Meet our Liberal Friend from Tunisia: Kabil Daoud

In 2011, the Arab Spring emerged in Tunisia. Former leader of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country with his family after months of protests against his authoritarian regime. The Jasmine Revolution (as specifically the Tunisian revolution is called) changed the political environment of Tunisia drastically and brought about many democratic reforms. Despite this, the Tunisians are facing serious problems. The economic growth has stagnated in recent years which consequently frustrated the Tunisian population. Tunisia's democratic development is now being tested. Many alarming issues are emerging, such as: a low-election turnout, a splintered political landscape, and a rise of populist movements. At this point Tunisian politics is so divided, that the democracy is under constant pressure. This occasionally results in Tunisians looking back with nostalgic feelings towards the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali. VVD International discussed the challenges for Tunisian politics and the future of liberalism in Tunisia with a liberal friend: Kabil Daoud. Kabil Daoud has been party director of Afek Tounes for over four years. Afek Tounes is a political party in Tunisia which was founded right after the Jasmine revolution in 2011. The party is considered liberal and center-right. VVD International and Afek Tounes have been working with each other for more than 5 years.

Kabil, what are for you the most important liberal values?
“Freedom in general is important to me, but I also value other non-liberal values. We recently worked on political theories. We analysed the primary values of basically every actor of the political spectrum. Our study showed that people relate to three values: Freedom, solidarity and order. The way people rank these values gives them their place on the political spectrum. Meaning: the liberals put freedom first, socialist solidarity, and the conservatives put order first. Those three values are shared by everyone. No one wants to live alone, or without freedom and no one wants to live in chaos. It is a matter of ranking the values. What is interesting is how you rank the second value, because this divides the liberals globally. Is it solidarity or order?”

I guess, for the VVD this is order. Do you know ideologic differences between the European liberals and liberals in the Middle East? Or to be more specifically, between the Dutch liberals and the Tunisian liberals?
“I do not think there is a big difference between Tunisian liberals and Dutch liberals. However, liberalism has a different meaning all over the world. That is why we worked on the earlier mentioned research. If you say liberal in France it means extreme capitalist, in the US it means basically left. Liberals often mix-up liberal values and that is why internationally liberals are often so different from each other and divided.”

We had a look into the current political situation in Tunisia. We found many alarming issues such as: a low-election turnout, a splintered political landscape and a rise of populist movements. What is, according to you, the current state of Tunisia’s democracy? And do you believe that the existence of democracy in Tunisia is at risk?
“I believe that many people do not get what the source is, of the problems you just mentioned. I believe that we have a very unadopted political system. We had a dictatorship of 60 years and much changed. The constitution was changed, and the idea was that we should implement far-reaching reforms. We made a system that is the opposite of what we had earlier. This does not work. People used to live in another political system and the people of Tunisia have naturally difficulties with adjusting to this new system.
The Tunisian people are still mentally connected to the old system. Moreover, the new leaders that made this new system do not have any experience in managing states. The new leaders only had their knowledge of political theories. Furthermore, we have economic issues that were the cause of the revolution, unfortunately these issues became worse. Now, Tunisian citizens are becoming increasingly critical towards the new system because they are getting poorer.

One of the reasons there is such a chaos and that we for example do not have an electoral threshold is that Islamists are the most important contributors to the creation of this new system. They want the Parliament to be divided, so they can stay the biggest party. In addition, the Tunisian people lost faith in their domestic politics, because of the chaos over the past ten years.

To overcome the dominance of the Islamists a new party was created, which was rather a coalition because they did not have any ideology. This party was named ‘Nidaa Tounes’. The party won the elections with 40% and subsequently became the biggest party, but they still had to govern with the Islamists. This caused a huge wave of distrust amongst the voters of Nidaa Tounes, because this party was created to oppose the Islamists. In addition, just one year after the elections, half of the parliamentarians representing Nidaa Tounes in the first place left the party. From that moment the Islamists were the biggest party in parliament again. Afterwards, the people stopped voting. People started to think that voting is useless; even if they win, they will lose.”

So, something needs to change to protect the democracy of Tunisia?
“Yes, this country needs change very quickly. We are not like France; we do not have the means to wait about 150 years to finalize our revolution. France is France, they have their means to do that. We do not have time and money. The problem is our electoral system, it makes it almost impossible to get a majority. So, it is very hard to form a stable government. In many countries the electoral system works, but not in Tunisia. Since, we are mentally still with the old system and partly because we are not used to consensus. That is why we had 9 governments in 10 years! You cannot change anything with such chaos.”

You mentioned all those challenges to the young democracy of Tunisia. What are the answers of the Tunisian liberals to those challenges?
“Firstly, the country needs stability. We believe that we need to change the electoral law to prevent that the continuous chaos pushes people to call for the return of an authoritarian regime. We need an electoral law that creates majorities. Secondly, we need to improve our investment climate. Even extreme left-wing parties are introducing liberal laws in the parliament to remove taxes and other forms of barriers for foreign investors, which illustrates how much liberal policy is needed. Thirdly, we believe that individuals in Tunisia need to have the right to own foreign currencies. Currently, it is a criminal act to have foreign money but on the other hand we need to use foreign currency for the economic stability of our country. Finally, Afek Tounes wants to contain the power of the labour unions. The labour unions are forcing the government every year to hire more people and with higher salaries. At this moment, of the 10 million Tunisians, around 800.000 are working for the government. The costs of all these salaries are immense. The salaries of the government officials cost half of the yearly budget of the government. We have all these solutions, but it will be very challenging to implement these reforms.”

How do you think the current political situation will develop? Do you think it will develop into an authoritarian government or will it develop to a better democratic system?
“It depends. Anyway, the electoral law will change. But now the problem is that we have a lot of populists, even the president is a populist. The populists are becoming more and more popular and the ultra-anti Islamists are gaining popularity as well. These people are anti-Islamists to a degree that it could cause a war in the near future. They now rank one at the polls.”

Does Afek Tounes have a bright future and a place in the new system?
“Yes of course, we are now working on a new strategy. It is a long-term strategy and we are preparing for the next elections. We have the problem that liberal solutions are sometimes very complicated and therefore only understood by a small amount of the population. Moreover, the Tunisian voters do not trust their politicians. Especially, in a time when the electorate regards politicians as untrustworthy, you should be careful when presenting complicated liberal reforms. If voters do not understand your solutions to their problems, they will doubt your ability to govern, because there is massive distrust. We should come up with understandable explanations for the solutions we want to offer. If we succeed in that, we definitely have a bright future and a place in a new system!”