NEW YORK – January 14, 2011 marked the date in which the regime of former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fell after massive pro-democracy protests had swept through the country. The successful Tunisian revolution was to prove contagious as similar popular uprisings spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and other Arab states.
Many of these countries are now undergoing dramatic political transitions and struggling to create a solvent democratic system in spite of the economic woes and the varying degrees of political chaos that remain. Some are convinced that the dream for a democratic Middle East and North Africa is gradually fading with the rise of Islamism and religious extremism. Others prefer to focus on the monumental accomplishments of these countries in ousting long-standing despots and consider the instability and radicalization as natural post-conflict phenomena that will disappear once the dust has settled.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is among those who are hopeful for the future of Arab Spring countries despite the great challenges facing them. Ban sat down with Tunisia Live to discuss Tunisia’s democratic transition and the Arab Spring in its second year.
Tunisia was the country that triggered what has been labeled as the Arab Spring. What is your perception of the future of Tunisia ?
The people have achieved so far in the course of Arab Spring. Tunisia was the first country where people rose against a dictatorial regime when a young man, named Mohamed Bouazizi, sacrificed himself… He has sparked the long-oppressed people.
What about now, do you see Tunisia steadily moving towards establishing a real democracy?
Yes, this is what I believe. You have been moving steadily towards obtaining stability, social-economic development where everybody’s human rights is respected. This is what we have been observing, and this is what I am sure your people will achieve.
But in Tunisia there are some alarming signs regarding human rights. We have seen instances of human rights violations. We continue to read about people tortured in prison. What is your assessment of the situation?
I have been discussing this matter with the leadership of Tunisia—the president and the prime minister. I am optimistic, and I am confident that while you are still having some challenges and problems, your country is moving towards the right direction. We should also be practical—democracy does not come out of one free election. It needs to be supported by the people, by the government, and also the international community.
This is why the United Nations has been working very closely with the Tunisian government through our direct participation, through the UN Country Team, and I, myself, have been working very closely by visiting Tunisia.
I want to go back to this problem of blasphemy laws. Many say that, in a fragile, nascent democracy like Tunisia or Egypt, these kinds of laws are jeopardizing democracy and are also paving the way for religious dictatorship. How do you see that?
We have seen some positive developments of situations in the Arab world through the Arab Spring, but it has varied dimensions. While in countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt we have seen some positive progress, but we are still experiencing terrible atrocities happening in Syria. We have to resolve the political crisis in Syria. That means for those countries, who just started a very fragile process of democratization, the whole international community must take care and support so that they will be able to go on a sustainable development in terms of political, social, and economic development.
I have been discussing with world leaders, particularly international financial institutions—World Bank and IMF—to provide necessary support. This is a very important, critical period for those countries like Tunisia to get enough and sufficient support.
Back to Syria, what is the next step the UN would take to halt the bloodshed?
We are working very hard to bring an end to this continuing bloodshed in Syria. I am disappointed that still the international community is divided, the United Nations Security Council. Even among Syrian people, they are divided. Opposition groups are also not united.
Therefore, unity of their forces so that they can work in a coherent way with the international community. There should be a political process for a political resolution of this issue as soon as possible.
The United Nations has been providing huge humanitarian assistance to millions of these internally misplaced people and refugees.
Always on the subject of the Arab spring, do you consider the uprising happening in Kuwait and Bahrain part of
the uprisings of the Arab spring ?
We have seen such desire in Bahrain. I am concerned that people in Bahrain have not been able to fully establish themselves in terms of this.
But, I have been speaking with the king and government leaders of Bahrain that they should fully implement the recommendations done by BICI—Bahrain International Commission of Inquiry—and that they should promote national reconciliation between different ethnic groups.
For instance, yesterday, there was a demonstration in Kuwait. People were protesting against this royal decree that is allegedly preventing the opposition from playing a real role in the Kuwaiti political life.
I have been speaking to all the leaders in the regions that they should listen very carefully and attentively to the wishes and to the voices of people.
What they really want to achieve? What are their concerns ? And how they can promote reconciliation and provide social economic prosperity to the people?
In Tunisia now, there is a constitutional bill suggesting the criminalization of normalization of relations with Israel. What is your insight on this?
You mean, criminalization of normalization with Israel? (Smiling) That [criminalization] should be criminalized.
A sincere hope that the countries of the region should have all harmonious relations with whichever country.
The peace process should make progress. The Middle Eastern peace process had stalled without making any progress… I think that all the countries in the region can live peacefully and harmoniously through exchanges and cooperation.
Now, we have two state solution where Israelis and Palestinian people can live side by side in peace and security. In such a case, I am sure that the Middle East peace process progressing, and all the countries in the region can live in peace and security harmoniously.