Islamism, democratization and Arab intellectuals conference organized by the Democracy and Islam Programme, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster

Ladies and gentlemen

First of all I would like to thank the Westminster University’s Centre for democracy for inviting me to this conference on Arab intellectuals and democracy.

Needless to say, there are in Tunisia, just like everywhere else, many historians, writers, and poets, filmmakers, who have never signed a single petition against torture or corruption, while considering themselves in private as democrats. Should we blame the collapse of the democratic process on them ? May be they have not to be blamed because they are not intellectuals at all. This is why we have to clarify the concept itself. Because of our French heritage, the Intellectual emblem in Tunisia and in the Maghreb is Jean Paul Sartre (and prior to him Voltaire and Zola). He was a philosopher and writer deeply involved in political issues using his prestige as a well known scholar to support what he viewed as the causes of the oppressed. There is an other prototype : François Mitterrand who was a great politician but also a writer and a very cultivated person using his culture in his political strategy.

The heroes of our presentation, called the Tunisian intellectuals, are a mix of cultivated politicians following the path of François Mitterrand and politicized scholars following the Satre’s example.

Now we can raise the question of their responsibility in what we can call the rise and fall of the democratic project in our country. The answer will not be a scientific assessment, my academic field being public health and not political sciences. Rather I will present here the testimony and the point of view of an activist involved in fierce political conflicts, both with enemies and friends. I do not pretend to be objective in this presentation but I will try my best to be as honest as possible.

Historians have well described the complex and ancient roots of the Tunisian democratic movement. The demands for freedom of expression, political pluralism, and autonomous civil society’s associations, never stopped since the independence in1956, even within the ruling party. But those demands reached their highest peak in the seventies and eighties. This is why this paper will consider only this period accepted by all as a critical moment in the increasing conflict between an emerging civil society and an authoritarian state.

During the late seventies, due to international pressure and the conflict with the mighty ‘’ Tunisian workers General Union’’, the government had to make some concessions to the civil society by accepting the existence of three new political actors, freed from its control for the first time.

1- ERRAI founded in 1979 was much more than a simple independent tolerated newspaper. It was the rallying point of the democratic intellectuals and the symbol of their struggle. In its head office you could meet the most notorious writers, poet’s journalists, professors of law or medicine, all of them opposed to the one party system and dreaming of a pluralist Tunisia Widely read in the country -and frequently banned- the newspaper did play an important role in disseminating their ideas and ideals of democracy and Human Rights.

2- The Tunisian Human Rights League was founded in 1977, recognized mainly because of the Carter’s administration pressure, but also because it did not seem overly threatening to the regime. In fact the League proved to be more than a Human Rights association. It became very soon the parliament of the civil society and a real democratic front including NGOS, recognized and not recognised political parties, plus prominent individuals. It acquired very quickly an important moral authority and remained for more than a decade the most important human rights associations in the Arab world. The ties between Errai and the league were very strong for a simple reason. The same intellectuals were the leaders of the two institutions. Errai was in fact the voice of the league, expressing its concerns about numerous sensitive issues, such as death penalty or torture, and echoing its repeated demands for new democratic institutions and more political freedoms One must insist here on the growing role and importance of the Islamic trend trying to be present both within the team of Errai and of the central committee of the league, on the basis of a formal and probably sincere acceptance of the principles of democracy and human Rights.

3- Independent political parties began to play a modest and a new role, when the aging Bourguiba accepted the principle of pluralism after more than two decades of ruling based on a one party system. Two new democratic and secular political parties were recognized as well as the old and weak communist party. But the government never accepted to recognize neither an Islamic party nor any leftist or Arab nationalist organisations. * Three decades after this promising progress, the result is catastrophic : a state police, a life president, a corrupt administration, a demoralised and weak opposition, a paralysed civil society, a slowly dying league, a total loss of the few civil liberties conquered during the eighties.

The worst in the current situation is the state of the ideas and ideals in the heart and mind of the average Tunisians .Better not to talk about democracy and Human Rights, because they might laugh at you, the very words sounding empty, hypocrite, ridiculous if not disgraceful.

For sure the intellectuals do not bear the whole responsibility for the collapse of the eighties dream, and not all of them can be blamed, but three mechanisms can be identified by which the majority of them mismanaged their commitment to their proclaimed ideal. The first is the rallying to the medical coup of Ben Ali in November 1987 by a quick and naïve acceptance of his pledges about the new reforms that were supposed to make Tunisia the first Arab democratic state.

Some well known activists, journalists, writers, thus granted their full support to the regime. Let me remind you those two chairs of the league and two former general secretaries, well known physicians and lawyers, accepted to join the new government. When it became obvious in 1991, that Ben Ali was not establishing a new democracy but, rather, a revived dictatorship, none of them resigned nor publicly protested against the new wave of torture, unfair political trials, and restriction of the civil liberties. They did not even protest when the government dissolved the league in June 1992. Because of the so called Islamist threat, they accepted to be part of a regime much more authoritarian than the one they had fought years before.

One well known public health professor wrote a book describing the similarities and the differences between the thought of Ben Ali and the philosophy of …Kant and became member of the government, and headed the ministry of interior. Many of these mercenaries are still in charge of disseminating the regime’s propaganda.

