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Tunisia: 'Candle in the Dark' That Lit Arab Spark Finds Its Way
The Washington Diplomat / March 2014

By Larry Luxner

Next week, when Mohamed Ezzine Chelaifa visits the White House to present his credentials as Tunisia’s new envoy to the United States, President Obama might get the feeling it’s déjà vu all over again.

After all, the country has now seen three ambassadors in Washington in the last four years, a reflection of the upheaval and uncertainty back home.

Mohamed Salah Tekaya — taking over from his transitory predecessor, Habib Mansour — engaged in a similar White House ceremony on Dec. 7, 2010, exactly 10 days before Tunisia erupted in a revolt that sparked the Arab Spring. At first, Tekaya defended the dictator who had sent him to Washington, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. However, following Ben Ali’s dramatic overthrow after 23 years in power, the diplomat skillfully changed his tune and began speaking out in favor of the revolution.

In fact, he did such a good job that in 2012, Tekaya was named “Ambassador of the Year” by the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC). But he didn’t have much time to bask in the glory. In June 2013, Tekaya resigned his post without explanation. Mokhtar Chaouachi, Tunisia’s former envoy to the African Union, arrived to take his place, and NUSACC promptly hosted a welcome luncheon for the new diplomat at Washington’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Sadly, Chaouachi didn’t last long either; Chelaifa replaced him only six months later. In keeping with recent tradition, NUSACC welcomed the new ambassador with a luncheon on Feb. 7, this time at the Loews Madison Hotel.

“It’s not uncommon for countries in transition to rotate ambassadors, and from my perspective, Tunisia is trying to match up the right people for the right job,” said NUSACC’s president and CEO, David Hamod. “In my opinion, there’s probably no more important posting in the world for Tunisia right now than the United States. That’s one reason they chose a guy with a lot of experience in multiple positions over many years.”

Chelaifa, 58, is a career diplomat who’s served as ambassador to South Africa, Australia and, most recently, Spain. His appointment in Washington coincides with the Jan. 26 ratification by Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly of a new constitution following two years of rancorous debate.

On Feb. 10, parts of that constitution went into effect, and the very next day, we interviewed Chelaifa at the imposing Tunisian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue.

“After three years of a difficult, complex and painful transition, Tunisia is back on track, thanks to a vibrant and dynamic civil society and our Tunisian tradition of moderation,” the ambassador told us. “Tunisia has now achieved a historic breakthrough with the appointment of a new, neutral government, the installation of a new electoral law and the adoption of a liberal, secular and progressive constitution.”

Remarkably, Chelaifa added, “this constitution enshrines the full standard of human rights, including freedom of conscience and worship, which is revolutionary in the Arab world. Sharia law is completely absent from this constitution, which also asserts equality and even parity between men and women.”

Tunisia, in fact, had long been known as a progressive, Western-friendly country. But it was also a dictatorship, ruled for 23 years by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who delivered stability and a measure of economic prosperity but also stifled dissent and allowed cronyism and corruption to thrive.

In the blink of an eye, all of those grievances exploded into public view three years ago, when 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi stood in front of municipal headquarters in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline over himself and lit a match. The fruit vendor’s dramatic suicide ignited a revolution against corruption, dictatorship and injustice that rapidly spread to a dozen Arab nations. In addition to Ben Ali, the revolution eventually toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak (deposed after 29 years), Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh (ousted after 33 years) and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi (overthrown and killed after 42 years). Lesser uprisings erupted in Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco and Sudan.

In Syria, where the ongoing civil war has isolated President Bashar al-Assad internationally, an estimated 130,000 people have died and 2 million are homeless — at least half of them children. The Syrian economy is in ruins.

By comparison, Tunisia stands out as the region’s bright spot. Notably, its 10.8 million inhabitants succeeded in ousting a repressive regime without massive loss of life. In the Tunisian Constituent Assembly election of Oct. 23, 2011 — billed as the first honest election in the country’s history — the Ennahda movement, a moderate Islamist party led by Rachid Ghannouchi, won the popular vote and formed a coalition with two smaller secular parties.

“Three years ago this month, Tunisians inspired the world when a brave fruit vendor sparked a revolution that set the country on a path to democracy,” Secretary of State John Kerry, who plans to visit Tunisia in March, said in a Jan. 29 statement. “While Tunisia’s transition to democracy is not yet complete, these are very important steps. They are proof positive that Tunisia’s democratic transition can succeed.”

