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A Conversation with Mohamed Moncef Marzouki

Speaker: Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, President of Tunisia
Presider: Christopher Dickey, Council on Foreign Relations
September 25, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

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DICKEY: So my name's Christopher Dickey. I'm with Newsweek and the Daily Beast and a member of the Council, and I'd like to welcome you to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting with President Moncef Marzouki of Tunisia.

And I have this little script that I have to read that they give you. I'm sure you're all familiar with this, probably know it by heart. I'd also like to welcome the CFR members around the nation and the world who are participating in this meeting through the live stream and via videoconference from Washington, D.C. We will hear from them during the question-and-answer session. And Chris Tuttle, who's the director of the Council on Foreign Relations Washington meetings, is moderating from Washington.

Our next meeting is with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of Iraq this evening at 5:30 to 7:00. And I hope to be here for that, too.

So President Marzouki, before he was President Marzouki, was known as one of the great fighters for human rights in North Africa and the Arab world. And in the world, I would say. He was forced to live in exile for many years under the Ben Ali dictatorship. He often fought for the freedom to speak of what were then the most hated and vilified groups in Tunisia, the -- those associated with Ennahda and Rachid Ghannouchi, who was also in exile. And now that those people are hugely influential in running Tunisia, Mr. Marzouki, President Marzouki, has the office that he has today. And there's a sense of, I think, familiarity and almost camaraderie between you and those groups, although you are not anyone who could be classified as an Islamist, as I understand it.

So what we want to talk about today is a little bit about the Arab Spring, which was launched in Tunisia, and where things are going now, that the Arab Spring looks like -- well, looks like Hell in a lot of countries. I had the feeling that sometimes when I look at what happened in Tunisia, it's a little bit like -- if any of you -- I think most of you remember Slovenia in the Balkans, they broke away from Yugoslavia, came away more or less safe and sound, and everything else fell apart and went to Hell.

Is Tunisia going to remain safe and sound, given all the turmoil that exists now?

MARZOUKI: Of course, this is what I hope. But, you know, Tunisia is not an island. And when you have -- on your border, you have a country like Libya, where, you know, the level of violence is extremely high and when you have what -- the situation in Egypt, and when you have also the situation in Syria. Syria is becoming an internal problem, because we have a lot of young people going to Syria, more than 500 jihadis, Tunisian, 500 Tunisian jihadis are in Syria and we're very afraid that, when they come back to Tunisia, it will be the same thing that happened with Algeria. You probably know that in the '80s, a lot of Algerians went to Afghanistan and then they come back to Algeria, and this was the beginning of Hell in Algeria, too.

So we are doing in best in Tunisia, you know, to control the situation. We think -- we think that we have -- we think that we have a wise population. We think that we have, you know -- of course, we do have disciplined and professional army. We think that we are a middle-class society, et cetera, et cetera. But, you know, nobody can be sure of what could happen.

Last year, I was here, and I remember that I was -- I was asked many, many questions about the outcome of the Arab Spring. I was very optimistic at that time. I wouldn't say that I am now pessimistic. I would say like I said yesterday that I am pessi-optimistic, because...

(LAUGHTER)

... because (inaudible) the situation is much more complex and much more difficult than I thought. Yes, we can -- we will probably -- we can achieve the transition in Tunisia, but, once again, we are not alone, and when we see what's happening in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria, we can be a little bit upset.

But, once again, I have to say, have to repeat that you cannot say, well, it's a failure or it's a success. We need time. You know, you cannot say that the revolution is a success or a failure before, let's say, a decade. When you think that French revolution, for instance, they had to wait more than 70 years before having the Third Republic, which was probably the success of the French revolution, so you cannot accept Arab -- or any country, you know, to achieve the goals of revolution in just two or three years.

So we had to be -- we had to be very careful. I'm very careful, but I think that the outcome would be quite different from a country to another. And that Tunisia -- I wouldn't say you -- you can bet on Tunisia, but I'm still confident that we could -- we could succeed. But, of course, nobody knows.

DICKEY: Wow. Well, I think that's an honest interpretation of events. The -- when we talk about threats to Tunisia, we can also talk about Tunisia's advantages. You say that it's a middle-class society. It has a long history under Habib Bourguiba, certainly, of trying -- of becoming what we would call a more Westernized society. Women's rights have been enshrined for a very long time.

MARZOUKI: Yes.

