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2011-01-18

Tunisian Opposition Activist: "Is Democracy Possible in the Arab World? Tunisians from All Around Tunisia are Saying 'Yes'"

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Tunisia has announced an interim national unity government days after a popular revolt ousted the president from power in the first Middle East revolution in a generation. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia on Friday after a month of unprecedented protests gripped the country. Thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against unemployment, high food prices, corruption and government repression. At least 80 people were killed in a crackdown by government security forces. We go to the capital city Tunis to speak with opposition activist, Fares Mabrouk. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tunisia has announced an interim national unity government days after a popular revolt ousted the president from power in the first Middle East revolution in a generation.

In a dramatic turn of events, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia Friday after a month of unprecedented protests gripped the country. Thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against unemployment, high food prices, corruption and government repression. At least 80 people were killed in a crackdown by government security forces.

As the protests spread to the capital, Tunis, Ben Ali fled the country and sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. He had been in office for 23 years and was only Tunisia’s second president since independence from France in 1956.

On Monday, the Tunisian prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, announced that members of opposition parties will take up places in the government for the first time. But key figures of the old guard — including the former defense, foreign, interior and finance ministers — will keep their key posts in the new government. Up to a thousand protesters took to the streets today in protest and called on all members of the Ben Ali government to be excluded in the new coalition.

In a news conference on Monday, Ghannouchi announced the unity government would begin the transformation of Tunisia’s political system.

PRIME MINISTER MOHAMED GHANNOUCHI: [translated] The government pledges to open a dialogue with all elements of civil and political society and to allow free expression and activity. It also pledges to accelerate efforts to restore tranquility to all Tunisians and to work for restoration of security as soon as possible. It also undertakes to concentrate efforts to move development forward, create jobs, and improve life conditions everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Ghannouchi said elections would be held within 60 days, controlled by an independent election commission and monitored by international observers. The prime minister also said a ban on the activities of human rights groups in Tunisia will be lifted and that all political prisoners would be freed. The new government also created a commission to investigate corruption amidst reports that President Ben Ali’s wife had spirited away one-and-a-half tons of gold out of the country last month.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday he is encouraged by developments in Tunisia and called for the establishment of the rule of law.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: While I feel encouraged by the ongoing dialogue between the caretaker government and the large array of political parties and civil society organizations, I remain extremely concerned about the continued violence and resulting loss of lives and property. I urge all concerned parties to ensure an immediate end to the violence. This is a moment for the Tunisian people to strengthen the country’s longstanding culture of political moderation and its attachment to peace. I call on the government and all stakeholders to ensure a prompt restoration of the rule of law and to respect and accommodate the aspirations of the people.

AMY GOODMAN: The protests that led to the overthrow of President Ben Ali gained momentum in December after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate, set himself on fire after police seized his grocery cart, saying he was selling without a permit. He died in early January and quickly became a martyr to the unemployed protesting against poor living conditions. The self-immolation has led to apparent copycat protests in other North African states, with four men setting themselves on fire in Algeria, one each in Egypt and Mauritania.

We’ll start today by going to Tunis to speak with Fares Mabrouk, a Tunisian activist who just has returned to Tunisia, after about a week or a few days in Paris, on Sunday.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! For viewers and listeners around the world who are trying to get information, if you could just lay the groundwork. How did this revolution take place? How did this overthrow happen, Fares?

FARES MABROUK: Thank you, Amy.

Yes, so first of all, this began by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi. And then hundreds and thousands of Tunisians opened — I mean, put their family, their life, their jobs on standby and joined this movement. And the internet and Facebook and Twitter played a major role in spreading the information and organizing the revolution, because now it’s a revolution, it’s not a revolt.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain about the self-immolation. The man who set himself on fire was a university graduate? Explain the significance of this, as he was selling — trying to sell fruit, the only job he could get, in the market.

FARES MABROUK: Yeah. Mohamed Bouazizi is a real symbol, because this is a man who — to which the society asked him to study. So he completed his study. Then he tried to work, and he didn’t find a job. And then, when he didn’t find a job, he was humiliated by the local government. So he went and he claimed. And when he claimed, he was again, and once again, humiliated by the governor of Sidi Bouzid. So he killed himself. He didn’t kill himself in a bus. He didn’t do anything, I mean, wrong to others. He just killed himself. And so, this has created enormous emotion among the Tunisian population, because Mohamed Bouazizi was just asking for dignity. And the symbol is very strong, very powerful, and he became really the symbol of this revolution.

People are asking for recovering their dignity. And the interesting part is that in all the slogans we hear in Tunis until today, notice there is no slogan related to religion, there is no slogan related to specific parties or a specific political party or movements. The slogans are all about dignity — the dignity to speak, to express ourselves, and to decide — contribute in the decision on our future.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, can you explain what happened? When I spoke to you, Fares Mabrouk, on Friday, you had just gone to Paris to represent Tunisians in France, thinking this possibly would take much longer than it actually took. Can you explain the course of events, how quickly the president left — not quick in the long term, he’s been there for 23 years, but quick in terms of the level of protest — and then who took over from there?

FARES MABROUK: Yeah. So, what happened is the president made three speeches. And in each one of the three speeches, he and his administration did not address the problem and did not respond to Tunisians. So, after his last message, the demonstration and the riots continued. So he just left the country. He left the country and letting his country in the chaos.