The intellectuals supporting this uncomfortable position were arguing that the real threat against democracy was Islamism, that the priority was to get rid of it by all means, and that only then could the democratic process be initiated. This new argument that had now become the basis of the official discourse justifying the slowness of the pledged reforms was seen by these intellectuals as a matter of hope not as the biggest lie of the regime. Some advised to be patient, moderate, and responsible in order to calm the new president fears of loosing control. A former general secretary of the league proposed to invent a new rule for elections so that the ruling party can be sure to have automatically more than 60% of the ballots, the rest being divided between the other parties. None of these great democrats advised to accept a half independent judiciary and to be patient two or three decades before we enjoy a total one, or that the press should be freed slowly and surely, let us say by 10% every year, so that in twenty years time, it would be allowed to talk about everything, even about the growing corruption of Ben Ali’s regime. The most astonishing is that even some Islamist intellectuals, never stopped talking about the necessity to be ‘’ patient’’, ‘’moderate ‘’ ‘’ open’’, begging all the time a reconciliation systematically rejected by the regime. They proved not only to lack political cleverness but also to lack dignity.

The second mechanism is simply betrayal. In 1991, there were two effective political parties in Tunisia : the league and the police, and this Police decided to wreck the last independent association increasingly opposed to the consolidation of a harsh and corrupt dictatorship. In April 1992 the so called parliament passed a new law obliging any association to open doors to every body willing to join. We knew from the beginning that this law was aimed specifically at the league that we would soon have to welcome a flood of people, sent by the police and its cover, the ruling party, to “democratically” take control over the league.

At that time I was the chair of the league and I succeeded to convince the central committee to reject the law because it was unconstitutional, and to Continue to choose our members according to their real commitment to Human Rights .The government dissolved the league in June 1992, but was obliged to step back because of the international pressure. It then tried a new strategy by organising a coup against the so called radicals in the central committee and found within this structure devoted to the defence of the independence of the league a lot of allies.

The congress of February 1994 was organised by a very close cooperation between these allies and the ministry of interior. The outcome was the eviction of the so called radicals and in fact the surrender of the league. Participation in the mock democracy of the police state is the last and most subtle mechanism by which Tunisian democrats have destroyed the credibility and the dignity of their own project. Ben Ali organised his own pluralism, by installing, infiltrating and controlling four or five political parties, all of them playing the role of a mock opposition, presenting mock candidates to mock presidential elections in 1999, 2004 and happy to share 2 or 3% of the ballots and a few seats in a so called parliament. Nearly all of the leaders of these parties were very active in the seventies and eighties in the democratic struggle, but accepted to play the shameful role trying to hide their cowardice and greed behind the smokescreen of the necessity to improve the system from within.

In fact they did not change the system, but the system did change them. The worst is the attitude of two other recognised and still independent democratic parties, ‘’the Progressive democratic party’’ and the ‘’ forum for democracy and labour’’.

None of them was led by people who can be described as greedy or cowards On the contrary. Their members were and remain part of the last freedom fighters. I must insist that if some intellectuals proved to be naïve or cowards and able to betray their own beliefs, a lot of them never gave up and remained in the battlefield despite aggressions, detention, unfair trials, withdrawal of passport, loss of jobs, attacks against their honour by disgusting means like mock pornographic pictures disseminated by the secret police.

The problem is their catastrophic strategy. On the one hand they denounce the system, on the other they accept to be part of it, especially by participating to its mock elections. Their excuse is that by participating they will put the pressure on the system, use the elections period to disseminate their ideas in the country, and therefore widen a little the space of civil liberties. After many elections without achieving any of these objectives, they still refuse to accept the evidence that they will never change the situation by being part of a tricky game. Certainly, the Tunisians intellectuals have an important responsibility in the collapse of the democratic project, but in defence of them we must say that they were also the victims of two other factors on which they had no control.

First the ability of the police state to introduce confusion in the public mind by its continual discourse about its so called commitment to democracy and Human Rights. The second factor is the US military intervention in Iraq in the name of democracy which completed the distrust, and even the disgust, of the public towards the concepts and what could lie behind them. Needless to say, all these factors, explain the spread of the Islamist discourse and the decline of the democratic one.

My conclusion might seem pessimistic , but how can we ignore that o the overwhelming majority of our intellectuals , Secular or Islamist , failed in their first task : understanding and analysing the democratic dictatorship of Ben Ali , its tricks to hijack the concepts, sow confusion, division and corruption within the public and the elite. The relationship to Islam, and not only to Islamism, was not also seriously studied .The democratic discourse remained largely superficial, rooted in ‘’cliché ‘’ without any conceptual innovation. Our intellectuals failed also their second and most important mission : Giving the example. In Physics or medicine the credibility of ideas are not linked to those who use them, but in politics it is the case. How could the public believe in ideas and ideals so obviously manipulated by those who were supposedly devoting their lives to them ?

Our tired heroes will have no role in the future unless they accept that a dictatorship, just like slavery or colonialism, is an institution that needs to be replaced, not improved. Intellectuals will also have to entirely reconceptualize their relationship to an ideology that spreads very quickly within the population they fight for and whose will is supposed to be the cornerstone of the regime they work for. Continuing their policy of so called moderation towards a non amendable system or seeing the Islamist wave with the eyes of Westerners would simply prove suicidal ****