DICKEY: One of the questions that comes up, as we look at Tunisia to now -- Tunisia now, even if we put aside all those threats that you've described -- is whether that spirit in Tunisia that in many ways made it very strong and resilient can continue under the present government and as the new Constitution takes shape, which is very slow taking shape. I mean, will, for instance, the rights of women in Tunisia be as solidly enshrined now as they were in the 1950s?

MARZOUKI: Of course. But let me just give you a brief description of what's happening in Tunisia. Now we're facing three challenges, major three challenges, so otherwise you cannot understand the whole situation. The first challenge that we are -- is the terrorist challenge. We didn't expect Tunisia to be -- to have this problem. I think last year the government -- myself and the government, we underestimated this threat, because we didn't accept that the situation would worsen in Mali, in Libya, and so forth. So now we have to deal with this problem, unexpected problem.

The second problem is reaching a consensus, which was our choice, turned out to be extremely difficult. We didn't think that it would be that hard. But we have -- we -- we still stick to this choice, but you saw what happened in Egypt -- what happened in Egypt is because they didn't have this national dialogue going on for months and for years, like we have in Tunisia. So even if it's difficult, even if it takes time, we're going to stick to this choice.

This third challenge is economic problem, because we have had this revolution because of, you know, the high level of poverty, the high level of people without jobs, young people without jobs, and so forth. So now because of the uncertainty of the situation, because of the -- you know, this transition too long, investors, whether coming from outside or from in, from Tunisia, you know, they're very hesitating investing. And the economy's so -- the economic situation is worsening, you know.

And if we have this situation worsening, that means that we will have more and more arrests and that this could, you know, jeopardize the whole political process. So this is -- those are the main challenges we are facing. And we have to deal with the three -- the three challenges at the same time.

Fortunately, as I -- as I told you, we have strong civil society. We have middle-class society. We have wise people. We have this solid and professional middle class (ph). So we are not helpless, you know, to face this -- these major threats.

About your question, the question was about women and the constitution. Well, I would like to give the floor to -- to women, you know, involved with, you know, writing the constitution, I think she would be better than me to answer your question.

DICKEY: OK, maybe we can do that in the question-and-answer period. We'll come back to you on that.

The -- the -- when you talk about terrorism being much worse than you expected, are you thinking also that that is related to the couple of very high-profile political murders in Tunisia that set things very much on edge over the last year, particularly the one last summer? Is that a result of terrorism? Who carried out those murders? It isn't clear to me -- when you've got people who are working on the constitution who are suddenly murdered, that's a fairly unconventional political system.

MARZOUKI: Every time we -- it seems that we are very close, you know, to have this -- to reach this famous political consensus that we have had this, especially (ph) the first one, Chokri Belaid was assassinated in February, and the second, Brahmi, was assassinated in July, 25th of July. And I can assure you that the 24th of July I was quite sure that we were going to have this unity government, that we are going to finish the constitution in two months' time, and so forth, and then we have had this assassination, so we are quite sure that there is some thing -- somebody, you know, some people thinking that this democracy should fail in Tunisia and the only way to make it fail is to have this political assassination, because they do know that they cannot -- they cannot have a coup like in other countries, you know? Because the specificity of our military, they can't have the population.

So the only way to stop the process is by murdering political activists. And this is what happened, because the whole political process is stopped since that -- that assassination. And now we are having a lot of -- it's extremely difficult, you know, to resume the work of the constituent assembly, and we are talking about the new government and so forth.

So it's -- they know what they do, those people. Who are they? Probably Ansar al-Sharia. It's a group of Salafists. And this group of Salafists is extremely linked to the whole kind of network, you know -- Ansar al-Sharia, you have these people in Libya. You have them in Syria -- mainly in Syria, in Iraq. And I guess it's a sort of part of Al Qaida.

And this network, you know, has completely decided to abort the whole process, the democratic process in the Arab world, because don't forget that -- I think the -- when we have this Arab Spring, Al Qaida was no longer, you know, heard. Sometimes I -- I used to think that it would be over with Al Qaida, because Al Qaida, you know, was -- the might of Al Qaida was to say, hey, we are the only way to get -- you know, to overcome dictatorship, corrupted dictatorship in the -- in Arab countries. And then you had this Arab Spring, which led by democrats, by civil society, by young people, without no -- no religious background.

And this was a terrible thing for Al Qaida. And now I think Al Qaida and this network of terrorists, they believe that it's now their time now to go and to stop the political process. So you have a renewal of the Islamist -- the extremist Islamist movement. And what I am afraid of what's happening now in Egypt -- I must be very -- of course, I have to be diplomatic, but I also have to say the truth.

