Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki describes the history of the democratic movement in his country, as well as Tunisia's role in the Arab uprisings.
GIDEON ROSE: Welcome. It is my great pleasure to welcome you to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting with President Moncef Marzouki of the Republic of Tunisia.
First some housekeeping arrangements. Please completely turn off, don't just silence or put on vibrate, all cellphones, BlackBerrys, smartphones, et cetera, and all wireless devices, to avoid interference with the sound system. Second, I'd like to remind members that this meeting is on the record. We're also joined by CFR members around the nation and the world who are participating via a password-protected teleconference. We'll be hearing from some of them during the Q-and-A.
My name is Gideon Rose. I'm the editor of Foreign Affairs. And it really is a great, great pleasure to -- I think it's fair to say that in the last couple of years the Arab Spring has been one of the dominant events not just of these years but of the entire new century. And Tunisia has not only led the way but shown the way. It was not only first but has turned out, so far, extremely successfully and is a continuing example to the region and to the world. And a decent amount of that is due to you personally, President Marzouki.
So let's just talk a little bit about that. Two years ago did you sit around thinking, in a couple of years, I'm going to be at the Council on Foreign Relations talking and speaking at the U.N. as the president of Tunisia?
PRESIDENT MONCEF MARZOUKI: Oh, no. Oh, no, I -- you know, first of all, I was -- in the '90s I was head of the human rights organization, and then we have at that time to face huge problems of massive human rights violations like torture, like death penalties, like unfair trials and so forth. And at the time I was just a professor of public health.
And I -- once, I remember, I wondered, nobody is teaching dictatorship has the worst diseases in the world, you know, because -- we used to teach our -- the student that you have malaria being responsible for more than 3 million people dead and so forth. But when you look at the dictatorship, you see that in fact, dictatorship has been responsible for 20 million or 40 million dead in the second -- World War II. And I began to say, why shouldn't I try -- why shouldn't try to teach dictatorship as a social disease and see how can medicine cure the social disease?
But I didn't have this time -- I didn't have enough time because I was jailed. I was sent to jail for more than three months. I was in solitary confinement for three months, and this is terrible. Solitary confinement is a kind of -- you know, it's a kind of real psychological torture. And afterward, I have been sacked from the university, and then I was in exile in Paris for more than 10 years. And really, I was -- I remember by 2010 I thought that you are probably going to die in exile like -- my father was also a political opposite to Bourguiba, and he died in Morocco. So I thought, I will probably die before seeing the revolution.
But I can say that now I am very happy man and a very lucky man because I saw what I've been for many years -- a democratic state, human rights protected in my country. And of course, being the president is extremely -- well, this was the most surprising thing. But now, afterwards, after the revolution, you can -- you see that it's easy to make a revolution, but the worst begins just the day after. I am now attacking this -- this probably -- this effectively is now the day after.
ROSE: So let's talk about that. A vendor sets himself on fire, and suddenly the Ben Ali regime collapses in a matter of weeks and months, and a new regime is installed. First, did you ever think the regime would be that brittle? And when the new Tunisia -- when the republic emerged, what have been the great challenges, and how have you tackled them?
MARZOUKI: Well, as I told you, we suffered from harsh, corrupt and brutal dictatorship. And I remember during the '90s and -- it was very hard to explain to our Western friends that really, we're suffering under this dictatorship. I remember that -- I came here to the States many times, four or five times, lobbying in Washington and also discussing with my friends in Europe. And at that time, for Western, it seemed that being under dictatorship, for Arabs, it's quite normal, you know. Why? Because -- well, people were polite, but in fact, I think that they were convinced that democracy is just a matter of Western and that Muslims, you know, were -- they are -- it's strange to population; they can live with dictatorship; they can live with corruption; it's quite normal for them.
And I remember that I really suffered very much from this attitude. So I remember here in Washington, the -- I was hearing many, many times that, yes, we can understand that Ben Ali is not exactly what you would like in matter of human rights; yes, we know that -- but you understand he's a good guy for fighting against terrorism, he's keeping a good relationship with Israel, and he's opening the markets, so it means that we can accept everything from him. And your -- but when I'd say, what about our freedoms; what about our rights -- oh, yes, we know that it's sometimes difficult for you, but we are going to promote or to intervene for some individual cases, you know, but not for the freedom of -- for Tunisia, for the Tunisian people.
