Interview with Dr. Rafik Abdessalem


5 May 2014, Istanbul

Dr. Rafik Abdessalem was Foreign Minister in the first democratically elected government in Tunisia's history. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Mohammed V University, Rabat, as well as a doctorate in Politics and International Relations from the University of Westminster. He worked as a researcher at the University of Westminster and a visiting scholar at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. He has been prominent member of various scientific and research bodies such as; Tunisian Students General Union, Maghreb Centre for Research and Al Jazeera's Centre for Studies. 


Begüm Zorlu: Do you think 'Arab Spring' is a convenient term or do you think this Western expression 'spring' needs to be replaced with another word?

Rafik Abdessalem: This term is also used by the forces in the region. At the end of the day it is becoming a prominent term used by the countries in the Middle East as well. The term means political transformation, which is not an easy task. It is difficult and complicated. It is a process of art of consensus.

Begüm Zorlu: Tunisia is the place where the Arab Spring was born. Do you think the Spring is over in Tunisia? What do you think is going to happen next?

Rafik Abdessalem: I think Tunisia is moving towards the right direction despite all the difficulties we are facing. Of course there are a lot of challenges arising from the region, mainly from the forces of stagnation. There are certain forces in the region which are not happy with the political transformation and they try to freeze the situation. They even want to go back to the previous era of that particular regime.

As I said before, the situation in Tunisia depends on consensus between particular political players. We are fully aware this is a transition period and it requires a lot of consensus and cooperation between different political forces. That is why we have formed a coalition government, which is now a neutral one and is in favor of drafting a new constitution and fixing a date for the next elections.

Begüm Zorlu: Tunisia has been regarded as the only successful example of the Arab Spring. The new constitution passed in January and state of emergency was lifted in March. In the light of these developments, it seems that Tunisia is moving towards a stable and peaceful future. How did Tunisia accomplish these achievements?

Rafik Abdessalem: This success has been due to certain different elements. One of the elements is that Tunisia is a homogenous society. There are no religious or sectarian divisions. The other factor is that we have a wide middle class. Compared to the other countries in the region, the level of education is high. In addition to that, we have responsible political forces that have been active in the political arena in the post revolution situation. They are rational and fully aware of the complexity of the situation. They have worked hard to build consensus and cooperation between each other.

Begüm Zorlu: What are the lessons which the other countries could learn from Tunisia?

Rafik Abdessalem: The main challenge of the countries in the region is the balance between the demands for security and demands for freedom. There are some countries which have become freer but they are unfortunately moving towards chaos and a full mess. In Tunisia, we compromise and synthesise the priority of freedom and demands of people and demands of political stability and security. This has been the main challenge in the region.

However, when I look at the regional environment, it looks dangerous and risky. If you look what happened in Libya, Yemen, Syria and other countries in the Middle East or the Arab World and North Africa, the situation appears to be very complicated.

Begüm Zorlu: In one of your interviews you pointed out that you are against secular dictatorships and totalitarianism. What do you mean by secular dictatorship and what is your alternative?

Rafik Abdessalem: Secularity does not necessarily mean democracy. You may have a secular democracy which is despotic at the same time. We are moving towards a more open society. We should respect the divisions within the society. At the same time, we need to be democratic. The main question is how to have a impartial state based on the values of democracy and political culture of the country.

Begüm Zorlu: What did the Arab Spring change in the Middle East? What are the lasting impacts in individual states and in the region in general?

Rafik Abdessalem: On the local level, the demands of dignity and freedom are becoming priorities of people in the region. People are no longer indifferent to dictatorships and despotism, which are against the will of people. This is the main outcome. The other outcome is about the power in the region. Power is no longer in the hands of the alliances of despotism. Of course, there are different waves. We have a wave of revolution as well as a wave of counter revolution especially coming from Egypt. This makes the situation very complicated. There is a division and polarization between the process of political change and the process of political stagnation.

Begüm Zorlu: How do you interpret the political developments in Egypt? Do you think national reconciliation and stable policy will be possible in the country in the future?

Rafik Abdessalem: I hope so. What guarantees political stability is the process of democratization. It is no longer possible to put the will of people under the military rule. What happened in Egypt is a real coup d'état. It is very difficult to guarantee the political stability of the country under the military rule.

The recent charges were one of the main elements of polarization in Egypt. They polarized and complicated the situation. But I hope the country will reach a consensus between the main political forces and the state and political actors.

Begüm Zorlu: How do you explain the survival of the authoritarian leaders while facing very strong demands from people?

Rafik Abdessalem: This is due to various elements. International powers were not happy to see democracy in the region. They supported the process of regress and going back to the autocratic authoritarian regimes.

Begüm Zorlu: You stated that Israel does not respect the legitimate rights of Palestinians and does not follow the international sanctions, and thus Tunisia will not pursue diplomatic relations with Israel. Would the Arab Spring change the alliances and geopolitical constellations? What are the new rules of engagement in regional politics after the Arab Spring?

Rafik Abdessalem: We are part of the Arab League. Our policies are not separated from the policies of the League. The policies of the Arab League are to push Israel to implement its international obligations upon the Palestinians. As long as there are occupational settlements, it is impossible to build such a relationship with Israel.

Begüm Zorlu: How could the Arab League push Israel to converge? What are the methods?

Rafik Abdessalem: We need cooperation and unity within the Arab League regardless of the differences among the countries. We pursue regional cooperation between Arabs, Turks, Iranians and those who would be in favour of political stability of our region. This is the rule of geography. The residences of the region need to cooperate.

Begüm Zorlu: What is your future perspective for Syria? What do you expect in short, medium and long terms?

Rafik Abdessalem: I think there is no escape from political change. Syrian people have legitimate demands for political freedom and participation and democracy. But the real challenge in Syria is the sectarian polarization and use of arms. They need to stabilize the country based on the democratic norms and the will of the Syrian people.

Begüm Zorlu: How are Tunisia's relations with France?

Rafik Abdessalem: We have a specific relationship with France. Although the difficulties we are facing with the country, we have historical and lingual shared history. We are open to wider cooperation with both Europeans and countries.

Begüm Zorlu: Is the JDP government in Turkey a good example for Tunisia? Does it have an effect on Tunisia?

Rafik Abdessalem: AKP is an inspiring model for Tunisia as well as for the people in the region. At the end of the day, Turkey has a successful story regarding political and economic improvements. There is improvement in the sense of democratization; it is a real and transparent democracy. The economic development of the country is noticeable. Turkey is a successful example of both economy and politics.

Begüm Zorlu: I think what you referred to as 'secular dictatorship' could be a case of what Turkey has also faced and overcome. Regarding this, could we say Tunisia is on the way of overcoming the problem as well?

Rafik Abdessalem: I think we are in the same process. Tunisia could be considered as a smaller Turkey. If you look at the modern history of Tunisia, we have roughly the same history. Turkey had military tradition and military interventions but now the military institution is becoming more neutral. Here we have secularized political regime, which had heavy despotism. The country now is moving towards a more liberal and open democracy while being attached to the values of the country and Tunisian society.

Begüm Zorlu: Tunisia is always mentioned as the 'bright star' of the Arab Spring. Lastly, what would you like to say about the general picture of the Arab Spring? Some people believe the Spring has failed and turned into Winter. The Tunisian case, however, could be a proof against these arguments. Tunisia could be seen as an example where consensus and cooperation succeeded. What are your comments and recommendations?

Rafik Abdessalem: I think we have to work together. Turkey is a close ally of the political change and the Arab Spring. It is becoming more close to the people of the region. We need to work together in favor of Turkey and the Arab World. We share a common history. We also need to share the present and future together.