The Washington Diplomat / October 2007
By Larry Luxner
Tunisia, which earlier this year marked 50 years as a republic, is a land of crowded sidewalk cafés, spectacular Mediterranean beaches, traditional Arab markets and vast, trackless deserts.
It's also a tempting target for al-Qaeda extremists bent on turning this secular North African nation into an anti-Western Islamic republic.
Mohamed Nejib Hachana, Tunisia's ambassador to the United States, says his country is determined not to let that happen.
"If your domestic situation is safe and sound, you can fight any threat coming from abroad," he said. ìIn Tunisia, there is no poverty, no ignorance, and no high unemployment rate. This is the main mission of our government: to give hope to every Tunisian."
Site of ancient Carthage and a former Barbary state under Turkish control, Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1881. It achieved independence under nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba and opened its Washington embassy in 1956, ending the monarchy a year later.
Bourguiba served as president until 1987, when he was deposed in a bloodless coup by his prime minister, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Bourguiba died in April 2000 at the age of 96.
"It was a very delicate moment because Borghuiba was very sick and there was a big risk that fundamentalists would rise to power," Hachana recalled. "It was a moment when all Tunisians had lost hope."
Yet Ben Ali was able to consolidate his leadership quickly. Shortly after taking power, he abolished both polygamy and the presidency-for-life.
"Since that time, he's introduced a new policy and enacted political reforms to let the Tunisian people freely elect their representatives in the legislative bodies and in presidential elections," said Hachana. "In the most recent elections, there were at least four candidates," though Ben Ali always invariably seems to win (the next elections are in 2009).
Wedged in between the North African giants of Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is a relatively small 63,170 square miles, making it slightly bigger than Wisconsin. Islam is the religion of nearly all of Tunisia's 10.2 million citizens, with very small Jewish and Christian minorities.
"Each country has its own specifics, its own culture, and we have our own recipe for democracy," the 52-year-old ambassador explained. "This is very important, because many people confuse things. We cannot import a model from other countries, because it will not be successful."
He added: "There is a national consensus around the person of Ben Ali. He is the savior of Tunisia, and is putting our country on the right track in this very risky and difficult moment. He is deadly serious about democracy and pluralism."
Hachana — originally from Khellal, a town near the Mediterranean resort of Sousse — was only a year old when Tunisia won independence from France in 1956. The next year, on July 25, 1957, the country declared itself a republic — a landmark event the ambassador considers "a reward to the Tunisian people for their fight against colonialism, and for the liberation of their country."
Hachana studied law and economics at the University of Tunis and has been in Tunisia's diplomatic service since 1980. He holds a certificate of applied statistics from the University of Boulder in Colorado, and a diploma from the National Institute of Defense for Strategic Studies in Tunisia. Hachana's first appointment was as deputy chief of mission at the Tunisian Embassy in Washington.
He also served as Tunisia's top envoy to Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates — and as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' director of the Maghred (North African) Countries Department before coming back to Washington in March 2005 as ambassador.
In a lengthy interview at his northwest Washington residence, Hachana told The Washington Diplomat why Tunisia must remain on guard against Islamic fundamentalism.
"The main challenge we face is the threat of terrorism and violence. This is the new scourge all countries face," he explained. "Our fight against terrorism has two components: the short-term threat posed by extremists, and the more important, long-term threat posed by poverty, ignorance, underdevelopment and unemployment. This is the real risk."
Terrorist activity is clearly on the rise throughout North Africa's Maghreb, a region that encompasses Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. Groups allied with al-Qaeda have taken responsibility for several attacks across the region, though the most serious remains a 2002 truck-bombing in front of an ancient synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. That attack killed 21 people, mostly German tourists, and shocked many Tunisians who thought their country was immune to such things.
"Extremism is dangerous and growing everywhere," warned Roger Bismuth, president of Tunisia's 1,500-member Jewish community and the country's only Jewish senator. "We are very careful. Our security is very tight, even if you don't see it."
Tourism Minister Tijani Haddad, speaking earlier this year in Djerba to reporters from various overseas publications including the Washington Diplomat, insisted that the truck bombing was a fluke and not at all indicative of the mentality of average Tunisians.
"We were one of the first countries to fight extremism in this region, and we have succeeded in eradicating it here," he said. "The Europeans know Tunisia very well, and what happened in 2002 doesnít go at all with Tunisian behavior. Since that event, we've regained what we lost [in tourism numbers].
Indeed, Europeans — coming mainly from France, Germany and Spain — comprise the bulk of the 6.5 million tourists who visited Tunisia last year; Tunisia's goal is to receive 10 million tourists annually by 2010.
Relatively few Americans visit Tunisia, though Hachana says bilateral ties are strong and that the two countries cooperate in a variety of areas.