I remember this was extremely strange for me because as a democrat, as a human rights activist, I didn't understand how people living in democratic countries accept to have a good relationship with dictatorship. How could you behave democratically in your own country and accept to support dictators in other countries? This was extremely difficult for us as Arabs and human rights activists from the Arab world to understand the attitudes of the West. Now I can see much more comfortable because for the first time, I think that we don't have this gap between us and you.
And it's -- I can say that we did this revolution, democratic revolution, because we did it by our own means and without the support of the West. This must be extremely clear. It's terrible to say, but we did it alone. We don't owe our freedom, our liberty to anybody,m not to the West, not to the East. We did it by our own. It's our freedom. We have (conquered ?) this freedom. We have -- we are building our democracy not to please the West, not to please the East, not to please anybody. It's for our own interests.
I hope you will accept this, because it's the way we think. We are going to build a democratic state. We are going to protect human rights because we are human, because we stick with these values because they are universal values; they are not Western values. I do think that they are human values and that we are sticking for (sic) them, not to please the West, not to be more Western also, but because we believe in these values, because we believe in human rights, because we have chosen to be a -- to -- choose democracy.
And what was your other question?
ROSE: Well, what are the challenges that -- no, but that -- (laughter) -- that -- I think that's incredibly important, and I think that it -- why has Tunisia been so successful compared to some of the other states in the Arab world?
MARZOUKI: Because -- as I told you before, because Tunisia is a homogeneous society, is a well-educated society, is a middle-class society, is a Westernized society. Because we are very close to France, everybody in Tunisia speaks French.
We -- so we are -- we were ready to be a democratic state since the '80s. This is why I -- we didn't accept the way that -- even the French, you know, visit Tunisia and say, look, democracy is not for you; democracy's just for us. Even if you are what you are, democracy is something linked to the Western history, to the Western culture, and -- but in fact it was not true. I think -- human beings have the same needs everywhere, so I don't think that a French person or an American citizen is more committed to -- (of ?) human values or has needs of justice more than a Tunisian or an Arabic -- and this is why I used to say the political system that we have in the Arab world is not normal, and we are going to fight against it, and this political system would probably crash. You cannot rely on dictatorship because those dictatorships are quite abnormal and we are going to fight them and -- but at the time, I wasn't heard, you know.
Now Westerner and especially the European begin to understand that probably they didn't manage the situation as they should.
ROSE: What are the greatest challenges you have faced as president?
MARZOUKI: My goodness. (Chuckles.) A lot. (Chuckles.) Many.
First of all, I think the high -- expectation of the population is extremely high. They want everything. They want it now. They believe that we just before -- just after revolution, everything is going to change. And we have to explain to them that's not true; that we need time, a lot of time, because, you know, during all the social diseases -- we need time. But the -- for the -- for all the citizens, really, they want everything just now.
The second -- the second problem is that poverty is extremely, extremely -- you know, unemployment, poverty and all the social and economic problem would not -- we'll have a lot of difficulty to solve them, just because we had this revolution at the moment where Europe is also having a lot of problems, and Europe is -- we are as -- our economy is very linked to the economy of Europe.
I'll give you just one example. When you have social problems in Europe, the tourism in Tunisia suffer a lot. This is what's happening now. (So ?) we have had this revolution at the time where Europe, the southern part of Europe but Europe, general, is suffering from this, so -- from the economic crisis.
So we are tackling social/economic problems, political problems because we have to write the constitution to set up a government and so forth, and we have also to face this problem of the Salafism because when you -- under the -- under the oppression of the dictatorship, this phenomena was hidden, but now, with the freedom of expression and the freedom of association and so forth, now we have to tackle also this, the -- this problem.
So yes, we are facing a lot of challenges at the same time that the situation is extremely difficult, but I hope that we -- in fact we are doing well. When you compare our situation to the situation of Libya or Egypt, we are doing quite -- I wouldn't say quite well, but we're doing well. And I hope that we will -- but of course we need -- we need to help our friends -- (inaudible).
ROSE: Well, let's talk about this. So what sort of help would you want to see from the United States, from the West more generally, from the world at large?
MARZOUKI: Mainly economic. Mainly supporting the economic reforms and helping us fighting against poverty because we do not need anybody to teach us how to build a democratic system. We can do it by ourself, you know. I always receiving in my office people saying, hi, we are going to show you how to make an -- (inaudible) -- government. I will say, OK, thank you, but we do know how to do it. We just want economic help because this is the main -- the main important things. We can promote human rights, women's rights. We can defend all this. We can -- we can do it. But the problem is we need open markets, we need funds, we need investment. And yes, this is the main -- the main problem.
