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Zied Krishan : « Since January 14, the bulk of political battles have taken place in the media »

août 5, 2012

In Tunis, we’ve heard conflicting stories concerning the daily Arabic-language newspaper Al-Maghreb. It isn’t uncommon to hear that it spreads rumors and falsifies information, and even those that encourage us to read it recognize this. But we’ve also frequently heard that this newspaper, which is supposed to represent the opposition’s point of view, is the most read. Downtown, the paper stands run out of copies at around 2 pm. This daily, launched the 23 August 2011, is not really new. In its beginnings, it was a bilingual review, founded in 1988 and banned in 1990. When its Arabic version was relaunched last year, former members of the editorial staff came back, among them Zied Krichan, who joined the team as editor. “I see myself as simply a journalist, who allows himself to have an idea now and again. It’s as simple as that, and also as important as that, in this line of work.”

When we asked if the founder’s, Omar S’habou, political involvement affected his work, he shrugged. “Personally, Bourguiba, it’s not my cup of tea, and my ideal of modernity doesn’t necessarily pass through Bourguiba. Discussions can get pretty heated around here, including arguments going against the boss’s opinions.”  As might be expected from the director of the principal opposition newspaper, our discussion turned quickly towards the political situation.

 

Al-Maghreb is often presented as being the most read newspaper in Tunisia, and the editorial staff talked about the circulation doubling or even tripling in the last year. How do you interpret this progress?

Ziad Krichan : Our newspaper answers a need. I can’t say that we’re a popular paper, but we’re not elitist either. We provide opinions and information, and our editorial line is very clear. Without false pretense, I can say that after a few months our paper has become one of the papers read by the Tunisian elite, broadly speaking : the political, economic, artistic and intellectual elite.

 As you’ve said, your editorial line is relatively clear. How is it oriented?

ZK : In Tunisia, we had the extremely painful experience of one party monopolizing all the apparatus of state, what’s called the party-state. The Neo Destour theorized, during the convention of 64, the fusion of the party and the state, where the state serves the party, and the party serves the state, in a way, it’s always pretty ambivalent. Currently, we’re seeing the movement Ennahdha, very quickly, going down this path, like a party that sets itself up and then wants to control all the apparatus of state. The apparent discourse seems to be the discourse of an ordinary party, for lack of better word, but in reality, they introduced a bill yesterday that criminalizes the violation of the sanctity of Islam, and the grounds justifying this law are exasperating : the Danish caricatures, ordinary blasphemy in the street. They cite Persepolis, the defiling of the Koran in a mosque in the south, the exhibition at Abdeliyya…. all of this being the proof that the sanctity of Islam is violated in this country, and it must be criminalized. So, they’re attacking the freedom of conscience, creative freedom…Because, at the end of day, one might agree that, when you’re talking about ostensible insults or the denigration of the sanctity of Islam, there’s room to negotiate. But the “prophetic tradition” [identified with the sanctity of Islam in the bill, editor’s note]? What does that mean? A researcher decides to work on the prophetic period, if he dares to put out certain hypotheses, he’ll be condemned to two years of prison? It’s just madness!

 And you think that they’re really hoping to pass this law? Isn’t it just an appeal to the Salafists?

 ZK : No, they’re serious. The bill was duly introduced, three articles in the Penal Code, a statement of reasons. For them all of this is logical. Since we gave in on Sharia and Article 1 of the constitution which stipulates that the state…its wording is actually pretty ambiguous in Arabic : is Islam the state religion, or the religion in Tunisia? So they’re criminalizing any violation of the sanctity of Islam so as to reinforce Article 1, and this is what you hear every day.

 And what do you plan to do? What will your paper’s reaction be?

 ZK : We’re going to devote tomorrow’s front page to the question. And we’re going to try, like we do nearly every day, to dissect and analyze, and try to read between the lines. In what the current government is doing, the most important thing, it’s not their socio-economic achievements, it’s the semantic shift they’re operating. This means taking a word that might seem harmless, consensual, and turning it into something fundamentalist. In Tunisia, which is a Muslim country, the people have traditions, things they consider sacred, and defiling these things can be considered unacceptable. But to languish in prison, to ban research and any reflection upon what’s holy. There’s a difference between blasphemy and reflection on the deity. For them, any reflection on the deity is blasphemous, that’s the semantic shift.

Do you think that the political battleground for this law is more likely to be in the Constituent Assembly or in the media and in public opinion?

 ZK : Since January 14, the bulk of political battles have taken place in the media, which is both positive and negative, but that’s the way it is.

 And has it yielded results?

 ZK : Yes, often. Here’s a comical example. There’s been discussion within the government around a law that provides for the compensation of political prisoners. The government wants the bill to be wrapped up and sent to the Constituent. Overwhelmed, the Minister of Finances, Houcine Dimassi, resigned on Friday [27 July 2012]. Saturday morning, we published a long interview with this guy, so TV and radio stations took up the arguments for his resignation. The result : the bill was withdrawn from the agenda. Then they told us : “No, you’ve got it all wrong, this information is false, just rumors, we’re not reneging on anything…” But the bill was withdrawn. And the President of the Assembly, who declared that the bill will be studied within the framework of transitional justice, basically postponed its adoption indefinitely.

Do you think that Beji Caid Essebsi’s new party, “Nedaa Tunis” (Call for Tunisia), significantly changes the political landscape?

