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Tunisia's New Envoy Reflects on Arab Spring, Five Years Later
The Washington Diplomat / December 2015

By Larry Luxner

On Dec. 17, 2010, after a policewoman in the town of Sidi Bouzid confiscated his fruit cart and humiliated him for not having a permit, 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi poured a can of gasoline over his head and publicly set himself on fire.

Anti-government protests began within hours. A month later, Bouazizi was dead, longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled after 23 years in power — and the Arab Spring was in full bloom, from Morocco in the west to Bahrain in the east. Before long, Hosni Mubarak — who had ruled Egypt since 1981 — was overthrown, Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi (in power since 1969) was hunted down and killed, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced into exile after 22 years as head of state, and a popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad plunged Syria into full-fledged civil war. Lesser revolts erupted in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania and Sudan.

This month, as the fifth anniversary of Bouazizi’s self-immolation approaches, Tunisia remains the only Arab Spring success story in the Middle East — an achievement reflected in the selection of its National Dialogue Quartet as winner of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Quartet’s representatives will receive the prize at a Dec. 10 ceremony in Oslo, and Fayçal Gouia has every reason to be proud.

“We never intended to influence any other country, or to be a model for other societies. Each country has its own realities,” said Gouia, Tunisia’s new ambassador to the United States. “But I think the Tunisian example is now very much appreciated. We enjoy freedom of expression and free speech, and we have recovered our dignity.”

The soft-spoken Gouia is Tunisia’s fifth ambassador here in as many years — perhaps a reflection of the chaotic times in which his nation of 11 million finds itself.

Ten days before Bouazizi lit a match to himself, sparking the Jasmine Revolution, Mohamed Salah Tekaya took over the job from his transitory predecessor, Habib Mansour. At first, Tekaya defended the dictator who had sent him to Washington. Later on, following Ben Ali’s ouster, the diplomat skillfully changed his tune and began supporting the uprising.

But in June 2013, shortly after the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC) named him Ambassador of the Year, Tekaya resigned his post without explanation and was replaced by Mokhtar Chaouachi. Six months later, Chaouachi himself left, and Tunisia sent a new envoy to Washington: Mohamed Ezzine Chelaifa.

Like the men who came before him, however, Chelaifa didn’t last long; he was promoted to vice-minister for foreign affairs. Gouia, 56, arrived to fill the vacancy, presenting his credentials on May 18. The very next day, Gouia received Tunisia’s newly elected president, Bei Caid Essebsi, on an official visit to the White House.

“The country’s been going through a lot of transitions in recent years, so it’s not a great surprise that we’ve seen a lot of ambassadors representing Tunisia’s different phases in its march to democracy,” said NUSACC’s president and CEO, David Hamod.

“Very few people in Tunisia understand the U.S. as well as Fayçal Gouia does,” Hamod told The Diplomat. “He spent time here in the embassy years ago, and started building lifelong relationships. He was head of the Americas desk back home, and in terms of getting to know Congress, he’s done an extraordinarily good job.”

Gouia grew up in Kairouan — one of Islam’s holiest cities — studied in Tunis and Paris, and has degrees in finance and management. For the last 26 years, he’s been a diplomat, having previously served in Washington from 1995 to 2001, first as cultural and press counselor, then becoming economic and commercial counselor in 1997, and finally as deputy chief of mission starting in 1999. He was later sent to Jakarta as Tunisia’s ambassador to Indonesia (also covering Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines). Before his latest stint, Gouia was deputy minister of foreign affairs.

“My mission is relatively easy now because back then, I served at a time when Tunisia was criticized by U.S. decision-makers, either on the Hill or the administration, for its human rights abuses and lack of liberties,” Gouia told us during a recent interview at his Washington residence. “Now Americans consider Tunisia a success story. We succeeded in overcoming political difficulties by adopting a progressive constitution, by organizing free and fair elections, and by going through a smooth transition. There’s a lot of appreciation for Tunisia in the United States.”

On Jan. 26, 2014, Tunisia adopted a new constitution guaranteeing key civil and political, as well as social, economic and cultural rights. These include the rights to citizenship; to freedom of expression and association; the right to form political parties, to freedom of assembly and movement, and freedom from arbitrary detention and torture.

In addition, Tunisia’s first national parliamentary elections since the 2011 uprising took place in October 2014. That resulted in victory for the modernist Nidaa Tounes party, which won 86 of 217 seats in Tunisia’s National Assembly.

“It is for good reason that the Tunisians won the Nobel Prize over other favorites” such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif or Pope Francis, The Economist opined Oct. 9. “The country offers a rare example of progress in an otherwise wretched region. It deserves encouragement. And the rest of the Arab world deserves a little cause for hope amid all the anger and bloodshed.”

Yet in the wake of two horrific terrorist attacks earlier this year and widespread dissatisfaction with the pace of economic reforms, Gouia is taking nothing for granted.