ROSE: Talk about -- you mentioned the Salafi issue. Talk about that, please, in context of Tunisia and North Africa more generally.
MARZOUKI: Well, you know, people think that the Islamist movement is homogeneous movement. In fact, it is not. It's wide -- very, very wide spectrum. And this very wide spectrum, you have -- the central part is what we call moderate Islam. And moderate Islam is -- you find it in Egypt, in Tunisia, in other -- for instance, the political party now which is in the government with the two secular parties is -- represent this central part of the spectrum.
And then you have -- at the far right of the spectrum you have the Salafists. And even the Salafists itself, it's a spectrum. It's a wide spectrum because part of the spectrum is made of what you call pietist movement or some people, you know, dealing with the religious question.
And then you have the other part of the spectrum. It's a tiny minority within the tiny minority. And this -- those people, you know, are violent. They are against democracy. They are against women's right. They are against -- they want Shariah state and so forth.
And those people are extremely dangerous because first, they are dangerous for the image of the country. Look at the harm they are -- they are -- they -- two weeks ago when they attacked the American embassies. They were few hundreds, you know, a few hundred. And the whole population, the majority of the Tunisian were watching the -- very -- they were very shocked. They were -- of course they were against all -- what's happening. But this tiny minority is extremely harmful because of the image they give -- they -- of Tunisia.
And now they are -- they begin to be a threat to the -- our national security because the same groups exist in Libya, in Egypt and now in the northern part of Mali where they are going to have a safe haven or something like this where they can -- yes, they work together. And the northern part of Mali is now being a real threat for the whole -- for the whole region. So the Salafism is now a danger for our national security, is a danger for our image abroad.
But it's not a danger for the stability of the country because once again, it's a tiny minority within a tiny minority, and they don't have -- they -- in fact, they -- they're not a real threat for our democratic system, for our democratic process because the great part of the Islamist trend itself is part of this political process.
ROSE: The -- tourism is a major part of the Tunisian economy.
ROSE: We were talking before about how you would like to diversify your tourist infrastructure and draw people from the West and Japan as well as Europe. What sorts of things can people find in Tunisia?
MARZOUKI: Everything. Everything. Hospitality, friendship. As I told you, also fine cuisine. So I think you can find everything. A new experience, also, because, you know, Tunisia is -- Tunisia is a small country, but in this small country, we can have three times -- you have the -- certain part of Tunisia is desert. Then we have nice coast, Mediterranean coast. And then we have the northern parts -- mountains. And you have very rich cultural heritage -- you know, Romans, Phoenicians, Arabs, Turkish heritage. So it's quite amazing and interesting country to visit. Please, come. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Are you worried about -- if Tunisia is going well, are you worried about other countries in the region? And do you worry that some of their experiments might not go as well as yours and there might be spillover backwards towards you?
MARZOUKI: I don't think so. I think the old political system is dead. Now the problem is how to get rid from this political system. The old political system is one man, one party, the reign of fear, the corruption as -- this is completely over, completely dead.
So the way each country is solving the problem, Tunisia is a lucky country because our revolution was peaceful; we didn't have -- we would have just had 300 martyrs and 2,000 people injured, while in Syria, unfortunately, there are more than 20,000 people now dead and more than 100,000 people injured. So the cost of -- the cost would be different from Tunisia -- (inaudible) -- as I told you, probably the (less cost ?) is in Tunisia. The worst is in Syria. So every country is getting rid of the dictatorship by its own means, own way.
So -- but what I'm quite sure is that in Libya, in Egypt, things are going well. Actually, things are going well. So I'm optimistic about Tunisia, about Libya and about Egypt. Now, in Syria, maybe in Iraq, in other countries, it will be tougher.
ROSE: So wait one second. So you -- so the Newsweek cover of Muslim rage --
MARZOUKI: Nonsense. It's nonsense. (Laughter.) It's completely ridiculous because it's just like our -- we would have, in our countries, American rage just because -- about, you know, people there shooting, you know, this massive killing in some of your schools or your -- I don't remember the last one. What was it?
ROSE: Aurora, Colorado.
MARZOUKI: Which -- American rage -- schools -- Aurora in the -- that's completely stupid, you know. Doesn't mean anything, you know. We have had two or three riots in the Arab world, as I told you, maybe 200 or 300 people in the -- in the -- in Tunis, maybe 200 or 300 in Cairo, that's all. If you -- if you can talk about Muslim rage -- excuse me, but it's completely silly. (Laughter.)