You know, what's happening now in Egypt is extremely dangerous, because this Muslim Brotherhood, I don't agree with the way that they behave. I don't agree with the way that they governed Egypt. I don't agree with the way that, you know, they didn't have this national dialogue we have had in Tunisia and so forth.

But the fact that now this central part of the Islamist spectrum, and it's the central part of the spectrum, and it's also a moderate part of the spectrum, being put aside. This will give all the opportunity, you know, for the extremists now to have the -- to play a very, very dangerous role, because they will -- they will not have this very dangerous rival, I mean, this (inaudible) the vacuum will be filled by the extremists. And this is the most dangerous thing for us and probably for you, for the West. It's sad, but this is the situation.

DICKEY: Well, I mean, you know, a lot of -- right now, we here from -- we won't go on about Egypt, but just to put it in context, right now we hear from the Egyptian government, the military-backed government there, that basically the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists, that the people affiliated with them are terrorists, that they opened the doors to terrorists in Egypt.

You know, people do say the same thing about the En-Nahda-nominated government in Tunisia. There are plenty (inaudible) of your government who say it essentially opened the door to this kind of terrorism that is existing there, that it endorses it, and that, on the other side of things, it got maybe 37 percent, 38 percent of the vote in 2011, but runs the country as if it is the only party in the country, compared to other forces.

Now, that well be unfair...

MARZOUKI: It's completely unfair.

DICKEY: But I thought it would give you a chance to respond to it.

MARZOUKI: It's completely unfair, but -- because, first of all, when I hear that Tunisia is governed by an Islamist -- that's not true, because, once again, Tunisia is led by a coalition. Within this coalition, you have the president of republic, myself, I am secular. The president of the Constituent Assembly is also secular. Both of us, we have been human rights activists for more than 20 years.

With the government itself, you have ministers from -- from our two political parties and also from independent -- independent people. So -- so saying that Tunisia is governed by another is not true, is completely unfair, is not true. And I can tell you that this coalition, still working, we have had a lot of problems, we have had a lot of discussion, we were -- we disagree on many, many subjects. We have -- we had to discuss hours and hours, you know, to reach a consensus within the coalition itself.

So -- and, look, what happened until now, I don't think that the Sharia law has been imposed to Tunisia. I never heard that the government, you know, imposed the Sharia or anything else. So it's nonsense to say that another is ruling Tunisia. Another is part of this coalition, and you probably know that another has accepted that the next prime minister would be an independent, so we could -- we'd go to elections and everybody is quite sure that this election would be fair and transparent and so forth.

The second point about the relationship between Ennahda and terrorists, it's -- I know Ennahda people for more than 20 years, because when I was -- when I was the chair of the Human Rights League, and they were imprisoned, I -- we accepted in the Human Rights League to defend them, because we are quite sure that were a peaceful people and they never, never used force.

It was the first condition, you know, to -- to accept -- to protect and to defend the rights. But I must confess that the beginning after the revolution, we underestimated the level of danger of terrorists. And myself, I was part of this -- this mistake. But how could you -- how could you imagine that we're going to have political assassinations, that we could have people coming from Mali who could -- foresaw that something would happen in Mali, you know?

So -- but now we -- we'll probably know that Mr. Ali Laarayedh, who is the prime minister, you know, had a press conference two weeks ago and said that Ansar al-Sharia is a terrorist group. He said it very clearly. And now we have the security forces, the army. We are all the time behind this -- these guys. And the Islamists are also part of this repression of the -- of the -- the jihadists. And I can assure you that for the extremists, the most hated enemy is not the secular, but the Islamist of Ennahda (ph).

DICKEY: OK. I think now we'll open the floor to questions. I think, if I could ask you a question, just quickly, if we could give you a microphone, I know you've been working on the constitution. And please don't give us a discourse on constitutional law here...

QUESTION: No, no.

DICKEY: ... but I would just love to know whether you think, at the end of the day, the rights of women in Tunisia as they have been understood since Habib Bourguiba in the 1950s will be guaranteed by the new constitution?

QUESTION: Look, I think I have an important advantage point here, because I'm a member of the Constituent Assembly, also a member of the committee that drafts the preamble, the fundamental principle, and the rules to amend the constitution. And I've spent most of -- pretty much a year-and-a-half debating with my colleagues. And I can tell you from the very, very beginning we wanted to enshrine the legacy of fights for the rights of women right on the -- in the preamble, because we said right at the beginning that women and men citizens are equal in rights and duties.

And I think we've always said that preamble is the spirit of the constitution. The preamble is here to guide the constitution to lead the way. And when we start discussing, it was really important to start with that very strong statement.

