movement and the fact that society is deeply conservative it will take time, but I know that we’re going forward in a good direction.
You spoke about the Islamist wave. Why do you think Islamist parties are so popular and why has the secularist agenda failed?
There is a misunderstanding about the reason for the rise of the Islamist wave. People think, mainly in the West, that it’s driven by religious reasons and that people vote for Islamist parties solely because of Islam. In fact, it’s not about Islam, it’s about morality. People are fed up with the corruption of the secularists, which they are not. They are a dictatorship more than anything else. So, when there are free elections, people may vote for Islamist parties because the common idea is that the Islamist party is less corrupt than the secularist party.
In fact, after years of experience, it’s obvious now that it’s not true. Islamist parties are just like other political parties, as seen in Morocco. They have tried the Islamist party and then these parties are no longer in charge. Exactly what happened in Tunisia, exactly what happened in Egypt. This is why I always tell my secularist friends, who are afraid of the Islamist wave, that let them govern. You will see that they are not going to deliver, then the population will understand that they are in fact just like any other party.
Why do you think they are perceived as less corrupt? Do you think it is because the Muslim Brotherhood is more in touch with the community or because they can uphold Islamist values?
Two reasons. First, during the 70’s, the Islamist movement was very smart. Leaving ideology to the secularists, leaving power to the ruling elite, and working with the population on the field, providing health care, help during holidays, etc. This is why they became accepted, admired, and even loved by the poorest part of the population. Now the situation is completely different because they were harassed, arrested, etc., and they had no link with the population and could not work with them on the field. The other reason is that the voter supposed that if someone was praying to God, they would be less corrupt. This is the hypothesis. Once again, this proved to be wrong, because when they are in charge, they behave exactly like any other political party.
Just shifting gears a little bit, do you think that the relative failure of the Arab Spring, to bring about democracy has impacted the status of women’s rights in the region?
Yes. If you consider Egypt, there are about 100,000 people jailed by the dictator and all of them are men. This fact would of course impact the life of a woman. I think that the failure of the Arab Spring is probably going to slow down the process of giving rights to all citizens, among them women. This is how we can say that it’s a loss for them that the Arab Spring has failed. We must remember that women do not have only social rights, but they also have political rights. They are also citizens. When the democratic process fails, they lose, like men, all their political rights.
You spoke about Saudi Arabia, and how Saudi Arabia has been implementing more progressive reforms. Do you think that democracy is important for the progress of women’s rights in the Middle East, or an authoritarian country, like Saudi Arabia can also implement more progressive reforms?
Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship. Even if you give some rights to the population, to the women, don’t forget that women are human beings, citizens, and in need of freedom of expression, etc. When you deprive the population of these freedoms, you cannot say that you will improve women’s rights. Unless you consider women as a part of the population with special needs and not interested at all in social political equality. I don’t think so. This is why I don’t believe that what is done in Saudi Arabia is good for the population, among them women.
Just to understand, you’re saying that it is not good what has been done in Saudi Arabia because?
It’s very superficial. This is not the problem. The problem is that the whole population, men and women, need their political rights. They are deprived of their political rights, women like men.
Why would you say that it is very superficial?
Once again, women, like men, who live under a dictatorship live without freedom of expression, without dignity, without all what we consider basic human rights. Whether you are a man or woman, living under a dictatorship means you have lost your dignity, your freedom, and your right to control your own destiny.
So you would say that democracy is important for progress of rights?
Of course. Democracy is Article 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Democracy is a part of human rights.
We saw the Arab Spring in the Middle East, do you think there will be more pro-democracy revolutions in the Middle East in the coming years? What role do you see women playing in these?
Of course, there will be more revolutions because the situation is like volcanoes ready to erupt. They erupted in 2011 and the main causes were corruption, poverty, and humiliation. Those main causes didn’t disappear from the country. Now there is even more humiliation, more frustration and more poverty. So I’m expecting, once again, a very, very large eruption and in the next decade or years.
What role do you see women playing in these revolutions?
The main problem is that we have an old political regime that comes from the Middle Ages. Then we have a new political actor which is the new generation, youth which is educated and connected but without hope. Mainly because the economy is at a standstill. Look, we have about 100 million young people but they have no future, they can not imagine themselves with a job, a husband or wife, a house, children, etc. They are desperate and I think they will not accept that a tiny minority will have all the wealth and power in the country. I can assure you that I am very upset because I know that the main actors will probably be the youth and they will take to the streets. They will be unfortunately killed and wounded. This is exactly what happened during the first burst of the volcanoes. I hope that the elite of the middle class, mainly moderate conservative and moderate secularist, would join the effort together. They would make sure that this revolution would not lead to any kind of chaos. This is what I am working for. I am going to invite around 100 political actors from the Arab world to sit together and discuss how we can prevent violence if there is a new outburst of revolutions. What can we do? How can we organise? How can we talk to the young people? Maybe we try to possibly reach a consensus with the government, if there are wise people in the government who can help to avoid this? The situation is very fragile.
