The Washington Diplomat / July 2000
By Larry Luxner
In Algeria, hardly a week goes by without some gruesome report detailing the latest throat-slashing or decapitation by Islamic fanatics. And Libya, despite Col. Moammar Qaddafi's recent attempts to warm up to the West, has for years been on the State Department blacklist because of Qaddafi's support of international terrorism.
Wedged in between these two unpredictable African giants is tiny, tranquil Tunisia -- also a Muslim country but one that prides itself on religious tolerance, universal education, women's rights and its unabashedly pro-American policies.
"We respect the principles of Islam, but we've adapted our behavior to modern times," says Noureddine Mejdoub, Tunisia's ambassador to the United States. "This is what makes Tunisia different from its neighbors."
Mejdoub, 65, has been on the job here just over two and a half years. The scholarly, polite gentleman -- who speaks fluent Arabic, English, French and German -- heads a staff of 30 (including 10 diplomats) at the Tunisian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue.
"It was never my desire to be a politician. Instead, I wanted to help my country in international affairs, and was conscious at an early age what I wanted to do with my life. I had wanted to be a diplomat since secondary school. When independence came, I was 20 years old."
Mejdoub went on to earn a doctorate in political science from the Sorbonne in Paris, and in 1960 began his career with the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1977, after various posts in London and Paris, Mejdoub was appointed director of political affairs for Europe and America, and spent most of the 1980s in Prague, where he was Tunisian envoy to Czechoslovakia.
Following a three-year stint in Rome, the diplomat in 1989 was chosen to head Tunisia's national committee on relations with the European Economic Community (forerunner to the EU) and in 1992, was sent to Tokyo as his country's ambassador to Japan, where he remained before arriving in the United States in November 1997 to take up his latest assignment.
Last month, Mejdoub chatted with The Washington Diplomat for well over an hour about his country, which covers 63,170 square miles (making it slightly bigger than Wisconsin) and has 9.6 million people, about the same population as Belgium or Greece.
"We are an old country, with 3,000 years of international experience," he said. "We have had relations with the United States since 1797, and we were the first Arab country to recognize U.S. independence. The United States was also the first country in the world to recognize Tunisian independence."
Site of ancient Carthage and a former Barbary state under Turkish control, Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1881. It achieved independence and opened its Washington embassy in 1956, ending the monarchy a year later. Nationalist leader Habib 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 at the age of 96.
"We had a vision about our future," says Mejdoub. "Immediately after our independence, Tunisia promoted a new status for women, which has changed our whole society. For instance, we outlawed polygamy. We are legally and de facto the only Arab country, and the only Muslim country, which is monogamous. There's no excuse for polygamy. It's against the law, period."
In addition, 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.
"About 20% of Tunisia's municipal officials are women -- the highest percentage in the Arab world, and higher than many non-Arab countries," said the diplomat. "Secondly, we have emphasized education. After 75 years of French rule, we had a literacy rate of only 7%. Today, 40 years after independence, it's 70%, and all children 15 or younger are registered in school.
"The third factor was family planning," he added. "Our government convinced the people that their quality of life would be better with fewer children per family. We now have 1.3% annual growth -- the lowest in the Islamic world. We don't have a demographic explosion, and we don't have an imbalance between men and women. Poverty has been kept to a minimum. These choices, together with political stability, have created a new society where two-thirds of the population belong to the middle class. And these people don't want to jeopardize their own achievements. They want to make money."
Today, Tunisia has a per-capita income of $2,400. That's not very impressive compared to its oil-rich brothers in the Arab League such as Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. But its income appears to be distributed more equitably, and the North African country has enjoyed 5% or more annual growth since 1988.
In addition, 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 58% of Tunisia's exports.
"Economic development helps a lot in building stability," said Mejdoub. "You don't have social unrest in a balanced society."
Another thing that helps is religious tolerance. Although 99% of Tunisians practice Islam, the country does have pockets of Christian and Jewish minorities. In fact, one of the oldest synagogues in the world, al-Ghriba, is located on the island of Djerba -- a sort of pilgrimmage for Israeli tourists who would be unwelcome in most other Arab countries.
"This is thanks to geography, but also the influence of the intelligentsia, who spent a lot of time in Europe," said Mejdoub. "They brought with them many European values. Also, most Tunisians speak both Arabic and French, and all those with responsibilities are not only bilingual but have mastered the two cultures as well."