On March 18, exactly two months before he assumed the post of ambassador, three gunmen attacked the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, killing 22 people — mostly European tourists. Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Tunisian government blamed a local splinter group of al-Qaeda. Then on June 26, an armed gunman opened fire on a beach resort north of Sousse, killing 38 people. Again, most of them were European tourists, mainly from Britain.

Essebsi, Tunisia’s president, immediately deployed 1,300 armed guards to protect hotels and tourist sites, and declared a state of emergency that lasted until October. The attacks followed a string of extremist-inspired political assassinations that took the lives of two prominent political leaders — Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi — in 2013.

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 slit. Blame for the killings focused on Ansar al-Sharia, a hard-line Salafist movement seeking to implement Sharia law across Tunisia.

“These terrorists intend to destroy what Tunisians have built since the revolution. They don’t want Tunisia to be democratic or free, but to impose their own ideology: bloodshed and killing,” said the ambassador. “They have no relationship with humanity or religion or common sense. All they want is anarchy, violence and terror.”

It is ironic that Tunisia — perhaps the most advanced and secular of the Arab League’s 22 member states — has also contributed more foreign jihadis to the ISIS bloodbath in Syria and Iraq than any other country. Tunisia’s own interior minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, told reporters in June 2015 that at least 2,400 Tunisian citizens have become combatants in Syria since 2011, mostly as fighters for the Al Nusra Front and ISIS. Some 400 of them have returned, while thousandd more have been prevented from traveling.

“They are targeting Tunisia because it’s a success — the only candle in the wind — and they don’t want this candle to shine anymore,” said Gouia. “Unfortunately, many of these Tunisians were trained in Libya, Syria and Iraq.”

And driving tourists away is one obvious way of destroying the economy, given that tourism represents 7 percent of Tunisia’s GDP and employs 400,000 people.

In 2010, the year before the revolution, more than seven million foreigners visited the country’s Mediterranean beaches, ancient Roman ruins and desert landscapes so otherworldly that Star Wars director George Lucas used Tunisia as a backdrop for the mythical planet Tatooine. But after the June slaughter of unsuspecting tourists sunning themselves on the white-sand beach at Sousse, arrivals tumbled by 35 percent.

“Our outlook for the summer season was very positive,” said Gouia. “But with the second attack, tourism was very badly hurt, and the impact was huge.”

In that regard, Tunisia resembles another North African country — Egypt — that is also highly dependent on tourism. On Oct. 31, a Russian jetliner crashed over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula shortly after takeoff from Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people aboard. Most of the passengers were Russian vacationers flying back to St. Petersburg. Evidence suggests that a bomb destroyed the Airbus A321, and a local ISIS affiliate has already claimed responsibility for the attack.

Yet one thing has nothing to do with the other, said Gouia.

”Both operations that took place in Tunisia were done by individuals. In Sousse, it was one person, and at the Bardo Museum, it was two — not groups using heavy equipment,” he insisted. “There is no link at all between what’s going on in other countries and what’s going on in Tunisia.”

Why are so many of his countrymen joining violent extremist organizations such as ISIS? Gouia says he’s not sure, but offers some possible explanations.

“Tunisians are moderate people, but for many reasons, they are easily indoctrinated,” he said. “Maybe it’s marginalization, though I don’t think poverty is behind it. After many years of dictatorship, people are looking for any kind of freedom. They want to express themselves, to convince themselves they exist.”

But economic stagnation is, in fact, a very serious problem — and with the loss of tourism and foreign investment following the recent attacks, Tunisia’s economy risks collapse, endangering all of the painstaking political progress gained thus far.

“Unless the Tunisian government moves rapidly to turn the economy around, Tunisia could well turn out to be the country where the Arab Spring both was born and died,” warned Karim Mezran and Mohsin Khan, senior fellows at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center on the Middle East.

In a policy brief issued Oct. 9, the authors warn that Tunisia has barely made progress on economic reforms that could achieve the 6-7 percent annual growth necessary to create desperately needed jobs and make a significant dent in unemployment, which currently stands at 15.2 percent. In fact, as recently as this spring, the IMF and World Bank had been projecting Tunisia’s real GDP to rise by 3 percent in 2015 — but that was before this summer’s carnage in Tunis and Sousse.

The government now projects real GDP to rise by only 0.5 percent in 2015, with some indications that the year could end with GDP shrinking, as was the case in 2011.

“Moreover, Tunisia is not a particularly business-friendly country, ranking relatively low on standard international indicators of competitiveness,” said the authors, pointing out that it ranked 60th out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s 2015 Doing Business Report. Even worse, the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom ranked Tunisia 107th out of 178 countries — and fifth lowest of the 15 Middle East countries evaluated.

“The biggest single issue Tunisia faces is the creation of productive jobs as part of a growing economy,” noted NUSACC’s Hamod. “Tunisia lives in a tough neighborhood, and they have suffered the effects of regional challenges. Having said that, I’m optimistic that the people of Tunisia will pull through.”

So is Hussein Abassi, head of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which is part of the National Dialogue Quartet that also includes the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. The Quartet — formed in response to the 2013 political crisis — won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for helping to keep Tunisia on the path to democracy.