Now, I'm just -- you know, sometimes I'm wondering, how can we top that? If in our preamble we say men and women are equal, and it's a very clear sentence. I think you can't really make a mistake on interpretation.

Now, there have been a discussion in the committees at the same time that the preamble committees. And that is the reason why there might have not been a good coordination and some of the committees wrote articles when they were saying that women are the complementary of men, et cetera.

But what happened when we coordinated, then they saw that the preamble -- our group, you know, enshrined the rights of women right away, so they streamlined everything, and now it's pretty much, you know, guaranteed. I mean, again, you know, writing the constitution is not -- you know, is not what will guarantee this. It's a strong statement, and then it's -- we need a strong civil society and we need strong organization. And I think in Tunisia, we were very lucky to have that.

DICKEY: Thank you. And we're very lucky to have you here to explain it. Thank you. So questions from the audience here? Barbara? Even though I know you, I guess you'd better identify yourself.

QUESTION: Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council. Mr. President, how much of a blow to your government has been the fall of the Morsi government in Egypt? And can you explain to us why the labor unions in particular in Tunisia are so insistent that your government step down and that you have another transitional government put in place? Thank you.

MARZOUKI: Well, I -- there is a mistrust, you know, between different political parties and people -- a lot of people in Tunisia think that to have fair elections, we should have an independent prime minister. And we agreed on that. We agreed on that, and we probably in two months time we will have new government with an independent prime minister, because we have -- we have decided that the -- the elections we're going to have probably in March-April, as I hope, must be the fairest election in the world, I must say, because it's the only way to avoid any political turmoil after the election.

And to have the opposition on board, we have accepted and Ennahda accepted that we were going to have this independent prime minister, while nobody, you know -- in a democracy, when you -- when you want the confidence of the people, you have to go to the end. But Ennahda accepted because everybody knows that we need this -- this -- this election, and so I think it's -- this has, once again -- this proves that we have wise political party in Tunisia, moderate political parties, and this is our chance in Tunisia.

And what about...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the fall of the Egyptian...

MARZOUKI: The fall of Egyptian -- you know, a lot of people -- you know, when you have a revolution, you have always a counter-revolution, because all the regime doesn't disappear because, you know, the -- Ben Ali fled the country. The old regime, that means hundreds and thousands of people, you know, have been enjoying this -- the older regime.

And to these people, you know, they would -- they had never accepted what happened. They never accepted the revolution. They never accepted new elections. They never accepted that Islamists would be in charge.

So I think they were very, very much encouraged by what happened in Egypt and I thought that probably this could be -- this could happen in Tunisia, but this will never happen in Tunisia, because Tunisia is extremely different. You know, people talk about Arab Spring, but the differences between Syria, between Syria and Egypt, between Egypt and Libya, Libya and Tunis, are huge. Different -- they are different, really different countries and different societies. So the outcome cannot be the same.

So what could happen in Egypt is not replicated in Tunisia. What happened in Tunisia can be replicated in Syria and so forth, because, really, of course, we are Arabs, we are Muslims, but, really, they are very, very different society. This is -- I think this must be understood, otherwise, you know, people would mix up Arab Spring (inaudible) Arab Spring. In fact, it's Arabs' many springs, you know, many Arab Springs. It's quite different from each other.

(LAUGHTER)

DICKEY: Ken?

QUESTION: Thank you. Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch. Hello. Mr. President, I understand that you have limited powers, despite being president, but wanted to focus on two things that you might personally be able to do and ask you about them. One is a case of a man who was sentenced last year to seven-and-a-half years in prison for insulting the prophet. And you've exercised your presidential pardon on other occasions, national holidays and the like, but despite calls from civil societies haven't pardoned this man who is widely considered, you know, the first political prisoner in the post-Ben Ali era.

And, second, there's -- there have been various free speech prosecutions, but one in particular for insulting the president. And this is not yet a conviction, but might you step in and say, you know, this shouldn't be a crime, I want this prosecution stopped, as a way of setting a tone for the new Tunisia?

MARZOUKI: Well, you know, it's very difficult for me now to be a human rights activist and to have this kind of question, because I feel that I'm, you know, like a defendant, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

Well, we have -- freedom of press in Tunisia is now extremely important. And for many people, freedom of expression is also freedom of rumors. And, you know, I was very shocked, because, really, we -- our fight for freedom of press, in more than 20 years, we never expected that we are going to have journalists from the old regime, you know, used to insult us and Ben Ali now insulting us just in another way, you know?

