NEW YORK – In the midst of all the concerns swirling around the future of the democratic process in Tunisia, Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki came to New York in a bid to reassure the world that Tunisia is on the right track.
“Today, one year and half after the revolution, Tunisia continues to progress. But it also faces a great deal of very serious social and economic problems, inherited from a system, which lasted two decades and was marked by the prevalence of corruption, fraud, and oppression,” stated Marzouki during his address to world leaders at the occasion of the General Debate of the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly – an event that was avoided by Tunisia’s former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Protecting human rights is considered among the challenges encountering Tunisia’s nascent democracy. Several human rights violations, namely torture, have been reported and pushed many to question the human rights situation in post-revolutionary Tunisia, especially when the head of state happens to be a human rights activist, who refuses to be called “a former human rights activist” and insists that defending human rights is his ultimate endeavor.
In an interview with Tunisia Live, Marzouki said that before the revolution torture was systematic, but now the policy is anti-torture and all those incidents are isolated cases.
“However, even those individual cases are unacceptable under any circumstances. They prove that the old police system still exists with the same mentality and has not changed. Therefore, the change of mentality will take a lot of time. Changing the mentality will be achieved through punishment. Every time, an incident happens we have to focus on it, so it becomes an example. The messages to be conveyed to the security system are ‘Watch out, We are not here to only talk,’” said Marzouki. He added that he is in the process of establishing a network to monitor the situation as “violations undoubtedly continue to happen.”
Tunisian civil society has been recently moved by the story of a woman, who was raped by two policemen. What offended even more the sensitivities of civil society was the comment of the spokesperson of the Ministry of the Interior, who said that the female victim was “caught in an immoral situation with her male companion,” which was denied by the victim.
“That is shameful,” commented Marzouki.
“I asked Mrs. Ben Sedrine [Tunisian journalist and human rights activist] to bring the girl as I wanted to talk to her and tell her that I don’t accept what happened to you and apologize to her on behalf of the state (…) I don’t want to interfere in the work of the judiciary, but for me I don’t accept any encroachment upon the honor of women or citizens. I am always on the side of the people against any violation of their rights. It is impossible to subjugate human rights in the name of the state (…) I support all the actions to preserve women’s dignity in general and the dignity of this woman in particular. The primary case is the rape, and we should not detract from it. The assailants have to be punished for that,” he said.
On January 14, 2011, Tunisia drew the attention of the world and surprised political analysts when a series of popular demonstrations culminated in the ouster of the former Ben Ali regime. A few weeks later, the Tunisian revolt proved contagious and reached Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. Since then, people from around the world have been observing the unfolding of events in Tunisia. Freedom in the Arab world was accompanied by a rise of Islamism, oppressed for a long time prior to the uprisings. In Tunisia, Ennahdha won more than one third of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), tasked with drafting a new constitution. The question today is over whether the Constitution will have Islamist overtones and how much will it be similar to constitutions in Western liberal democracies.
Marzouki said that different political tendencies representing the different elements of the Tunisian society are all participating in
the drafting of the constitution and that it is normal that each of them would try to impose its orientation.
“You cannot prevent the conservative portion of the society from focusing on preserving the Arab-Muslim identity. But, for me I think that the Constitution must also focus on granting rights and liberties. Therefore, the Constitution would include the Arab-Muslim identity as it is part of the demands of people but would also grant rights and liberties. This would be the Constitution that would bring all Tunisians together. Our Constitution will be a constitution, which meets the aspirations of all factions of Tunisian society without excluding any party. It would be balanced. I will work hard to make sure that gender equality, human rights, civil rights, syndical rights, and cultural rights are mentioned in the Constitution,” he said.
Whether primacy will be given to international treaties or domestic laws is also a point of contention. In this regard, Marzouki stated that his party supports the supremacy of international treaties over domestic laws and demands the insertion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Constitution.
“The supremacy of international law for me is evident (…) There is no state that can say that its laws have the supremacy over international law,” said Marzouki.
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, collective and individual rights, and equality are red lines for me,” he reiterated.
As October 23, the anniversary of Tunisia’s first democratic election, approaches, many parties in Tunisia are raising the issue of the legitimacy of the NCA, which was scheduled to deliver the constitution after a year, and that of the government, which was appointed by the NCA.
“It [the debate over such legitimacy] is just a fuss (…) It is incited. The National Constituent Assembly is the only legitimate authority because it is elected by the people. If it decides to extend its term for six months, no force can prevent it,” he said.
“However, the problem is that it was promised to the people that drafting the Constitution would not take more than a year. But since the very begining, I said that a constitution cannot be written in one year. I also said that it cannot happen in less than three years,” recounted Marzouki, who asserted that there is no alternative but to wait until the NCA finishes drafting the Constitution.
“It is chaotic and deepening the problems in Tunisia (…) However, we should pressure ourselves and try to deliver the Constitution as soon as possible,” he added.
“I hope that the Constitution will be the gift of the Constituent Assembly, the government, and the presidency to the Tunisian people on the second anniversary of the revolution. It would be great if you could announce the Constitution next January 14 (…) I hope we can hold our elections by next March or April. The sooner the better (…) Let us put the country back on the right track,” he concluded.