Yet the country has not escaped the religious tensions and political jockeying that the Arab Spring unleashed, as Islam and democracy fight to coexist. Amid this identity crisis, governments — including those led by relatively inexperienced parties such as Ennahda — have struggled to meet the high expectations of protesters and repair economies battered by years of instability. Tunisia is no exception. Ever since Bouazizi’s self-immolation and subsequent uprising, the Wisconsin-size nation has been plagued by constant strikes and protests — and by occasional terrorist attacks and assassinations.

Several days after the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed four Americans, an angry mob stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, burning vehicles and looting the adjacent American school. In February 2013, liberal politician and human rights activist Chokri Belaid was shot to death outside his home, and last July, secular opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi was shot in front of his wife and children. Street protests erupted after the assassinations, which were also followed by the deaths of eight Tunisian soldiers near the border with Algeria. The soldiers’ bodies were then mutilated and their throats were slit.

Blame for the killings focused on Ansar al-Sharia, a hard-line Salafist movement seeking to implement Sharia law across Tunisia. The Ennahda-ruled government — seeking to distance itself from the Salafists — officially designated Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist group, yet it continued to lose popular support in the wake of the attacks and Tunisia’s declining economic health. In January, Ennahda agreed to step down, handing over power to an independent caretaker government.

Despite the recent political chaos, Chelaifa says the peaceful transfer of power and adoption of a new constitution “proves that moderate Islam and modern democracy can coexist in Tunisia, and therefore, in the Arab world,” presenting an alternative to religious extremism.

“Tunisia is a candle in the dark, but our success remains unfinished and fragile,” said Chelaifa, who was opening his country’s new embassy in Australia in December 2011 when the uprising began. “We need to consolidate this emerging democracy. We have a foundation of real democracy in Tunisia. What we need now is a favorable democratic environment, and a democratic culture in order to continue our advance.”

Chelaifa said Ennahda came to power during two difficult years but “was not well-prepared” to govern the country — and that the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi after only one year in power and subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately convinced Ennahda’s leaders to compromise with its adversaries rather than risk losing power altogether. Despite attracting criticism for accommodating Islamists extremists and failing to turn the economy around, Ennahda also earned praise for hammering out a new constitution and will remain a potent political force.

“What characterizes Tunisia is the vibrancy of its civil society, which has been the cornerstone and the driving force of this transition,” Chelaifa explained. “Secondly, Ennahda has started a process of transformation from a religious party to a civil party. It’s not comparable to the Muslim Brotherhood. The third factor is that we have a very neutral army, which is not interested in political power. This is the difference with Egypt. The removal of President Morsi has persuaded Ennahda to step down in order to absorb the drop in its own popularity and remain an actor in the political process.”

Duncan Pickard, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said Tunisia’s new constitution is the “first tangible fruit” of the revolution, and that it came about after a series of immense roadblocks.

“It stands the best chance of being the first sustained constitution in the Arab world written outside the context of a dictatorial power,” Pickard said at a Feb. 10 seminar hosted by the Middle East Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “What’s most remarkable is the success of this process in the face of several moments when it looked like the entire political transition was going to fall apart.”

Johns Hopkins professor emeritus William Zartman, who moderated the panel, said that while “the constitution is something to be proud of,” the liberal side thinks there are aspects of the constitution Islamists will take advantage of if they come into power in the next election cycle, while the Islamists think the liberals are trying to keep them out of the elections. (While it’s a largely secular charter that stresses democratic freedoms and gender equality, the constitution also enshrines Islam as the national religion.) Zartman also said Ennahda will be less popular in Tunisia’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

But Pickard said Ennahda, which remains the only elected body in Tunisia, will remain a force to be reckoned with for some time.

“One of the reasons for Ennahda’s success is the popularity of its president, Rachid Ghannouchi,” he said. “His writings in the 1970s and 1980s form the cornerstone of moderate Islam as an alternative to the imperialist politics that had condemned his region to poverty.”

Chelaifa, a Sunni Muslim like 99 percent of his fellow Tunisians, was born and raised in the Mediterranean coastal town of Mahdia. He has a master’s degree and a doctorate in political science and international law from Aix-Marseille University in France.

A career diplomat whose foreign postings have included Pretoria, Canberra and Madrid in addition to Washington, D.C. — where he was deputy chief of mission from 1996 to 1999 — Chelaifa speaks French, Spanish and English besides his native Arabic.

“I hope that my appointment in the United States will add substance and confidence in our bilateral relations,” he told us. “I couldn’t have started my mission better, and we would like to keep this momentum going. This is an opportunity to strengthen our modest bilateral relations and to establish a new strategic agenda between the United States and Tunisia, based on common strategic interests.”

Two of those “common interests” are fighting terrorism and attracting foreign investment.

