‘If You Don’t Bet on Tunisia … You Can Say Goodbye to Democracy in the Arab World’

President Marzouki: US Should Embrace Moderate Islamists, Help Us Fight Extremists

As Tunisia struggles to convert its 2011 Arab Spring revolution into stable democracy, the US and its allies frankly aren’t helping much, President Moncef Marzouki told the Atlantic Council.

“The West gave more support to the dictatorship, because of so-called stability,” than it now is giving to Tunisia’s democratizing government, said Marzouki, a medical doctor and human rights leader who has been guiding his country through its transition following fifty-five years as a one-party state.

Western governments should stop seeing the world’s Islamist movements all in one color, Marzouki said. They should welcome Tunisia’s political inclusion of its Islamist moderates, and provide helicopter gunships to fight its Islamist extremists.

“What I’m trying to say to all my friends in the West [is] that, if you don’t bet on Tunisia, if [you] do not support Tunisia fully, give us all what we need in matter of weapons to fight against terrorists, if [you] don’t come and invest in Tunisia so we can give more employment to our young and so forth – if Tunisia fails, you can say goodbye to democracy in the Arab world … for a century.”

That blunt message, Marzouki said, is what he will offer US officials during this week’s summit conference of US and African leaders.

Extremists’ Assault on Democracy

Tunisia is close to completing an essential transition to democratic, elected government – the only one of the four Arab Spring states that is managing to do so, three years after they overthrew their authoritarian regimes. (Egypt has returned to thinly veiled military rule, Libya’s weak government is unable to stem civil warfare among regional militias, and Yemen’s regional uprisings and al-Qaeda violence threaten to undermine its slow-moving political dialogue.)

With Marzouki as president, Tunisia this year completed a new constitution to reinforce a secular, multi-party democracy. It is to hold parliamentary elections in less than three months. But the country has been jolted by Islamist militant attacks in recent months, notably by guerrilla bands in the rugged Chaambi Mountains, along the border with Algeria. Guerrillas attacked army posts there in July, killing fourteen soldiers in the worst incident. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) also has claimed attacks in Tunisia, whose secular orientation it particularly opposes.

The guerrillas “are extremely well trained” and have combat experience from the extremist uprisings in Mali and Algeria, Marzouki said.

Need for Counter-Terror Support

Like many authoritarian rulers, Tunisia’s former strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, kept the military weak to prevent it from challenging his police-dominated state. So the army is poorly trained, with outdated equipment, Marzouki said. It desperately needs communications equipment, training, and, he said, twelve helicopters, such as US Blackhawks, to fight the new guerrilla threat in remote areas. The coming three months, before elections “could be the most dangerous three months in our history,” Marzouki said.

“When I hear [from Western officials] that ‘we are going to give you some helicopters so you can fight against the terrorists, but you will have to wait two or three years,’ – no, we cannot wait for two or three years. We need it badly now,” Marzouki said. “This is what I’m going to tell to all the US officials, and I hope that I will be listened to.”

“We are fighting not only for Tunisia, not only for democracy in the Arab world, but also for democracy in the world. For a small, tiny and modest country, it’s a burden, … but we have to take it on our shoulders. So please help us and we will help you.”

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During his speech and a subsequent question-and-answer session with foreign-policy specialists and journalists, Marzouki’s remarks included these:

  • On why Tunisia is ready to succeed at democracy. “We are not better than Syrian or Egyptian or Libyan – we are just the same human beings, you know. But Tunisian society is quite different,” Marzouki said – small, with a strong middle class and civil society, and a relatively well-educated, homogenous population. “But the most important is that in Tunisia there is a state” that has existed for “thousands of years. And the political opposition is well trained.” Both Islamists and secularists “have been harassed by the same dictator,” and “learned to work together, against the dictatorship. So after the fall of the dictatorship, the same people used to talking, each to the other, just sat down and decided that they are going to continue to work together. And this is not the way it happens in Libya or other Arab countries.” With these advantages, “we have to succeed, not only for us, but for the Arab world. I would say also for … democracy itself.”


  • On his disappointment with Western support. “I will be very frank with you. We didn’t have the support that we expect from the West.  We were [told], ‘Yes, what you are doing is very interesting, et cetera, [and] we wish you good luck.’ That’s all. We expected more, because the West gave more support to the dictatorship because of so-called stability. And now, what I’m trying to say to all my friends in the West [is] that, if you don’t bet on Tunisia, if we do not support Tunisia fully, give us all what we need in matter of weapons to fight against terrorists, if we don’t come and invest in Tunisia so we can give more employment to our young and so forth, if Tunisia fails, you can say goodbye to democracy in the Arab world. … And for a century.  And then we are going to give all the chances to the terrorists to impose their ‘Islamic state.’ This is the challenge.”


  •  On the West’s need – and hesitation – to embrace moderate Islamists in democratic transitions. “Sometimes I wonder” whether the limited support of Western governments for Tunisia’s transition is “because we have [had] … in the government the Islamist Ennahda party,” Marzouki said. “What we have to explain to our friends [is] that” Islamist movements are not all the same. “We have to consider that Islamism is a wide spectrum, and part of this spectrum, we have to have it on board with us as democrats, and to isolate the extremists,” he said. “The terrorists, sure, they are Islamists, but they are mostly extremists.” They are dangerous “not because they are Islamist, it’s because they are extremist.  This was the most difficult thing to explain to our French friends. I have had a lot of problems” in making them understand “that we have to gain a part of the spectrum [of] Islamists and to take it on board and to be with us against the extremists,” he said. “The Tunisian model [of transition] is based on this very specific and very simple idea that we cannot have a national consensus [and] civil peace without having both … parts of the society – [moderate] Islamists and secularists. … Otherwise, it will be confrontation, bipolarization. This is what’s happening in Egypt now.”

Image: Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki urged the West to help Tunisia include its moderate Islamists in its new democracy, and offer weapons and military training for its fight against terrorists. (Atlantic Council)