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Candid Discussion with Radwan Masmoudi: Tunisia is a Laboratory for Arab Democracy

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Tunisia is inching closer toward parliamentary elections in October that will put an end to the three-year long transitional phase and establish permanent democratic institutions. While the country managed to transcend major political divisions and finalize an inclusive and democratic constitution, security and economic challenges persist. This week, the country hosted a major forum to draw investment into its “start-up” democracy and give a fresh impetus to the floundering economy. Interior Minister Lotfi ben Jeddou recently warned of “serious security risks” to obstruct the October vote.

To look back at Tunisia’s long but successful transition, the constitution and examine challenges ahead as well as the future of Islamism, we sat down with Radwan A. Masmoudi, the Founder and President of the Center of the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID). The CSID is a Washington-based non-profit dedicated to promoting freedom, democracy, and good governance in the Arab and Muslim world, as well as improving relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. His foundation organized multiple conferences on the constitution in Tunis and Washington, D.C. and held closed-door workshops for Constituent Assembly members.

Masmoudi appeared on several TV networks, including CNN and Al Jazeera. He holds a Master’s degree and a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

How did Tunisia’s democratic transition succeed while all the Arab Spring countries remain steeped in instability or return to dictatorship?

Tunisia is the easy case. It has all the ingredients for a successful democracy – homogeneous society, high level of education, openness to the outside world, particularly Europe, and good infrastructure. Tunisia has a tradition of moderation and constitutionalism. It has always been a leader historically in Islamic thought and moderate Islamic thinking. If it cannot work in Tunisia, it cannot work anywhere else. It had to succeed to pave the way for the others. Tunisia can be a laboratory for growing and nurturing democracy and give people hope in Libya and Egypt

From the very beginning, Tunisians understood that the constitution must be for all. There was a strong effort to write the constitution for everyone through dialogue, consensus and negotiations to address different fears, concerns and needs, which is why it took two years. We didn’t rush like Egyptians. They wrote a constitution in a couple of months. A hastily written constitution cannot be a fruit of dialogue and consensus and loses meaning. I think Tunisians understood from the very beginning that democracy is about protecting minority rights.

Another factor is civil society. Under ben Ali, we had no civil society to speak of. But since the revolution, we’ve had a mushrooming, active and dynamic civil society. Thousands of new organizations appeared, people are getting involved at the grassroots level. Civil society plays a very important role because it provides the opportunity and the place where people can meet and exchange their ideas. Political parties tend to fight, whereas civil society brings people together to build consensus and find solutions.

The CSID, for example, organized over 80 workshops, conferences and seminars on the constitution. Above that, we held 20-22 closed-door workshops for members of the Assembly to negotiate the points they disagree on. We had three-day workshops for each point in the constitution where deputies would meet in a secluded place and only discuss one clause in a quest to find solutions that they all agree on.

You’re talking about the fears the constitution had to address. Do you think the fears of the secular opposition were addressed better than those of the Islamists?

No, I think it addressed both equally. The secularists were legitimately afraid that we would have a religious state that would impose religion on people so we had to address those fears to make sure that is a civil state. On the other hand, the Islamists were also afraid that a secular state would crack down on religion, like the one we had under Ben Ali where women were prevented from wearing the hijab. Even praying in the mosque could get you into trouble. There’s a good balance between both fears in the constitution. It has enough guarantees that it will be a civil state that respects religious values.

Tunisia has witnessed an intense rise in religiosity since the revolution – in the way people dress and practice religion. There’s been also a debate on national identity, drawing closer to the Arab world. How do you think this debate is playing out now that the transition is almost over?

The sudden reemergence of religiosity in Tunisia is a natural response to the revolution. People were afraid under dictatorship when even wearing the hijab could cost you your job. Hundreds of thousands of young girls were kicked out of schools because of wearing the hijab, or they were forced to take it off in order to stay in school and to finish education. The state was very repressive, and once the repression was gone, people felt free to wear whatever they wanted and appear religious.

On the question of identity, every population has multiple identities. In Tunisia, we struggle with this notion. In general, majority of Tunisians want to be Arab and Islamic. We’re part of the Arab world and part of the Islamic world. We have a huge heritage of Islamic civilization, and we are proud of the role of Islam and the role that Tunisia played in Islamic civilization. So the Arab-Islamic component is very strong in Tunisia, and people want to preserve it.

At the same time, the majority of Tunisians don’t want this Arab-Islamic heritage to prevent us from living in the modern world. We live in the 21st century, and we need to be open to the outside world, to Europe in particular with whom we have huge economic trade, tourism and cultural relations. We have very strong relations with Italy, France, Germany and Great Britain – countries that send us one-two million tourists per year. Tunisians have a strong desire to learn technology and become technologically advanced. Therefore, we have to connect with the outside world. We don’t want to be isolated or marginalized because of our Arab-Islamic heritage.

This is the challenge for most Tunisians — how do we maintain our heritage, traditions, culture and identity and at the same time, live in the 21st century and develop a modern and advanced society?

Now that the transition is nearing end, what are the challenges that lie ahead?                            

The first challenge is the election coming up in October. The second election is even more critical than the first one. In the first election, there were not a lot of tensions or divisions. People were celebrating. We’re more divided now. It is critical that the next election be credible, free and fair and that everybody participate, believe in the process and respect the results. It will be a huge test for Tunisia.