This tolerance has a flip side, however. Islam as a political force is prohibited, and critics argue that the government pays lip service to press freedom while telling the world that Tunisia is a democracy. Last October, President Ben Ali was re-elected to a third term by 99.44% of the vote -- a figure not very reassuring to advocates of election reform.
Mejdoub defends the results, saying Tunisia simply needs more time.
"Tunisia is striving for democracy, but we are not perfect," he told the Diplomat. "We believe that democracy doesn't happen instantly. We started this movement toward a multi-party system years ago. Many parties participated in the election. The opposition is very weak, so the best way to encourage opposition is to give them more chances."
The envoy added that Ben Ali is trying to encourage newspaper editors to be more skeptical, and that the recent assassination attempt against Tunisian journalist Riad Ben Fadhel -- who criticized the government's treatment of a fellow journalist that had written about human rights abuses in Tunisia -- has been blown way out of proportion.
"We are constantly attacked by Liberation> and Le Monde, two French papers read by our intelligentsia," he said. "These papers write every day against Tunisia. It's really a campaign of destruction. But in Tunisia, nobody dies for political reasons."
Asked if Tunisians are really free to criticize the government, he said: "More and more, yes. I believe that within the next decade, we will have a Tunisia Post to compare with The Washington Post."
Perhaps more realistic are Tunisia's behind-the-scenes efforts to nudge along the on-again, off-again peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, which most observers now feel will result in a Palestinian state being declared before the year is over.
"We are working, publicly and discreetly, on ideas and solutions for the Middle East conflict," said Mejdoub.
Although it's a North African state far removed from the immediate 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.
At the same time, Tunisia is one of the few Arab countries to maintain low-level relations with Israel.
"Since 1996, we have an agreement to maintain bureaus in each other's countries, We have a diplomatic presence in Tel Aviv, and there's an Israeli mission in Tunis. We are trying to convince the Israeli public that they can build serious relations with the Arab world," he said.
"We are at a very important crossroads. There's now a concentration of goodwill. The election of Prime Minister Ehud Barak is a good sign. We feel he's a wise man. At the same time, the Palestinians are eager to have their own state, and get back their occupied territories."
He added that "our own economic and commercial relations with Israel are on hold until the Palestinian issue is resolved. Then we can have full diplomatic relations."
Meanwhile, Tunisia continues to promote economic and political integration with four other North African desert nations -- Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Morocco -- known collectively as the Maghreb.
"President Ben-Ali is working so hard to reunify the Maghreb," he said. "It is a dream of the five countries to be together. We'd have a larger market with more negotiating power with the EU, and it's an excellent forum to solve the problems of the region. What solved the Franco-German conflict after so many years? The Common Market."
All these issues and more will likely be raised during President Clinton's upcoming meeting with Ben Ali, who plans a three-day visit to the United States in mid-July. Mejdoub calls Ben Ali's meeting with Clinton "the crowning result of our achievements" since the two countries established diplomatic ties 203 years ago.
"Increasing trade and investment in Tunisia is the role of our embassy," said Mejdoub, adding that his current focus is on the Midwestern states of Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin. "The Great Lakes states are more adapted to what we do, namely electronics, automobiles and spare parts, textiles and agribusiness."
At present, bilateral trade comes to $500 million a year, largely in favor of the United States, which imports textiles, leather, olive oil and some petroleum.
Mejdoub would also like to boost the number of American tourists visiting Tunisia from the paltry 15,000 who came last year; that compares to over a million each from France and Germany. With direct flights between New York JFK and Tunis, more Americans might be enticed into visiting Tunisia's golden beaches and cultural attractions.
"We have 2,200 sites from the Arab, Byzantine, Roman and Phoenician eras, and we have the best collection of mosaics in the world," he said, adding that tourism is now the No. 2 source of foreign exchange after textiles, accounting for 8% of Tunisia's GDP.
To that end, Mejdoub is active in the Hannibal Club, a think tank that concentrates on issues linked to the Mediterranean and its ties with the United States and the Arab world. At the organization's banquet a year ago, Sen. Daniel Inouye was presented with the First Annaual Hannibal Award -- a bust of the famous warrior-statesman sculpted by none other than Noureddine Mejdoub.
"We are old friends," the diplomat told us. "America helped us during our struggle for independence. We had economic support support from the United States. But we have also helped the U.S. for decades during the Cold War, while our neighbors to the east and west of us were allies of the Russians. Tunisia played a pivotal role in this struggle. Now we would like to promote trade and investment in Tunisia."
Asked what he'll do when his Washington assignment expires, Mejdoub laughed.
"I don't know," he said. "We know only when we're appointed. We never know when we'll leave."