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President of Tunisia discusses democratic transition with UK Parliamentarians

The President of Tunisia, HE Dr Moncef Marzouki, visited Parliament on Monday 26 November to meet with UK Parliamentarians for a BGIPU-hosted discussion entitled “Perspectives on Tunisia’s Democratic transition”. With the President providing a brief opening statement but preferring to respond directly to questions from the floor, the event was highly interactive and provided a unique opportunity to engage with a pivotal figure in the evolution of political transition following the events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and the wider region.

The President, who was in London to receive the Chatham House prize in conjunction with Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi for their contribution to the democratic transition in Tunisia, joined Deputy Speaker, Dawn Primarolo MP and Meg Munn MP and the Tunisian Secretary of State for American and Asian Affairs Mr Hedi Ben Abbes on the panel for the discussion.

The comprehensive exchange between the President and a diverse group of UK Parliamentarians highlighted Parliament’s strong interest in post-Arab Spring developments in the Middle East and North Africa region. The exchange also underscored the abiding commitment of the President and his caretaker government to pushing forward democratic change in Tunisia, in particular the progress being made towards finalising a constitution for the country before new parliamentary elections to be held next year.

Mr Marzouki stressed his desire to see Tunisia develop along a democratic path, which he felt must succeed not only to the benefit of Tunisia and its people, but also as an example to the other Arab Spring states and the wider Arab world, including dispelling traditional preconceptions that democracy and Islam are in some ways mutually incompatible. In this regard, he gave thanks to the UK and others in the West for their continuing support and said that Tunisia would continue to need this support, both economically and politically, but also in terms of cultural understanding, in addressing the challenges still to be faced in Tunisia and the wider region. He also suggested that this process would require time and, as agreed by all politicians present, as with any political process, an amount of luck and good fortune to reach a successful conclusion.

The UK Parliamentarians present were interested to hear from the President his views on the future of the coalition in Tunisia and how the political landscape within the country differed from others in the region, in particular Egypt, where the progress of reforms is proving to be more difficult. Mr Marzouki suggested that the road to success for Tunisia, will be in reaching compromise between different factions of society and for Tunisia to assume both its identity as an Islamic country but also the modernity of the population without sacrificing either element – stressing that this would be a difficult balance to strike but that he and his coalition partners were committed to achieving this.

The road to success for Tunisia, will be in reaching compromise between different factions of society and for Tunisia to assume both its identity as an Islamic country but also the modernity of the population without sacrificing either element”.

When questioned on the relationship between the Islamic and secularists elements of Tunisian society, Mr Marzouki dismissed the preconception that the political landscape is divided along these lines, saying rather that it was one of conservatism vs. modernisation, and that Tunisia had experienced a unique situation where there had been a revolution led by conservatives, throwing up paradoxes which pose challenges moving forward.

The President also spoke of the challenges of citizenship in post–authoritarian and post-revolution Tunisia. From a personal perspective the President spoke of how he had fully expected to die in exile in France, and that to feel proud to be Tunisian once again, was “a kind of miracle”. However Mr Abbes also spoke of the challenges faced as a government in meeting the high expectations of its people – meeting their economic and daily needs whilst also endeavouring to introduce radical reforms to the state and political institutions – neither of which are possible without the strong support of the population.

The main points of the meeting were summarised by Dawn Primarolo MP, Deputy Speaker, who expressed the thanks of the BGIPU and all those present, to the President for his open and insightful comments and for his ongoing commitment to progress, human rights and democracy in Tunisia and the wider region.

The BGIPU Secretariat would like to thank the Deputy Speakers Lindsay Hoyle MP and Dawn Primarolo MP for their time in welcoming the President to the Parliament and Meg Munn MP for chairing the meeting. Particular thanks also to all BGIPU members in attendance for their continuing and consistent support of BGIPU events.