ROSE: OK. On that point, let me press you on a different thing, which is -- so it seems like we have seen over the last decade repeated instances of some kind of clash between free speech issues and sensitivities in certain parts of the region. So you have the cartoon -- the Muhammad cartoon controversy, which erupts across the region. You have this crazy film which erupts. Is there -- is every -- is it ever going to be possible to not have crises between free speech and local sensitivities with regard to religion, blasphemy and so forth?
MARZOUKI: Yes, of course. But you know, the -- for Arabs, they don't understand why the Western must feel free just because they have the right to -- you know, to insult other people beneath. You know, they don't -- yes, we -- why is it so important for you to insult our beliefs? And this is a precondition for you to say we have the freedom of speech? You can have your freedom of speech and without insulting us. This is the position of the Arabs, you know.
And we have to explain to them that in fact, in this country -- the religious is not that important in our country. You know, for France, for instance -- France, they -- I have -- I lived in France more than 20 years. I know that the relationship they have with religion is quite different than ours. So I think it's also a problem of -- I wouldn't say cultural conflict, but the relationship -- the relation is quite different. And the -- for Muslim and for Arabs, they don't understand this relationship. They don't understand that in the West, things are not that important. And we have to explain to our fellows that that -- in fact, even in the West, this -- you know, this attitude against Islam is, I think, the fact of minority.
Well, let me -- let me try to be clear. We have to be careful about your extremist and our extremist, because I think they are dangerous for you and they are dangerous for us. And the problem is that your extremists, you know, are triggering our extremists, and we can -- we can become hostages of the two extremists. And we have to be very careful because -- really, I -- sometimes I wonder, my goodness, the harm that this tiny minority can do to the relationship between nations -- that's terrible -- because of the media, you know.
So we -- I think we -- you have to understand that we have -- we are extremist -- (inaudible). So the -- all this question of respect of our religion, you have to accept it, and you have to say that maybe we must -- look, you don't say -- you don't say anything to your neighbor simply because you want to be friends, OK? Sometimes you need to be polite, and probably you have to refrain. The same thing for this kind of relationship with culture. We have to refrain yourself saying something you know that could be -- could hurt the other person.
ROSE: You have a medical background. You're now president -- civilian president of a fledgling democracy with massive challenges and the hopes of your people and the region on your shoulders. You have -- you're trying to bridge a cultural gap between regions of the world that some would see in conflict and clashing, but you hold out hopes for better relations. How do you deal with the stress? (Laughter.)
MARZOUKI: Well, you know, this -- we -- I suffered the stress under the dictatorship, because you know that your life is in danger. You know that at any time you can be in jail. You know that your family is in danger, is threatened and so forth. So I think I got accustomed to it. I wouldn't say that I like stress, but I got accustomed to it.
And now the stress is every day because every day you have a lot of -- you have tsunami of problems. You know, every day you have to face, yes, many, many other -- but I think it's -- (inaudible) -- to live this -- you know, the Arab world is living now the same period that your ancestor relatives, you know, when they were building this country. So it's an honor, great honor for the -- it's a great privilege for all our -- your young to say -- to feel that they are probably building a new country, new great country. And so when you have this feeling, then, OK, yeah, I can accept everything.
ROSE: We were talking before about President Adams and dealing with criticism -- (inaudible) -- how difficult is it to not lash out at critics and accept the criticism? You were saying before that you feel as a president that you need to set an example and get rid of the memories of the old regime, in which you couldn't criticize the president, the leader.
MARZOUKI: Yes. Now, the situation in Tunisia is extremely curious because in fact, the freedom of expression -- everybody has the freedom of expression except the president and the government, you know. (Laughter.) Yes, we are attacked by the press every day, you know, and sometimes by journalists who were at the service of the dictatorship. And this is very strange, you know, to receive lessons of democracy from people who were -- (laughter) -- who were -- you know, who were the journalists of the dictator.
But -- so we have to accept it because otherwise we will -- you know, we will -- but it's -- really, it's difficult. And it's frustrating to say that those people who are insulting me, you know, they were -- they were the -- they did -- anything for -- for the freedom of expression -- in fact, we brought freedom of expression, and now we are the victim of freedom of expression. But that's -- we have to accept it. Otherwise, how can we say that we are democrats?
ROSE: OK. At this point I'd like to invite our members to join the conversation with their questions. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Stand, state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question and make it concise.