But even that, I always said, I'm never going to put any journalist in jail. And I -- about the case you are raising, it's my -- I think -- could you -- he was the personal charges of this -- I would like...

DICKEY: You put that guy in jail or...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: No. No, no.

MARZOUKI: ... some explanation, you know, and then I will go to the second case.

QUESTION: There was a bad interpretation. I am Ahmed Roshali (ph). I'm the legal adviser to the president. There was a bad interpretation of a request made by the president -- presidency of the republic to what we call the general lawyer of the state, or something like. We ask them just to bring a civil case against the person, the foreign person who made the rumor, but this -- this administration...

MARZOUKI: Saying that I got money from Qatar, and this -- of course, this is not -- this is not true.

QUESTION: But they made something different, because they brought a criminal case against the Tunisian journalist. We never ask that. It's written. It's clear. So it was a bad interpretation.

DICKEY: So is he going to get out? Or what's going to happen to him?

QUESTION: What is going to happen is that, after that, the presidency ask this body, this administration, to call the court that we do not want to pursue this person. And it was made.

DICKEY: So...

QUESTION: This person was not put in jail.

MARZOUKI: I always said that I preferred the worst side effect of freedom of expression, never try, you know, to stop this freedom for which I've fought so many years. So be quite sure that, you know, I'm not going to be the president sending journalists to the -- to president.

Now, about the second case, yes, I know, and I was very, very deeply shocked, you know, by -- by this -- it's sad that to send young men of seven years, sentenced seven years for -- of course, it's a cartoon. We -- you know, we have also a very traditional and very conservative society.

And now be sure that I'm just waiting for the good moment, you know, for political good moment (inaudible) but, you know, when you have this -- now this situation with the Salafists, extremely violent and so forth, releasing this guy just now could be -- could be dangerous for himself. So -- but I have decided that I'm just waiting some months, you know, before up he will be released (inaudible)

DICKEY: Very interesting. I'm wondering if there are any questions from Washington. Chris, do you have anything there?

QUESTION: Yes, Chris, thanks. We have a question from Missy Ryan.

QUESTION: Hi, Missy Ryan from the State Department. Thank you, Mr. President. My question for you is, what -- as specifically as possible -- do you feel like the United States government can do to support Tunisia during this transitional period, keeping in mind, of course, our desire not to in any country interfere in sovereign matters and at a particularly sensitive time in Tunisia? Thank you.

MARZOUKI: Well, as I told you, we are facing three challenges. The political one I can -- I can assure you that we have got the full support of the United States. I have many discussions with Mrs. Clinton when she was secretary. And we are -- yesterday, I have very fruitful discussion with Mr. Burns. And I do know that United States is supporting -- supporting Tunisia.

Second challenge, security. We are expecting more help from the United States, because we do not have any expertise against terrorism now. We are working with Algerians, because Algeria has this expertise. And we're expecting training and so forth from the United States.

And, of course, we have this -- the third challenge. We say it's the economic. Here also we expect more help, because, you know, helping Tunisia is helping democracy, is helping stabilizing the situation, and I think it's -- it would be good not only for us, but for the interests of the United States.

DICKEY: Thank you very much. I believe you had a question, microphone here?

QUESTION: Ralph Butens (ph), New York University. This arises from some comments you made, Mr. President. The Ben Ali administration has been there for years. In the course of their regime, they did terrible things. It wasn't done by Ben Ali alone. How are you handling all those apparently criminal acts? And what are you doing in the area of what is called transitional justice?

MARZOUKI: Well, you -- you know, that we wanted this revolution to be as peaceful as possible, so we didn't -- we didn't want any -- take revenge on the old regime, but we do know that our people, you know, they -- they want some -- some action against the most corrupted people, people who have violated human rights. But we have decided that the transitional justice will be the best solution for this period, so we are -- we're having a new law. I think the law is -- is completed, and we accept the process to begin as soon as possible.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MARZOUKI: Yeah. For the moment, yes. Yes.

DICKEY: Back here at the -- all the way at the back, the gentleman standing up?

QUESTION: Thank you. Chris Haishim (ph) from CBS.

DICKEY: Oh, hi, Chris.

QUESTION: Hi. President, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about Sharia law and democracy and whether you think Sharia law is fundamentally compatible or incompatible with a democracy?

MARZOUKI: Well, we have had this discussion for months. And, you know, some of the -- another party tried to put the word -- insert the word "Sharia" in the constitution, and this was -- of course, we -- personally, I said never, never, because I know that this word could be extremely harmful, extremely dangerous for the women's rights, for human rights. And my position was extremely clear: We don't want this word in the -- in the constitution. And we have had hard discussion about that. It was not easy to convince our -- our friends from Ennahda that this word would mean many things and interpretation, interpretation of this word could be harmful and dangerous.

