Mohsen Marzouk is one of the most powerful politicians in Tunisia and a human rights activist. But is he doing enough to prevent human rights violations, reform security forces, and combat terrorism in his country?
Tunisia has been hit by several massive terrorist attacks this year. In March, “Islamic State” (IS) gunmen took hostages at the Bardo Museum in the heart of the capital of Tunis. In June, a shooter gunned down 38 people, mostly foreign tourists, in the beach resort of Sousse. And just a few weeks ago, a deadly explosion carried out by a suicide bomber in a bus killed several members of the Tunisian presidential guard, leading to the government’s declaration of a state of emergency.
In an exclusive interview with DW, Tunisian politician Moshen Marzouk said these attacks, for which IS terrorists have claimed responsibility, must be considered war and be the top priority. He also said Tunisia needs international help in the fight against terrorism.
“We need multinational cooperation on the issues of intelligence and information sharing. The world needs this, not only Tunisia,” he said.
A human rights activist who was imprisoned under the former regime, Marzouk is now general secretary of the governing secular Nidaa Tounes party. He was, in fact, one of the founding members of Nidaa Tounes, which won the most seats in parliamentary elections in October 2014. Marzouk helped get current Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi elected at the end of 2014 as his campaign manager and remains a member of the party’s Executive Committee.
Tunisia is the biggest source of foreign fighters joining the “Islamic State.” More than 3,000 young Tunisians have joined ranks of the IS. That’s as many radicalized people from Tunisia as from all of Europe.
Marzouk says the newly found freedoms in Tunisia after the Arab Spring in 2011 partially explain the extent of radicalization in his country. “During these years of democratization, everything was opened up and so any person could come in and recruit people,” he told DW.
Plus, the Islamist party Ennahda, which led a transitional government after the revolution, didn’t do enough to stop the network of recruiters and to fight radical recruitment, according to Marzouk.
One of the biggest tasks for Tunisia right now is to combat terrorism, Marzouk said in the interview. But what makes this fight difficult is not just the large amount of radicalized young people, but also mafia lobbies inside Tunisia which are linked to terrorism.
“The link between smugglers and terrorists is clear, on the frontiers and on the border zones,” Marzouk said on DW’s Conflict Zone.
It takes time, however, to shut the mafia lobbies down, Marzouk added, stressing that Tunisia is in the midst of a democratization process and is still busy with rebuilding the country after the revolution.
“The state institutions are weak because we are building new institutions.”
Tunisian police are trying to master the situation, Marzouk said, but it’s an asymmetric war for which Tunisian security forces aren’t trained.
Human rights abuses in Tunisian prisons
And that’s not the only problem Tunisian security forces are facing. According to human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Tunisian police are still abusing prisoners: beating them up, torturing and raping them – practices common during the old regime.
In the interview with DW, Marzouk admitted that these practices are still occurring today – at least occasionally – but said that the government is trying to fight the problem. He added that it takes time to train police officers to respect human rights and to teach them not to torture, rape and abuse prisoners, as these kinds of methods were accepted for decades.
“Do you think that you can have a new police after revolution in two or three years? It’s a long process. (…) It’s not easy to move from a totalitarian regime, which lasted for 100 years, to a new paradise.”
One of the reasons why these practices are still ongoing is that the war against terror Tunisia is currently fighting is weakening state institutions and slowing down the reformation of security forces as well as the battle against mafia lobbies and human rights abuses, Marzoud said.
“First we have to conduct this war against terrorism and then we have to reform our security institutions.”
Corruption still an issue
Reforms are also needed when it comes to corruption. In fact, Tunisia has slipped in Transparency International’s Corruption Index in the last five years, which, according to the World Bank, is costing the country two percent of its GDP.
Confronted with these numbers, Marzouk said fighting corruption should be a priority in Tunisia but has gone backwards because state institutions are weak since the revolution.
However, Tunisia’s Anti-Corruption Commission says it can’t do its job as the civil service is holding it hostage and as they only have a limited budget and less and less employees.
Is the government silencing the media?
It’s not just the national Anti-Corruption Commission whose hands are tied. The government is also increasingly cracking down on journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Tunisian security services are harassing and threatening journalists who are critical of them.
In December 2014, blogger Yassine Ayari, who criticized the military in his blog posts, was convicted of defaming the army. Marzouk agrees with this decision, saying it was part of the government’s war against terror.
“The people who have been arrested were not criticizing the Ministry of Defense; they were making an apology of terrorism. And now if you are fighting terrorism you have to be serious. (…) If we are fighting terrorism, the people who are encouraging terrorism or making an apology of terrorism have to be stopped, that’s part of the whole war against terrorism.”
Does Tunisia want a dictator back?
All of this has caused disillusionment among many Tunisians. According to a poll by the International Republican Institute, 72 percent of the Tunisian population thinks the country is heading in the wrong direction.
A Pew Research Study from October 2014 shows that the number of Tunisians who thought democracy preferable to other systems has dropped to below 50 percent since the early days of the Arab Spring.
When asked if they wanted a democratic government or a strong leader to solve Tunisia’s problems, only 38 percent of those surveyed chose democracy, while 59 percent would rather have a strong leader.
But Marzouk doesn’t think this has anything to do with his party’s politics. “Some people think liberties explain what is happening in the country, including terrorism and the issue of the lack of security. They are asking for less liberties and more security because of terrorism. But we think that democracy and freedom is an army, is a weapon against terrorism.”
And Marzouk says Tunisia is not alone with this issue.
“The debate about the relationship between fighting terrorism and protecting the rights also happens in France right now and it happened in the United Kingdom and the United States.”Top