So yes, over here.
QUESTIONER: I'm Tami Hultman from allAfrica.com. When Mo Ibrahim had his governance forum in Tunisia last year, he insisted on talking about the "African Spring," which then spread, rather than the Arab Spring. Could you talk a bit about your vision in Africa and the relations that you have? And for example, as a medical person, you know that Tunisia made great strides in reducing the rate of maternal mortality, which many African countries are struggling with. Are there lessons that you've learned about the governance transition, about -- despite the challenges you face, you have made some strides at reducing poverty. But how do you see this dialogue evolving with the rest of Africa?
MARZOUKI: Well, you probably know that Africa is the name, in fact, of the northern part of Tunisia. You know, the continent takes its name from the northern part of Tunisia. Aifraica (ph) means the northern part of Tunisia. So we're -- this is what I recall to all my African friends.
The problem's that we didn't have any relationship, in fact, with Africa for more than 50 years because 80 percent of relationship is mainly with Europe and also with the -- with the Maghreb area, but not that much with Africa. And now we would like to have this relationship.
And, you know, I went to the summit of Addis Ababa last January. And the head of state was extremely surprised to see a Tunisian because the -- Ben Ali, for more than 20 years he never -- he never went to Addis Ababa, and he didn't want to have any kind of relationship with the African countries.
Now really, we feel that something has to be done because we have many things to learn from Africa, and that because we can give some facilities to the African countries because, you know, Tunisia is -- of course, we are not as rich as Europe, but for African -- we have some university -- interesting universities, hospitals, and they can use our university, they can use our hospital, we can have more -- but we have to build everything, I would say, from zero, you know, from zero. We don't really have any -- let me -- let me tell you, for instance, that we don't have direct flight from Tunis to -- I think we have just a direct flight to just one capital to -- in Dakar.
MR. : Dakar and Chad.
MARZOUKI: Dakar and Chad. So first of all, we have to have this direct flight. And after that we will more and more contact with the -- with Africans.
But it's -- (to wit ?), you know, it's -- we have to do a lot of efforts to -- I do believe that Africa is the -- is the future of Tunisia, not only -- the future of Tunisia is not only in Europe or the Middle East but also in Africa.
ROSE: I'd like to remind national members to email their questions to email@example.com.
Yes, over here.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Sarah Leah Whitson from Human Rights Watch. I wanted to ask you about the drafting of the constitution, particularly on the sensitive issue of freedom of speech and the proposed draft that will criminalize offending the sacred -- I think that's the word, the verbiage -- and what efforts your government will make to prevent criminalization of nonviolent speech.
And second, I wanted to ask whether you think you see Tunisia playing a leadership role in the Arab world, particularly in the non-Arab Spring countries, which still live under dictatorship, even though there's a crown on their heads, like in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, and whether you think that Tunisia has a special obligation now to push its fellow Arab nations in a different direction.
ROSE: That's two questions, but I'll let it go, because I was actually going to ask that other one myself, so -- (laughter) --
MARZOUKI: Well, the first question is about the constitution. We are writing a constitution, and I think it will be one of the best in the world. The problem would -- to implement it after because it's easy to have a good text, but the problem is after to implement this thing.
We have had some problem with this constitution because as I told you, the Tunisian society is half very Westernized society, and the other half is rooted in the Islamic and Arab heritage. So putting the -- these two parts together, reaching a consensus sometime is difficult.
But in fact, we have reached a consensus about the most important issue. First, we are not going to have the word Shariah in our constitution because the Ennahda Party accepted that this could lead to a misunderstanding, this could be dangerous. And really, they -- the Ennahda Party accepted that it's enough to say that Tunisia is a Muslim country and that we don't need to put this word.
About women. Some now talk about writing phrases like women are -- men -- or women are complementary of men. And this was huge scandal in the country because we have a very important, you know, women's movement that said, what's this? Why don't we write also that men is complementary to women? (Laughter.) This would be as interesting as the -- so we'll -- you know, forget about this question; we are going to put the word "equality" and nothing else.
What was also the other problem? Yes, about the sacred and so forth. Yes, somebody -- some people tried, you know, to put this word, and we agreed that it would be extremely dangerous because this would be the way of, you know, intervening in the question of freedom of speech, and we decided that we are not going to talk about this -- this issue.