And fortunately, they have accepted our argument. So our constitution is secular constitution, I can say, because you have all human rights, you have equality between men and women, and so forth. Now about what does it mean, Sharia, for other people or for the nation? That's not my problem.

But we in Tunisia, we have reached this consensus that we are going to have secular constitution. Of course, we -- in the preamble, we said that Tunisia is a Muslim country. We are Muslims. We are -- we are Muslims. It's our identity. We assume this identity. But we assume this identity, but we are also part of the universal value. We want the universal values of human rights to be enshrined under the constitution.

This is why it's not a contradiction to say that we are Muslims, that the Islam is the religion of the state, but laws must be -- must be the laws of secular society.

DICKEY: Thank you. This lady here, in the blue dress?

QUESTION: My name is Vivian Lowery Derryck from the Bridges Institute in Washington, D.C. Mr. President, I was an election observer, and so I have basically two questions. One is, I'd like to just follow up a little bit more on how one is protecting the rights -- beyond the constitution, the rights of women? Because one of the women in our party was quite distressed by the fact that she saw women standing in two different -- in a separate line from men and felt that this was something that Tunisian didn't have experience with. So I'm wondering how that is being addressed by your administration?

And then, secondly, the role of the African Union and other regional organizations and their ability to have dialogue with you and to help? Thank you.

MARZOUKI: Well, let me begin by the second question. We -- as I told you, we want this government to be led by an independent person, because we want this -- the next election to be as fair, as transparent as the previous one. And we expect that observer coming from all over the world, from the Arab world, from -- from the African Union, from the United Nations to be part of this process, so we don't have any problem inviting you or invite anybody to come and to supervise the election.

Now, for the question of women's rights, let me -- let me be very frank with you. I'm a little bit fed up with this kind of question, because it's not the real question. It's not the real problem. Women are not treated in Tunisia because they are women. But I have been -- before being head of state, I have been professor of public health for more than 20 years. And I know that the main problems of Tunisian women are not problem -- this problem as you raised. It's poverty. It's, you know, lack of education. It's poor condition of health.

And this -- this is the main problem, you know? The poorest part of the population are women. And, you know, for a lot of the women in the bourgeoisie in Tunis, this is not their problem. You know, their problem is just about equality. But main -- my problem as professor of public health, you know, as a physician is that the poorest part of the country are women, poor condition of health, and so forth.

So we have to stop thinking about women's rights just like matter of gender, to think also that it's a problem of social justice. We don't have -- as I told you, and as it was told to you, that women are equal in rights in Tunisia. Nobody is threatening, you know, women's rights as gender. But nobody is talking about the social situation of 2 million or 3 million of Tunisian women, and this is my problem. That's my problem. And I hope it will be yours.

DICKEY: This gentleman over here.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I'm Craig Charney from Charney Research. I was pleased to hear that you'll be engaging in a transitional justice process, but I must say that your answer ended where I hoped it would begin. What sort of transitional justice, a truth commission? Will you have truth -- amnesty in return for truth as the South Africans offered? Will there be prosecution? Will there be compensation for victims and so forth? If the law's ready, please give us some hints.

MARZOUKI: Well, I -- you know, you probably noticed that I didn't want to talk much about this -- this problem, because I don't have the same position of the government, you know? The government was extremely reluctant to begin with transitional justice, and I think it's one of the -- our biggest mistake in this country, because we didn't -- wasn't tough enough with the old regime.

And -- well, but what I would like to do is -- you know, to promote this transitional justice and that -- effectively to give it a sense, because currently it's nonsense. It's nothing. The government is waiting and waiting, you know, trying to avoid conflicts with the old regime, and this -- I think it was the worst politics in the -- during this year, because we were afraid of facing the counter-revolution. Now we have a strong counter-revolution in the country.

Well, this is our internal cuisine. I am not going to talk about it.

DICKEY: Well, I think you've said quite a bit. This lady here?

QUESTION: Mr. President, I'm Laurie Garrett. I run the Global Health Program here at the Council on Foreign Relations, so I want to ask you a public health question. I know you're here this week for the United Nations General Assembly, and though reporting would give you a different impression, the bulk of all the discussion over there and all the sidebars that I've been to have been the Millennium Development Goals, how -- which parts of the world are not going to reach their goal achievements by 2015, and what will come after 2015.