In this revolution that you see coming up, how can women be more involved and what role they can play?
Women are always involved. Look, in Tunisia, the General Secretary of my party is a woman. I have a lot of women in my entourage, and women are playing important roles at every level. Even the Prime Minister in Tunisia is a woman now. So I think it’s no longer a problem of women and men, it’s a problem of democrat and anti-democrat. We have a lot of women working on both sides. We also have women working against the revolution, don’t forget that, because they are part of the corrupt elite. We have suffered a lot from this as well. I have talked about the wife of Ben Ali and how she was the most hated person in the region. So the situation is, in fact, very complex.
Shifting direction a little bit to the current protests in Iran. During the Arab spring, we saw that women were at the forefront of a lot of protests but then the women’s rights agenda was sidelined in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Now we see women are at the forefront of protests in Iran. What do you think this means for the future of women’s rights specifically in Iran?
In Iran, women were really harassed by the regime. The fact that they had to wear the scarf meant for the regime that, “I am controlling the women.” This is not the case even under the dictatorship, it was not that important for the dictatorship of Tunisia to control women. It wasn’t that important for them to wear the scarf or not. The difference with Iran is that women were really targeted. This is why the revolution now has this originality, that women are at the forefront of the battle. I really admire these women and of course, we support them. Behind the problem of women, is once again the problem of the dictatorship. Dictatorship is something awful, not only for women but also for men. I think men are also suffering in Iran and this is why it’s very interesting to see that men are supporting women in their fight, which hasn’t happened before. Let’s say in Saudi Arabia, when women protested for the right to drive, they were not supported by men. In Iran, I saw that they had a lot of support from men, and this is good news.
What do you think the next steps are? Do you think this protest will die down or is it going to improve the status of women?
It’s a process. In fact, it’s not the first time that Iranians took to the streets. There have been a lot of protests against the regime. This is weakening the regime day after day. I don’t think suddenly we would have a democratic regime in Iran overnight, but the regime is weakening and probably will try to look for some kind of agreement with the population. I don’t know but what I’m sure of is that the process of weakening and slowly destroying the dictatorship is going on. At the end, I think the Iranian people will prevail.
In the Middle East, what do you think are some of the ways to bring more gender progressive values and policies that are not affected by the unstable government and frequent regime change?
In my view, professionally as a human rights activist, the main problems faced by women in our society are poverty and lack of freedoms. These issues are more important than any other. The fact that women are also citizens suffering from the lack of freedom and are deprived of their socio-economic rights, is the main problem. If we improve the political and economic situation, it would automatically lead to an improvement in women’s rights. I do not share the point of view that the problem of women is different from the general struggle for political and social rights.
You also see that the socio-economic situation of the country is determined by the government and the regime. The regime changes are so quick. Every time there is a change in regime, the social and political situation will change, and that will impact women’s conditions. Do you see a way which can surpass this regime change in terms of progressiveness for women?
You’re talking about the fact that the regime is changing very fast. In fact, no, some political regimes have lasted for more than three-four decades. These regimes, because they are corrupt and conservative are the most important enemy of women’s and men’s rights. I do believe that if we get rid of dictatorship, if we promote social and economic rights for everybody, women would be the most important part of the population enjoying this improvement. Of course, there are also problems with gender equality due to the culture. Women are considered less valuable and I can understand this. Once again, this is also linked to the dictatorship and the mentality of dictatorship. For me as a political actor, the most important thing is to get rid of dictatorship, to achieve all the political freedoms and social justice. This is very important for me because I’m a social democrat. I was a physician and worked in the field for more than three decades. I saw that poverty is mainly a problem for women. This is why, when I was in charge in Tunisia, I tried to improve the situation by setting up programs for improving the economic situation of women. So, I think that the way we have to tackle the problem is to see the root of the problem. The root of our problem is the dictatorship.
Final question. What do you think is the role of the international community in terms of supporting change specifically for women in the Middle East?
I don’t believe Western governments are that much interested in fighting dictatorship in the Middle East because for them the most important thing is business as usual. This is why I don’t expect anything. Maybe they can put some pressure on the government to improve some rights. Of course, civil society in the West can also put pressure on their governments and our governments. Of course, they are welcome.