 ZK : It definitely changes something, without a doubt. Now, let’s say that the country’s problem is as follows. There’s one dominant party that represents around a third of the electorate. They were at 37% in 2011. I think their real volume is about a third. So they’re not going to disappear any time soon, they’re already grounded in today’s reality, and I think they’ll be around for quite a few years. But there’s nothing facing this third, just a hodge-podge group of parties. Some of them had real legitimacy thanks to their political struggle but they were crushed in the last elections, others are just small movements that don’t represent much of anyone, and they rallied to “Nedaa Tunis”. You can see a mechanism, a very clear and vital call for air. So there’s definitely a pronounced interest. But, this interest is often merely interest by default, because people don’t want Ennahdha. An 86 year-old man cannot reach young people, and the youth are clearly uninterested in voting. I don’t really know if Essebsi’s movement is like people say, but it’s incontestable that there’s more and more interest in the party. There were more than 100,000 membership applications, which is huge for a country like Tunisia. Now I think he speaks more to adults than to the youth, a lot more to women than to men, because Ennahdha attracts the older male vote, especially on the east coast. Their percentages are pretty low in remote areas, which seems paradoxical, but that’s the way it is. Also, Ennahdha is terrified by “Nedaa Tunis,” and by their own fantasies : the party is going to recycle the former apparatus of Destour, is going to recycle dirty money from the mafia, that the party is capable of beating them. So, they want not only to exclude the Ben Ali party apparatchiks from the electoral process, but from political life altogether. And, if the law [concerning the exclusion of ex RCD-ists from politics, editor’s note] passes, Essebsi won’t have the right to hold membership in any political party, because he was the President of the Assembly up until 1990.

You’ve given us the impression that there’s been a drag in Ennahdha’s popularity, and we realized that it’s not that hegemonic, that it’s an important political force playing in a democratic game, and that in the Assembly, not all propositions call for partisan votes. And so this drag, would you say that it’s due to its Islamist ideology, which frightens the electorate with bills like the one that criminalizes the violation of the sanctity of Islam, or more because of its real economic and social policy, which has disappointed the voters?

 ZK : The ideological aspect really only interests the elite. What interests the average Tunisian is everyday life, and life is unjust. The country is ungovernable. The revolution has undermined the foundations of the state, this is in people’s heads, not in their lives. The state and its representatives are no longer worth anything symbolically, in a country where, a year ago, fear of the police structured the public arena. Today, the President of the republic is made into a fool, the policemen, they’re the ones who are afraid, not the citizens who are afraid of them. Etc. So, they think they hold the reins of state, but in reality they’ve got very little real power. They don’t control the security apparatus, up until now they haven’t gotten hold of the military or the administration, they don’t have the schools, and so they say they’ve got the street. And this is really interesting, this isn’t a theory. They’ve said in their internal communications, disclosed by our comrades at Anonymous, “We haven’t got the elite, or the artistes, or the administration, or the press, but the people are behind us.” And they don’t have their so-called allies in the government. Because the two parties allied to them, Ettakatol and CPR, act much more like opposition parties than allies. They’re not willing to take on the dirty work, and whenever the punches land, there’s no solidarity.

If it isn’t the ideological aspect that interests the street, what exactly has disappointed voters in Ennahdha’s policies?

 ZK : Ordinary people accuse the government of the deterioration of everyday living standards. It’s the first time that people don’t have access to water in one of the regions ; there have been water outages that last for 40 days, electricity as well, lasting a few weeks. This has never happened before. With a rise in the cost of living, the economic machine isn’t restarting, the Minister of Labor promised us 400,000 jobs in 2012, and there aren’t even 40,000 jobs. I interviewed the Minister of Justice who told me, in March, with a supplementary budget that provides for a growth rate of 3.5%, compared to an average of 5% these last few years, we’re going to create 400,000 jobs. So I said to him, how did you get that number? He told me that with one point of growth, they could create 20,000 jobs. And I told him, you don’t how to count! Because 3.5%, that makes 70,000 jobs not 400,000. So he says, no, no, we’re going to create 400,000 jobs. So I ask, I was recording the interview, can I print this tomorrow morning? He says, let me check. And this is the kind of people who run the state! Now I’m no economist, but it’s common sense. Then they accuse the Governor of the Central Bank of being responsible for the rise in the cost of living. You’d think you were dreaming! And they’re serious! Because they made the minting plates ring when the country was in crisis, bailing out the banks so the economy didn’t stagnate, it’s not surprising that there are a couple of points of inflation more than usual. And they accuse the Central Bank of stopping the economy and causing inflation.

 In your opinion, what’s the economic priority in Tunisia today?

 ZK : Everybody has said it, we need a New Deal in Tunisia, we need a vast program of growth-generating public works. It’s an economic treatment that prepares the future, and, at the same time, gives hundreds of thousands of people employment. After the events in the mining area around Gafsa in the first semester of 2008, the Cabinet decided, in July 2008, to start these growth-generating projects, which, theoretically, should have started in 2009. Today, it’s 2012, and they haven’t started yet. We shouldn’t have expected anything. In Sidi Bouzid, a hospital, a highway should have been built. When people see construction equipment, backhoes and whatnot, on the ground, the country starts up again, it’s symbolic, that’s all. It isn’t a question of money.

Interviewed by Evan Fisher and Loïc Bertrand on 2 August 2012.

Translated from French by Evan Fisher

 

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