We discussed also the matter of which kind of regime we are going to have, you know, because our obsession is to prevent Tunisia to have a new dictatorship. So the discussion is would the parliamentary system be the better -- the best system to avoid any comeback to the dictatorship or does the (present election ?) system. And we have had numerous discussions about this issue and now we are issuing a consensus that we are probably going to have a mixture between the parliamentary and the presidential regime.
So we have to have a very, very important and forceful discussion between Tunisians about how we would like to be in the future, how we'd like our state, our society. And I would say that the discussion itself -- the discussion itself is probably more interesting than the constitution we are going to have, because the fact that people are discussing such issues has never happened in our history. This is very new, you know, very new that people from the different parts of the country, from the different parts of the society are discussing the whole time about the question as to which kind of society we would like to have, which kind of state we would like to have and so forth. So the discussion itself is extremely important, I think, to the democratic process itself.
ROSE: The question is, as, like, as a human rights -- as a former human rights activist and as a leader --
MARZOUKI: Not former; I'm still here. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Still. OK. -- as the leader of a government which is now a newly democratic government, what -- and you were saying before that you were going around trying to get people in America and the West to get your help against Ben Ali and to stop supporting Ben Ali. Do you feel that the West should play and will Tunisia play a role in trying to bring democratic revolutions and human rights revolutions to other parts of the region which still have authoritarian regimes?
MARZOUKI: Well, now, I -- well, it's very difficult to answer the question because if -- as a human rights activist, I would say yes, of course. But as a head of state, I would say, look, it's very -- Tunisia has -- (laughter) -- you know, so please, I don't want to have troubles with my neighboring country.
No, I would say that of course I would like that all the Arab countries would become democratic states and so forth, but really, Tunisia is a small country. Tunisia -- we have to deal with our own problems. We do not pretend to be, you know, the model or to give lessons for others. But in fact, you know, people were watching what happened in Tunisia, and if the experience of Tunisia is interesting for them, I think they will copy it.
ROSE: When you meet your fellow heads of state, including those who are the colleauges, as it were, of Ben Ali, what do you think when you meet them?
MARZOUKI: Well, sometimes I'll see, my goodness, how do they see me and I'm afraid that, you know -- I wouldn't say that they are afraid of me, but I think that they are not that happy to meet me. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Yes, over here.
QUESTIONER: Jacques-Philippe Piverge. I run a renewable energy company called MpowerD. My question relates to your long-term plans. If you think over the last 40 or 50 years, countries that have been where Tunisia is mostly have failed, and you look at success stories, some of the most prevalent would be the Asian Tigers, as far as planning. And usually that requires a great deal of long-term planning. This morning President Johnson was here from Liberia, and they're about to put out their plan that goes out to 2030 with very succinct goals and objectives. Is this something that you're in the process of putting together as well, and if so, what would be the four or five main pillars and things that you're focused on?
MARZOUKI: I'm sorry. I didn't --
ROSE: Can you think about the long term and long-term planning?
QUESTIONER: (Off mic.)
MARZOUKI: Oh, no. No, no, for the moment my plan is to, you know, achieve the constitution and then have the elections and then we will -- in Tunisia what we see after -- we have to tackle the social and economic problems.
You know, the situation is extremely fragile, and the situation is changing every day. So you know, my perspective is, as I told you, not far than this year and then afterwards, if it -- if you have re-election, if I am re-elected also, well, then we will begin to talk about, you know, issues more.
ROSE: OK. (Al ?).
QUESTIONER: (Off mic) -- Rasbutin (ph), New York University. Mr. President, you have spoken about how Tunisia has been liberated from a kind of criminal dictatorship. Now this dictatorship lasted for over 20 years. Ben Ali alone could not have done this. Large numbers of other people must be implicated in this. How are you dealing with them?
MARZOUKI: Yes, it's a very good question. You know, I think that it's probably the most difficult problem that we are facing, because, yes, Ben Ali left the country with his family, but thousand and thousand of people who are connected to the regime are still there. And because we didn't -- we didn't try to take any revenge, we didn't send them to jail, we didn't hang them, we say anything -- we didn't do anything like this, now they are -- they are everywhere, and especially in media. They are attacking the government. And sometimes we feel that, you know -- we feel threatened because they are still here, they are still in the -- in the government, they are blocking all kind of reforms.
But we have decided to tackle this problem with patience. We have to be patient. We have to be -- we have to stick to our own values because, as a human rights activist, we always say that we have to accept that people are different, we have to accept that people have different interests and so forth.