And the buzz in the hallways is that the region that's going backwards is yours and that the Middle East was on course to reduce maternal mortality, on course to reduce child mortality, on course to reduce extreme poverty, and has now slipped completely backwards, with outbreaks and epidemics and everything going on across the region.

Putting on your political hat and your public health hat, how do you see your region coming out of this backslide and once again moving forward with achievement?

MARZOUKI: Well, please don't forget that we have suffered a harsh and corrupted dictatorship for more than 50 years, and those dictatorships have been backed by the West. So don't forget it. And don't forget that we cannot resolve the whole problem in two years' transition.

So now why we are fighting to have a transfer democracy, non-corrupted democracy, and so forth? Because it's the only way, you know, to tackle those problems.

We are in this -- in this mess, this situation, because of this corrupted and harsh dictatorship. Now, we -- of course, we are -- we are -- as I told you, we're facing so many challenges that I am not quite sure that we are -- well, let -- it's very difficult to explain, because we have inherited this -- this terrible situation. We have huge expectation of the population. We don't have the means. We don't have the means.

You know, so we -- we can expect things to worsen for -- probably for two or three years, but I hope, if we succeed in Tunisia, for instance, if we succeed to have this stable -- stable state, democratic state, then the economy would return, and then we probably try to achieve these -- these objectives.

DICKEY: Probably Tunisia has a better chance than -- than the other countries.

MARZOUKI: I hope so. I hope so. Please pray for us.

DICKEY: Washington, do you have a question?

QUESTION: Yes, we do, from Shanker Singham with Babson Global.

QUESTION: Mr. President, I applaud your comments about poverty alleviation. And in that context, I'd like you, if you could, to address the economic reform agenda in Tunisia. You inherited an economy that was heavily characterized by a lot of state involvement in the economy. So what steps are you able to take to lessen the role of the state in the economy and so empower the private sector and economic growth?

MARZOUKI: Well, once again, the economic problem and the political situation are extremely linked. First, we have to solve the political crisis, and then if we have this democratic state, then we will improve the climate of investment, and then -- I'm sure that Tunisia could attract more investors from outside and from Tunisia itself. Tunisia is well located, because we are -- we could play an important role as a hub, like Singapore, because we are very close to Europe, open to Africa, to the Middle East, to the Maghreb region, and so forth.

So we -- we -- really, we can have a good opportunity to improve the situation. But, once again, it's -- we will probably do nothing without having this political stability. This is the first -- the first condition. And, once again, I would like to remind you that Tunisia is -- is not an island, that we are -- we have Libya and we have Algeria and the -- southern borders. We have Mali. And so the situation is extremely complex.

DICKEY: Just following on in that vein, you raised this problem, and you raised the problem of Syria earlier, Syria and Tunisia.

MARZOUKI: Uh-huh.

DICKEY: And it's extraordinary that so many jihadists are going from Tunisia to -- to Syria. And then I was just reading in the statement by the interior minister today saying that there's even a problem with a lot of Tunisian women going to join the jihadists in Syria. It's not clear to me exactly what they're doing. Why this flow to Syria? What's going on?

MARZOUKI: Well, because, you know, every -- every day, Tunisians are watching what's happening in Syria, the -- you know, children, women, the slaughter going on, and a lot of people in Tunisia, you know, they feel that they are responsible.

And you -- we have a lot of young people without jobs, without any prospective, and for some of them, it's kind of -- it's romantic, you know, to go there and to fight for the sake of God and -- and it's extremely -- first of all, I think it's -- it shows that our society failed, because it means that we didn't have -- we didn't give these young people and the women, and we didn't give them enough education, you know, to think by themselves. We didn't give them the jobs. We didn't give social stability. Otherwise, they wouldn't fled to Syria.

And now the other problem is that they will come back and probably be part of terrorist groups and then they will be extremely dangerous. This is why we hope that -- while I'm not sure that we are going to reach any solution to the crisis in Syria very soon, but, really, it's -- now it's becoming an internal problem, not for Tunisia, but also for all the region.

DICKEY: Is there anything the United States should be doing in Syria that it's not doing or, like, everything? I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

MARZOUKI: Ask President Obama.

DICKEY: I knew you were going to say that. If you have a chance to talk to him, what advice would you give him on Syria?

MARZOUKI: Well, put the pressure on. We have -- I think he said yesterday that we cannot have a military solution, and I think he's completely right. We have to put the pressure on the friends of the regime, on Russians, on Iranians. I had a meeting this morning with the Iranian president, and I told him that we are expecting Iran to play a more important role in -- in -- you know, in trying to have solution, and he told me that this is the position of Iran. I hope so.

