Diplomatic Pouch / April 8, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprising five years ago, marked its 60th anniversary of independence late last month at a joyous reception and dinner hosted by Ambassador Fayçal Gouia at his Washington residence.
Yet the March 24 event — during which 95 guests feasted on roasted lamb, cous-cous and other traditional Tunisian delights — also served as a reminder of the many political, social and economic difficulties this small North African nation continues to face as it transitions to democracy after more than two decades of dictatorship.
Last year, Tunisia suffered three terrorist incidents — all of them perpetrated by extremist jihadists associated either with al-Qaeda or Islamic State. In March, three armed men attacked the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, killing 22 people, mostly European tourists, and injuring 50. Then in June, armed gunmen murdered 39 unsuspecting sunbathers at two hotels near a beach resort north of Sousse.
Finally, in November, a suicide bomber stormed a bus carrying members of the Tunisian presidential guard, killing 12; Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack in Tunis.
“The entire world today faces the threat of terrorism,” said Gouia. “But thanks to our partnership with the United States and our commitment to defeat terrorism, we will win — the same way we defeated them three weeks ago in Ben Guerdanem, when a group of criminals tried to get into our country and invade part of our land.”
Gouia, who appeared on the December 2015 cover of The Washington Diplomat, spoke proudly of how his 10.8 million compatriots overthrew the regime of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power — setting in motion a revolution that continues to echo across the Arab world, from Morocco in the west to Bahrain in the east.
“On Jan. 14, 2011, Tunisians made history by changing an authoritarian regime and installing democracy for the first time ever,” he said. “Tunisians now enjoy liberty, freedom of expression and freedom to gather. These freedoms were difficult, if not impossible, just a few years ago. Now we are free for the first time after so many years of totalitarianism and dictatorship.”
Noting that the United States and Tunisia signed a treaty of amity, navigation and trade in 1797, Gouia praised the bilateral relationship of being among the longest in either country’s history.”
“Since 2011, Tunisia belongs to the club of democracies, and the United States is helping Tunisia achieve the dream of its people to achieve freedom and liberty,” he said, adding that “the State Department has been kind enough to allow more than 400 young Tunisians to study here and learn from this great country.”
Regarding the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels — both of which were carried out by Islamic State operatives — Gouia said: “There is no welcome in Tunisia for terrorists. We are peaceful, moderate, open and democratic, and we join with the entire international community to fight this phenomenon together.”
Patrick F. Kennedy, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, spoke on behalf of Secretary of State John Kerry.
“We have been friends across the waters for nearly 220 years, and we are glad to be Tunisia’s partner as we advance the cause of peace, justice and education for all,” said the veteran diplomat, whose Middle East resume includes stints in Egypt and Iraq.
“Tunisia continues to fight against extremist terrorists who would take from everyone their inalienable rights to everything God has given them. That battle will go on, but it will be won because good men and women everywhere will ally themselves to retain the democracies that they themselves have paid for with blood,” Kennedy declared. “We will do this together, and we will succeed.”