Now, one very important message here I want to say is this is really a very important revolution not only for Tunisia, but also for the Arab world and also for the world, because what we are trying today is to restore — I mean, to address the question of democracy: is democracy possible in the Arab world? And Tunisians, from all around Tunisia, are saying, "Yes, we want to decide our future, and we want to contribute to — and we want to influence to impact our future by our vote."

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ghannouchi took over, the prime minister, but then handed it over to the speaker of the house, is that right, because of an outcry in the streets?

FARES MABROUK: Yes. Yes. So, first of all, the prime minister — the prime minister announced that the president has left. And according to the Constitution, he would just stay prime minister but with the authority of the president. And when the vacancy of the president’s function was determined or recognized by the government, the speaker of the congress became the president and should announce in the next days that election will be organized within 60 days, according to the constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the latest protest today of about a thousand people? And we should add that a prison was set on fire, and scores of the prisoners died in that fire. I believe that was on Friday. What about what is being proposed now, this unity government?

FARES MABROUK: Yeah, you know, the problem we have today is that we need to restore the credibility, the legitimacy, of the state. And to restore the legitimacy of the state, we need distinction between the legitimate forces, the army, and illegitimate political government. Now, people are still claiming that there is too many people from the former government or from the former party in the government, in the present government. This is normal, because they are the only one who know how to — who know the system and how to manage it.

So today, what’s happening is that if we say that the revolution will be made in three stages — the first one would be to depose Ben Ali, the second one is to restore the order, and the third one is rebuilding the country — I would say that we are still between the first and the second stage. We did not complete yet the depose of Ben Ali as a president. In order to complete this first stage, Tunisians need — want and need to judge Ben Ali permanent case. We don’t want a successful case. We need to expand to the demands for justice against Ben Ali and his family by the law. And Amy, the way we will manage these cases, the way we will contain our emotion, will determine the foundation of our legal system. So today, we definitely need to have Ben Ali extradited to Tunisia. And the U.S. could play a major role in that; they could putting pressure on Saudi in order to extradite Ben Ali and his family in Tunisia. But also international organizations, as Transparency International, could also play a role in this new commission in order to set the basis of our legal system. So this is the first very urgent actions in order to finish with Ben Ali era, Ben Ali time, in order to now to concentrate on restoring the order and then later rebuilding the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Some, Fares Mabrouk, who is speaking to us from Tunis in Tunisia, where the revolution is unfolding as we speak, are calling this the first WikiLeaks revolution, because of the documents, the U.S. government cables, that were released in the last trove of documents, that talked about, from the U.S. government perspective, how corrupt the Ben Ali government is, the one that they were holding up as a model of government in security and the economy in North Africa. Fares Mabrouk?

FARES MABROUK: Yes, [inaudible]. WikiLeaks played, at my point of view, a major role in restoring the image of the U.S. within the Arab streets. And people really appreciated the way that the U.S. saw and judged the corruption in place in Tunisia. So today there is a demand for Americans — for America to be present and support this revolution. To give you, I mean, one example, one very important fact, we are today worrying about external influence. It’s probably not in the interest of our neighbors that the situation in Tunisia improves. And we need to secure our borders and concentrate our forces on recovery and order. So, the army today has two very difficult tasks: secure the border and work on the recovery of the order in Tunis. So today, Tunisians are trying to get the U.S. put pressure on our neighbors to not influence, to not have, I mean, influence by helping militia, for example, in order to get the situation worse than it is today.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, very quickly, just 30 seconds, then we’re going to Egypt and to Lebanon and here in the United States with Juan Cole — the emotion, the emotion of your family, of the people in the streets. You race off, Fares, to France, thinking you have to coordinate and send a message out to the world from France, as the protests are erupting, and then suddenly the president is gone, is forced out. What are you feeling right now?

FARES MABROUK: You know, as I said, this revolution is not completed. It’s not completed. And we — and as I said, there is three stages: depose Ben Ali, restore order, and rebuilding the country. So our work is not finished yet. We need to complete the Ben Ali time. We need to restore the order today. And we are worrying about the external influence. But also, we need to rebuild the country. France yesterday — I mean, some French figures and political figures announced yesterday that Tunisia would have a specific status, an advanced status, with the European Union in case this process of democratization succeeds. And this is a very positive message Europe has been sent to Tunisia. I mean, I think it’s very —- it would be really positive and great for us and for the U.S. to send a similar message to Tunisia. This is, as I said the last time, Amy, this is a second wind to Cairo speech. This is a real opportunity for Obama administration to help the Tunisians succeed this administration. But it’s not finished. It’s not finished [inaudible] -—

AMY GOODMAN: The police have killed scores of people. Is the military with you?

FARES MABROUK: Excuse me?

AMY GOODMAN: The police have killed scores of people. Is the military with you?

FARES MABROUK: Yeah, I mean, the military are doing a great job. But in the same time, they’re trying to secure the streets and — but in the same time, to secure the borders. So, the military are not, I mean, strong enough, developed enough in order to do these both cases. Now, neighborhood watch committees are playing a major role in guarding the streets and bringing order. I mean, this is positive, but this could be also create a risk of losing control by illegitimate force. So we need very urgently to restore the order, but by legitimate force. And military are the legitimate forces today in Tunisia.

AMY GOODMAN: Fares Mabrouk, I want to thank you for being with us from Tunis, speaking to us from the capital of Tunisia.

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