So we're not going to do like Iranian or like French after the revolution, you know, cutting heads and so forth. We have to accept danger that those people we are fighting against are still there and that they can be harmful and they can be dangerous. It's a terrible choice because you have to deal with your enemies knowing that there are your enemies, that they are there, that they are -- would harm you and that they probably would do everything to destroy the democratic process, but because you are democrats, because you are a human rights activist, you have to accept -- to let them -- and to rely on the intelligence of the people and to rely on the -- on your own -- on your own -- (inaudible) -- capabilities to face that.
But at any -- at any case, we are not going to fight them, to use -- to use the means they used against us.
ROSE: Have you been tempted to seek out and confront the people who tortured you?
MARZOUKI: No, I never have. No. No. I already decided to forget about --
QUESTIONER: No punishment for wrongdoing?
MARZOUKI: No, we will have what we call transitional justice. But transitional justice, as you probably know, is not about punishment. It's about recognition. You have to recognize that you -- that you -- you know, that you have committed crimes and you have to ask for forgiveness. And if it's a matter of money or support, you have to give it back to the nation.
ROSE: Mandela was somebody who was responsible for helping you when you were in trouble.
MARZOUKI: Yes. Yes.
ROSE: Do you look at the South African experience --
MARZOUKI: Yes, as --
ROSE: -- with that as a model?
MARZOUKI: Yes, of course. I think my -- I have had three models in my life, you know: Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mandela. And I owe my freedom to Mandela because I met him -- I met him in the '90s. In one meeting -- I was so surprised to find this great man, you know, sitting beside me. But it was just because my name is Marzouki and his name is Mandela -- (laughter) -- so we were -- (chuckles) -- so really, I -- it was a surprise, and it was great to meet him of course.
And a few years ago, you know, he intervened with Ben Ali to learn -- to free me, because he knew that I was in jail, and he intervened.
So yes, Mandela is definitely my example. And I went to South Africa twice to study this problem of transitional justice. We are having the same -- now you have the same process in -- like in South Africa at that time.
ROSE: I'm going to take a question from our national membership here. Raj Bhala at the University of Kansas: Should Tunisia or will Tunisia enter into a free trade agreement with the United States? And if so, what would be the key terms of that for --
MARZOUKI: (Inaudible.) (Laughter.)
MR. : (Off mic.) It's a longer process because we cannot put in place a free trade agreement from -- overnight. So we have launched the process. We are starting it. And I think because of Mrs. Clinton commitment to Tunisia, support for Tunisia that the process can be accelerated. We are really thankful for that. It is not a matter of sending our goods to the United States. It's so far away. But it is just to open our market for American enterprises to come and settle in Tunisia and have access to the African market, for example, and to Southern Europe also. So the free trade agreement with the United States is in the pipe.
ROSE: Is it true that Tunisian dates are the best dates in the --
MARZOUKI: Of course. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Yes, over here.
MARZOUKI: Don't talk to the Algerians. Don't say I said that to the Algerians. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Hi. I'm Julie Egan from the Council on Foreign Relations. My question relates to Tunisia's relationship with the Maghreb countries. You have been publicly, vocally supportive of reinvigorating the Arab Maghreb Union. And I -- my question is how do you see the future of the Arab Maghreb Union and Maghreb cooperation as part of the solution to the economic transformation in the region?
MARZOUKI: You know, as I told you, Tunisia is a small country, and we need the -- we need to widen our space. Frontiers with Libya and with Algeria are a huge problem for us because the -- you know, poverty in Tunisia is very much linked to the frontier. So it's very, very important for us to have the wide market because the Maghreb market with about 100 million people, whereas now Tunisia is just 10 million people. So really, we need -- we need an integration, regional integration.
But the fact is when you look to Europe, you look to South America, when you look to the -- to Asia, you will see that we have much more integration between countries than in the -- in this area, where Tunisia -- (audio interference) -- you know, relationship with Europe, Algeria with Europe, Morocco with Europe, but nothing between the five countries of the region.
And this is -- it's also one of the heritage of the dictatorship because when you have dictatorship, the dictator wants his country for himself. You know, he doesn't accept any kind of exchange with other countries and so forth. So because the dictatorship are probably over in this country, we will -- normally, we will have more relationship. We will -- the example is the European Union, you know, that the European Union was just possible after the fall of the Nazi and fascist and communist dictatorship. So we hope that we will have the same phenomena.
Now we're going to have a meeting, I hope -- summit in next -- before the end of the year. And we -- I hope that we will reach consensus about having freedom of investment, freedom of circulation, freedom of settlement and probably freedom of -- to participate to -- I mean, in --
MR. : Local.