“Terrorism is a big threat for us,” he said, referring to last year’s two political assassinations and the ambush by the Algerian border. “We do have some residual terrorist groups which are losing ground and being neutralized by our security forces. These very few terrorists have tried to launch some desperate actions but are being pursued.”

He added that while Tunisia has close security cooperation with neighboring Algeria, his country’s 400-kilometer eastern border with Libya is far less secure.

“Libya is a security threat,” Chelaifa warned. “We do have very good relations with Libyan authorities, but unfortunately, these authorities are not controlling the country. There are no functioning state institutions in Libya.”

As difficult as it is to defeat the terrorists who are capitalizing on the region’s revolutions and power vacuums, putting Tunisia’s economic house in order might be even a bigger challenge.

Unemployment stands at 17 percent, while the economy last year grew by only 2.7 percent — far below the level needed to create jobs for its surging population of restless, jobless young people — the very demographic that trigged the 2011 uprising. In January, riots sparked by the government’s decision to increase taxes to plug its ballooning budget deficit left one man dead and several injured in the town of Bou Chebka. Protests also erupted in three other central towns before spilling over into Tunis, egged on by transport and agricultural unions opposed to the tax hikes.

“Our economy is very diversified, but just now we need some assistance to speed up the recovery with foreign investment,” said Chelaifa. “We need to stabilize our budget. The United States has decided to assist Tunisia in this endeavor with a $500 million loan guarantee. Tunisia’s ratings in the financial markets has dropped, and this loan guarantee permits us to raise more funds.”

Beyond that, Chelaifa said his government is pushing the White House for a free trade agreement that would give Tunisian products preferential access to the U.S. market — an ambitious endeavor but one that would let Washington put its money where its mouth is, instead of just paying lip service to democratic aspirations in the Arab world.

“We must set up a framework to encourage investments,” the ambassador said. “Right now, the Americans are very focused on FTAs with the European Union and Asia, but considering Tunisia’s small economy, we don’t think it would be a big problem. Washington might agree because Tunisia could be used for American investors and exporters as a gateway and platform for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.”

Among Tunisia’s advantages, he said, are the country’s well-educated workforce, its homogenous population and its proximity to major markets.

“Each year, we have 70,000 college graduates able to work,” Chelaifa pointed out. “We don’t have many natural resources, so we count on ourselves. Besides our traditional sectors like textiles, olive oil, food processing and mining, we also have value-added industries like aeronautics, plastics, electronics and now a very dynamic IT sector.”

NUSACC’s Hamod says the idea of a U.S.-Tunisia FTA isn’t that farfetched.

“I believe having a free trade agreement would help put us in a better position as we compete for market share in Tunisia and North Africa,” said Hamod, who’s made more than a dozen personal trips to Tunisia and has led five trade delegations there. “Right now, the association agreement that Tunisia enjoys with Europe gives the EU a significant advantage over the United States.”

He added that Israel and four Arab countries — Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman — already have FTAs in place with the United States. “Other countries have begun to look at Tunisia as an investment destination, beyond the current instability, looking to the future,” said Hamod, whose organization plans to lead a sixth trade mission to Tunisia this fall. “I think we are now at the stage where we should be looking to do the same.”

Meanwhile, since arriving in Washington, Chelaifa has spent much of his time on Capitol Hill, lobbying Congress in favor of an FTA. Among Tunisia’s biggest friends in the Senate, he says, are John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Chelaifa is also planning for Kerry’s visit to Tunisia later this month and a visit by Tunisia’s caretaker prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, to the United States in April. Separate elections for president and prime minister are likely to be held in October, said the ambassador. “I have to prepare the ground in Washington, but of course I have an agenda to visit other states and organize a road show for the business community.”

And then there’s one other piece of unfinished business: the fate of Ben Ali.

In June 2012, a military court sentenced Tunisia’s former strongman in absentia to life imprisonment, in connection with the deaths of 23 demonstrators by police during the Arab Spring revolt. A year earlier, a civilian court had imposed on Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, a 35-year prison sentence and a $66 million fine for charges ranging from drug trafficking to embezzling billions of dollars in state funds.

Yet it’s unlikely Ben Ali will serve even one day behind bars. The unrepentant dictator, now 77, is under the protection of Saudi Arabia, which has adamantly refused to discuss his extradition — despite public protests in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tunis.

At any rate, bringing Ben Ali back home is hardly a priority for Chelaifa.

“Ben Ali is gone, and his party has been completely dissolved,” the ambassador said. “We have been trying to recover some funds from Italy, Spain and Switzerland. It’s been a very hard and difficult process.”

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