"Relations between Tunisia and the United States date back to 1796, when Tunisia was among the first countries to recognize the young, independent U.S.A.," he said. "Later on, the United States played a very important role in supporting Tunisia during our period of liberation — mainly through the UN Security Council — demanding the independence of Tunisia."
Since that time, relations between Tunis and Washington have remained "positive and constructive," he said.
"When the French left, our treasury was empty — we had zero dinars. The country which helped Tunisia survive was the United States, through food aid which was granted to Tunisia in the form of cereals, wheat and vegetable oil. The U.S. also helped finance our primary infrastructure — schools, roads and hospitals."
At that time, he said, Tunisia's per-capita annual income was only $50, compared to $3,500 today. For the first 35 years of independence, the country was ruled by Bourghiba, and Hachana said one of the first things he did was promulgate a national status code. Among other things, this code gave women the same rights as men — a radical thing for a Muslim country to do, especially in 1956.
For instance, divorces are no longer granted upon the husband's demand, but must be decided by the courts. And women have the right to vote and be elected to office — no small accomplishment, considering that in most of the Arab world, even men can't vote.
And as a result of years of investment in family planning and convincing people that their quality of life would improve with fewer children per family, Tunisia's population now increases by only 1.3% a year — the lowest growth rate in the Islamic world.
Unlike its wealthier Arab neighbors, Tunisia's economy is not dependent on petroleum; it produces only enough for domestic needs and small-scale exports. In recent years, the country has managed to shift away from olive oil, wine and phosphates — the mainstays of its traditional economy — in favor of textiles and other manufactured goods, which now make up close to two-thirds of Tunisia's exports.
"Since independence, Tunisia has had a vision, and that vision has been strengthened under the leadership of President Ben Ali," said Hachana. "What is this vision? To build a large middle class in Tunisia. We are a very stable country because 85% of our society belongs to the middle class. We have also invested extensively in education and womenís rights.
"We must keep strengthening the role and status of women in Tunisia. When Ben Ali came to power, many were skeptical that he would continue on this path. These people are surprised that he continues to enhance the role of women in Tunisia. At least 10 amendments to the National Status Code have been passed regarding women's rights."
Hachana said 35% of Tunisia's national budget goes to education, and another 21% to social welfare. Only 2% of the budget goes to defense, a rarity in a region where expenditures on weapons and the military typically consume 10% or more of a nationís budget.
"Because of our educational system and our way of interpreting the Holy Quran and practicing progressive Islam, our mentality is very different from that of the rest of the Arab world. Tunisia was, and is still, at the crossroads of many civilizations, giving birth to an open society. We are very close to Europe. All these factors make Tunisia very receptive to new ideas."
On the other hand, he warned, globalization and openness can indirectly encourage terrorism.
"Now all these extremist networks are using the Internet," he warned. "One thing our government authorities are doing to prevent the threat of extremism is to strengthen the large middle class, to ensure jobs for every Tunisian of working age."
Hachana said proudly that 80% of Tunisians own the homes they live in, while 84% are covered by social security and 99% are literate.
"Today, we are no longer talking about the rights of women in Tunisia. We have overcome this phase of our struggle," he said. "Now we are talking about the partnership of women."
Hachana said one of his priorities is to maintain links to the 800,000 Tunisians living in the diaspora. By far, the largest overseas community is in France, while around 15,000 Tunisians living in the United States.
"We pay a lot of attention to our communities abroad, so they always feel attached to Tunisia, which is very important. They never forget their country. They are the ones who defend Tunisian security abroad."
While Tunisia is a founding member of the Arab League, it's also an African country, and as such "we have a very active policy in Africa," he said. "Many Tunisian experts are active in what we call technical cooperation, and we grant a lot of scholarships for African students to study in Tunisia."
And although it's far removed from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Tunisia is respected throughout the Arab world as having hosted both the Arab League (after the organization pulled out of Cairo following Egypt's peace treaty with Israel) and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which operated in Tunis from 1982 to 1994.
In fact, Hachana said Tunisia was instrumental in bringing the two sides together, despite an Israeli bombing attack against the PLO's Tunis headquarters in 1985.
"Tunisia played a very constructive and positive role in the Middle East peace process," he said. "The first dialogue between the Palestinians and Americans was in Tunis. This was followed by the first official dialogue between the PLO and Israel."
Those two dialogues, he said, gave birth to the Oslo peace agreement and the historic 1993 summit between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In 2005, Israelís then-foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, visited Tunisia as Israelís official representative to an international summit on information technology.
Yet unlike Egypt and Jordan, Tunisia has yet to formally recognize the state of Israel.
"It all depends on the peace process," he concluded. "Tunisia has said very clearly that when there's progress on this issue, Tunisia will react favorably on the normalization of relations with Israel, but we must see tangible progress on the Palestinian-Israeli track — a sovereign state of Palestine living side by side with Israel. The main issue is still not solved."