MARZOUKI: -- local elections and so forth. Really, we need the space. We need -- we need it badly because you can do nothing when you are just a small country.
It's our hope. It's our project. And I'm working on it, just because, you know, half of my family is Moroccan and half of my family is Tunisian. So I am a Maghrebian by fact. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Can I please remind everybody to please turn off all wireless devices to avoid interference with the sound system? Thank you.
Yes, over here.
QUESTIONER: Alfred Stepan --
ROSE: Hold on one second, Al.
QUESTIONER: Oh. Alfred Stepan, Columbia University. I guess some people call me a democratization specialist. I've had the great good fortune to have been to Tunisia three times since the revolution.
One of the things that is very impressive, also historically, is that when I found out, not on my first visit, not on the second or third, that since 2003 four of the five major parties, the largest parties in the Constituent Assembly, have been meeting and signing and working towards agreements and signing it. Your signature is about the biggest John Hancock on the 2003 one in Aix-en-Provence. How did that happen? By the way, there's been nothing comparable at all to this day in Egypt. So the difference here is we would call this political society as well as civil society. Now, how did it happen? It's a great story.
MARZOUKI: Well, I think -- as I told you, Tunisia, in fact, was ready to be a democratic state since the '80s. And when this dictatorship -- when this dictator, you know, come to -- comes to power, he begins to attack the Islamists, and then he attacks the democratic movement here, attacks the unions. And so I would say, thanks to his stupidity, you know, we get a -- and we learn to work together.
And if -- yes, we had this meeting in Aix. And at that time I didn't know that, in fact, we were writing down probably the -- I wouldn't say the pre-constitution, but in fact, it -- we were beginning to -- reaching this consensus about how Tunisia should be after the dictatorship. And fortunately, we were able to apply this agreement.
ROSE (?): But why you and -- why could you guys do that and other opposition movements or other opposition groups not -- in other countries not be able to do that?
MARZOUKI: I don't know. Probably because Tunisia is more homogeneous. You know, all Tunisians are speaking, they are -- they are (sunna ?). Maybe in Egypt or in Syria they -- the society is much -- I don't know. In fact, I don't know. Maybe because we are the grandson of Phoenician, you know, traders -- (inaudible) -- to discuss and to reach consensus. I don't know.
ROSE: Yes, in the back there. No, that's you.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Bart Shafter (ph), Columbia Law School. As a human rights activist, would you support the creation of an Arab code of human rights? And could you envision Tunisian legislation or judicial decisions being overturned by an Arab court of human rights on the grounds that it's inconsistent -- that's hypothetically speaking -- with general international human rights law? Thanks.
MARZOUKI: Of course. Of course. My response is of course, we -- I would like to, and I will probably do all my best for achieving this goal. Yes, definitely.
ROSE: OK. Yes, here -- next --
QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Michelle Caruso-Cabrera from CNBC. It's a business television network here. You talked about wanting investment in your country. It's one thing to want it; it's another thing to have a country where investors want to be there because they believe that you believe in property, rule of law, and they can get a return on their investment. So what's your elevator pitch, if this were a room full of business leaders who could invest in your country? What characteristics would you tell them to sell them?
MARZOUKI: My specialist.
MR. : (Off mic.) (Laughter.) Oh, actually, it's a bunch of different reforms that we have introduced in the state. So first thing is to change our code of investment. This is to make it more open, more liberal for private equity and so on. We already passed a law to allow franchise, so we will certainly have very soon McDonald's and Kentucky and all of them in Tunisia. But it is not just for the sake of having them, but it is just to show the world that we are open to foreign investment and that this country is liberal by essence.
MARZOUKI: This will be the last question.
MR. : OK. OK. (Laughter.) Then we are also easing our taxation system, which is so heavy. Once again, it is to create a very propitious environment for investment.
We -- the other -- the other element we are introducing is transparency and good governance, without which we cannot have a healthy system. So we are, again, inscribing Tunisia in the OGP program, the Open Government Partnership, we are giving access to data so that people can have access, and we reinforce in that way transparency.
So it's a number of different reforms which are really fundamental, not only to democracy but also to business. So we are creating that environment for business, for dollars and cents.
ROSE: President, from human rights to business and investment to foreign policy and domestic policy, President Marzouki, it is our honor and privilege to host you today. Thank you very much for coming (to the council ?). (Applause.)