And, really, we have to stop the slaughter in Syria. We have to find a political solution. And I hope that the Geneva II wouldn't be, you know, a mirage, that it will be a reality.

DICKEY: This gentleman back in the far corner?

QUESTION: Thank you very much. George Baumgarten (ph), correspondent for Nation Media Group, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, about half a dozen countries southeast of you. If we have learned anything as I see it, Mr. President, from the Arab Spring, the Arab Springs plural, but especially from yours, which began with the economic -- an economic protest by a fruit seller, as I recall, it's that all politics is economics, has economic causes.

I've just recently been writing successively on Guinea-Bissau, on Mali, and on the Central African Republic. What are -- what plans do you have in a general way that you can tell us to revive and enlarge your economy so that it doesn't, God forbid, turn into one of these kinds of countries? Thank you.

DICKEY: Let me just -- the GDP growth in Tunisia, although it's bad, it's still positive. It's 3.5 percent, something like that.

MARZOUKI: Yes. Yes, yes.

DICKEY: There have been some problems with inflation, but the economy is not the basket case that, for instance, the Egyptian economy is, is it? I mean, it's difficult straits, but it's not collapsing.

MARZOUKI: No, no. No, no.

DICKEY: No.

MARZOUKI: Well, I didn't exactly understand -- understood what's your...

DICKEY: I think what he was -- I think his question was -- I just wanted to put it in context -- I think his question was, what positive steps are you taking on the economy to move things forward? Is that a fair -- fair...

QUESTION: Yeah.

DICKEY: Yes.

MARZOUKI: Once again, our obsession -- our obsession now is to solve the political crisis, but meanwhile we are working on, you know, tackling the problem of the bureaucracy, because we have huge bureaucracy, and this is one of the main obstacles, we are trying to attract investors, trying to convince them that it's extremely important to invest in the inland area and so forth.

We are working on improving also the whole atmosphere of the -- of the economy, changing the banking system, et cetera, et cetera. But we do know that this doesn't mean anything before having this -- the stable government and -- I think everything would be possible after the elections.

Now, for the moment, I can assure you that our main problem is to ensure that Tunisia would remain Tunisia and will not revert to a coup or to chaos or things like that.

DICKEY: And, of course, Tunisia depends -- is not entirely dependent, but it does get a lot of its revenue from tourism normally.

MARZOUKI: Yes. Yes, fortunately, we have -- we -- you know, I think in 2010, we have about 5 million -- 5 million tourists. And then we have -- we lost about 1 million in 2011, but now, once again, we have about between 5 million and 6 million.

But one of the most important parts of our tourists are going to come from Libya and from Algeria, not only from Europe, and this is a new market, and probably where we're going to be -- because, unfortunately, we have this -- our revolution during the time where Europe was in crisis, in deep economic crisis, you know, so we lost a lot of people, not because of the situation on Tunisia, but because of the situation in Europe. But we expect also to improve our tourism.

So once again, we -- our economy would probably recover very, very soon, but after we have finished this damned (ph) transitional period.

(LAUGHTER)

It's the last question -- the last question, because I have to go.

DICKEY: Ah, yes. OK. This lady here.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

DICKEY: Oops, microphone.

QUESTION: Mr. President, France has traditionally played an important role in your country, both in terms of foreign investment and working with your military. They seem to have lost their balance terribly when spring came to Tunisia. Have they recovered? Could you talk a bit about your relations with France?

MARZOUKI: With France? Wow.

DICKEY: Quickly.

(LAUGHTER)

MARZOUKI: Quickly. Well, you know, I lived in France for more than 10 years, and it was extremely shocking for me to see how these democrats, leftists, and human rights activists were supporting a dictator, just because, you know, the good relationship with -- at the personal level, you know, a lot of corrupted politician, French corrupted politician, used to go to Tunisia and to be well received and so forth.

So when I was elected, I think they were not very, very happy. Many -- the part of the -- you know, they weren't very happy with the Tunisian revolution and with my election, but after the election of Francois Hollande, Francois Hollande is a good friend of mine. I knew him before he became president. So I think now that -- because of this personal relationship and because also of France, I think it's of -- known that they have to back the experiment of the democracy in Tunisia, just to -- that -- well, what I can say is that now they are supporting Tunisia. That's the most important thing. And I want -- don't want to -- to make more comments.

(LAUGHTER)

DICKEY: All right. Well, thank you very much, Mr. President. This has been a fascinating, fascinating meeting.

(APPLAUSE)

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