The second challenge is the economy. Young people who participated in the revolution, put themselves in harm’s way, braved the police and the army and risked death are not seeing improvements in their lives. We must show them that democracy delivers, and it’s not just about the constitution. Young people may say, “I need food. I need to get a job, get married and have my life in order. What good does the constitution serve?” We need to fix the economy, fix the deficit. There are only three ways to do that – raise taxes, remove subsidies or economic assistance. We cannot raise taxes or remove subsidies because people are already suffering. It will only cause more turmoil and may derail the elections. We need real economic assistance, not loans. Tunisia cannot go into debt. International community must understand that Tunisia is a priority and it needs Tunisia to succeed. The US and Europe must really stand by Tunisia and support Tunisia just for two-three years until we get over this difficult transitional phase.

Finally, the third challenge is security. We must protect our borders, especially with Libya where militias are strong and weapons are readily available, and fight terrorism. The state, the government, the police and the army have worked really hard to address the issue. But the risk is still present. We need cooperation to end the violence. Terrorism can destroy the economy and ruin the political process. We saw what two assassinations did. They brought down two governments.

What is your take on the situation in Libya? What can Tunisia do to help its neighbor?

The biggest problem in Libya is that [Muammar] Qadhafi did not leave a state. He ruled by himself. He had his followers – what he called the “revolutionary councils” – but there was no government, no institutions. Now they have to build from scratch. In Tunisia, we inherited a strong state that remained intact even under Ben Ali. During the revolution and the worst of times, the state was still functioning. The banks were open. Everything was running normally. Tunisians now have an historic responsibility to lead the way because we started the Arab Spring. Ennahda and Rached Ghannouchi can play a role to facilitate a dialogue in Libya, to bring people together and tell them how we did it in Tunisia and they can do the same. The only solution is a national dialogue, listening to each other and regular meetings even with your strongest opponents.

In a national dialogue, they can agree to relinquish arms, put them out of the equation for the good of the nation, denounce violence and then agree on a framework for the constitution and power-sharing. They need to find the right compromise. It will be hard but doable especially when Libyans see what is going on in Tunisia. Don’t forget that we have almost two million Libyans in Tunisia right now. They’re affected by what they have seen in Tunisia, and I think they want to do the same thing. They want stability, dialogue and a constitution for all Libyans.

What do you think can be done to elevate discourse on Tunisia in the West?

We need to keep Tunisia on the agenda, and make the West understand that what’s happening in Tunisia will have a huge impact on the region, whether it’s good or bad. People in Washington tend to forget Tunisia. International community does not pay a lot of attention to countries that are faring better.

But Tunisia’s success is very important for the region. Despite its small size, Tunisia can be strategically important and show that democracy can succeed, that you can be Muslim and democratic at the same time, and we don’t have to live in a state of war between our identity and modernity, between Islam and democracy. This is why I really appeal to the international community: if you want peace in the region, you must support democracy, and if you want democracy in the region, you must support Tunisia.

Tunisia can become the shining model and show people in Libya, Egypt and everywhere that democracy not only works but it also delivers economic development, stability, jobs, and innovation. In 5-15 years, Tunisia could become like Switzerland. The alternative is dangerous – people may lose hope in democracy and revert to dictatorship, violence, perhaps civil war, extremism and poverty.

Now we need economic assistance. I’m worried that if we don’t get 4-5 billion dollars, the economy will be in a lot of trouble. One of the problems is that the revolution raised too many expectations. People think that if we made the revolution, people would be rich overnight. But it doesn’t happen that way. They need to be patient. At the same time, we at least need to maintain the same economy as before. Otherwise, we’ll be in danger.

What is the future of Islamist groups in the region?

The future of the Islamist movement is democracy. They have to understand how democracy works, and if they succeed in understanding that, then they’ll see that they can protect and serve the goals and values of Islam through democracy. The other groups, the secularists, must also understand that they cannot get rid of the Islamic movement by violence or dictatorship. This will only make it worse. This will only strengthen the Islamic movement. Jamal Abdel Nasser tried to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s. There’s nothing new here. What [Abdel Fattah] Sisi has been trying to do has already been tried under Nasser, [Anwar] Sadat and [Hosni] Mubarak. For the last 50 years, they’ve been trying to crash the Muslim Brotherhood. There are arrests every year, and it hasn’t succeeded. Probably, it has made them even more popular.

On the hand, the Islamists must modernize and understand the Islamic values in the current situation, which requires modernization of the Islamic thought. In Islam, like any religion, some things are fixed, and some things are flexible. It’s a matter of interpretation and prioritization – how you prioritize your thinking, how you solve current problems. You cannot bring an interpretation from a thousand years ago to the current situation. Islamists must modernize but they can only do this in a democracy. But secularists must also understand that democracy is good for everybody, share power and live together. Islam is here to stay, and it will be a strong influential power in the Arab world. But the question is what kind of Islam? If you have the Taliban-type of Islam, then of course it’s not going to work because it’s not compatible with democracy, modernity, freedom or anything. Can we modernize Islam? Modernization in the Islamic world, ijtihad, is not new. It has existed since Islam.

Through democracy, Islamic thinkers and movements will modernize, and we’ll become more democratic, more tolerant and understand Islam in a different way. It is still Islam, the same teachings but the interpretation will be different.



Ilyana Ovshieva
Ilyana Ovshieva

Ilyana Ovshieva is a digital journalist and writer who works as a senior editor for a Washington DC-based news edition that covers North Africa. She contributed to Tunisia's first English-language news site after the revolution, Tunisia Live. She also freelanced as an Arabic translator and researcher for the UNDP and the UN Volunteers. Her writing on Tunisia's hip-hop music, identity and activism appeared in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. She also published for and the World Policy Journal.
Ilyana holds an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University.

Follow Ilyana on Twitter: @ilyana_ov