But Abassi beseeched the World Bank and other financial institutions not to put unrealistic pressure on Tunis to overhaul its economy at the expense of social justice.

“I told them to be patient. Don’t treat Tunisia as a stable country, because they are asking us to embark immediately on major reforms,” said Abassi, speaking Nov. 4 at the Rafik Hariri Center. “Please talk to us as a country in transition that is still looking to revive its economy. Please be patient.”

Abassi suggested that while Tunisia must reform its labor and investment laws, fiscal reform can take place in 2016 — and that reforms not achieved by the end of 2015 can be tackled in 2016 or even 2017.

“We don’t want to be claiming heroism here,” said Abassi, noting that it was only because civil society groups and politicians set aside partisanship and put Tunisia’s national interests first that the country has not slipped into anarchy. “If they were not responsive to us, the dialogue would have never succeeded, and we would have never been able to talk about this exceptional success of Tunisia.”

Gouia says talk of Tunisia descending into chaos or a Libyan-style civil war is nonsense — and he outlined five reasons why.

“First, we have an educated population; literacy in Tunisia is very high. Secondly, our politicians are aware of the challenges that threaten the country and have a strong sense of patriotism and responsibility. Third, we have a strong and dynamic civil society, so even if sometimes we cannot agree, civil society puts strong pressure on politicians to form a consensus,” he said.

“Fourth, women’s participation in civil and political society is very important. Tunisian women played an important role before the revolution, during the revolution and after the revolution. And fifth, unlike other countries, we have strong institutions and a civilization more than 3,000 years old. So we have learned how to live together.”

It may seem like a paradox, said Gouia, but unlike the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Qaddafi’s Libya, civil society associations existed even in the time of Ben Ali.

“They were not illegal. The regime was not the stereotype of dictatorship that exists in other countries,” he said. “Tunisia is a unique case in the Arab world. Tunisians are well educated and open-minded. That’s why it’s a tourist destination. Our first president, Habib Bourguiba, also had a very big influence on Tunisians. He emancipated women in 1956; he was more occidental than oriental.”

Yet the government Gouia represents isn’t taking any chances. To keep extremist elements out, Tunisia recently announced its intention of building a 100-mile-long berm along its 500-mile desert frontier with Libya — where all three gunmen involved in this year’s two attacks received training — and will reinforce existing border crossings at Ras Jedi and Dhehiba.

While the ambassador isn’t ready to declare victory over the terrorists, he did say another Bardo-style attack is unlikely, noting that “Tunisia is now under control of our military and security forces. They are doing a tremendous job, and most of the terrorists [who went to train in Libya] cannot return because Tunisia is very well controlled.”

Meanwhile, Tunisia has some unfinished business to attend to, both at home and abroad. As ambassador, Gouia said he’s meeting on a daily business with lawmakers, business leaders and think-tank experts trying to encourage U.S. investment in Tunisia.

In 1995, he said, Tunisia signed a free-trade accord with the European Union — becoming the first country in the world to do so — and today, more than 3,000 European companies are doing business there. By comparison, only 66 U.S. firms have operations in Tunisia, “which don’t reflect the strong relations that exist between our two countries.”

In November 2014, the U.S. Agency for International Development opened a new office in Tunis, an event attended by Gouia. Since 2011, USAID has given Tunisia $288 million to support the country’s economic growth and democratic transition — including a $100 million cash transfer, transition assistance programs to support youth and civil society, and two sovereign bond guarantees that provided the country with access to almost $1 billion in financing.

But what Gouia would really like to see is a free-trade agreement between Tunis and Washington that would give his country greater access to the lucrative U.S. market.

“In the Middle East, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Oman all have FTAs with the United States,” he said. “I think Tunisia will be the next.”

That could be a case of wishful thinking, however.

Angry opposition by both Democrats and Republicans to President Obama’s push to join the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership — not to mention the planned Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership linking the United States and the 28-member EU — make any further trade deals unlikely, especially in an election year.

“Tunisia and the U.S. could certainly benefit from an FTA. We’ve seen the positive effects on the U.S.-Morocco relationship, and this would be comparable,” said NUSACC’s Hamod. “As to whether the politics is right at this time, I defer to the two governments to answer that question.”

Another sticking point is what to do about the ex-dictator whose suppression of human rights and basic freedoms sparked the Arab Spring in the first place. On April 12, 2014, Tunisia’s military court of appeals confirmed Ben Ali’s life imprisonment sentence in absentia, but significantly reduced the sentences of all other former senior officials.

“The government’s failure to press effectively for Ben Ali’s extradition from Saudi Arabia to stand trial in Tunisia also undermined accountability,” Human Rights Watch remarked in its World Report 2015.

Ben Ali, now 79, remains in exile at an undisclosed location in Saudi Arabia while the government is working to get back the assets he and his family stole; estimates of the loot range up to $45 billion, though Gouia says that’s probably an exaggeration.

“We would like to see the former president brought to justice in a fair trial,” he told The Diplomat. “We have no intention of abusing his rights. If he’s returned, he will be given every right to defend himself and will be treated according to international law.”

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