Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat—For a small country tucked between Algeria and Libya, Tunisia has had an outsized influence on regional events since one humiliation too many at the hands of state officials prompted Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, inadvertently launching a wave of protests and radical change across the Arab Middle East.
Now, with the passage of a new constitution and the formation of a new provisional government after months of unrest, Tunisians and their leaders finally seem to have some breathing space to look around and take stock at where their country stands three years after Bouazizi’s death and Ben Ali’s flight into exile.
This is also true of the country’s foreign affairs. Traditionally a close French ally, Tunisia now faces the challenge of grappling with chaos to the East, and to its north a France—and Europe—mired in its own economic, political and social problems.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Tunisia’s foreign minister Mongi Hamdi, a former UN official, who enters his second month on the job this week, about his attempts to secure aid and assistance for his country as it struggles to make good on the promise of its new political system.
Asharq Al-Awsat: During your recent visit to Paris you met with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. What demands did you put forward and were any promises made to you?
Mongi Hamdi: The message I wanted to deliver to Foreign Minister Fabius was that Tunisia and the Tunisians have done all that was expected of them. We have approved a constitution that is recognized by all and is considered one of the best constitutions around. It protects freedoms including the freedom of minorities and the freedom of women, and it provides prosperity, and a future, to the youth. It is a comprehensive and modern constitution that is in line with the aspirations of our age. Moreover, we have an elected government that came to power in a civilized manner without any problems, killing or violence. This is a precedent in the history of the region at least. In addition, we established a national dialogue that resulted in a national technocratic government. All of this has provided Tunisia with a kind of international support and sympathy and for that reason we say that we have done what we had to do. What we want now is for our friends and the international community to begin to support us economically and financially, as well as on the security level and in the fight against terrorism.
Q: What was the response from Foreign Minister Fabius?
I told Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius that Tunisia did all of that and that we ask the international community to help Tunisia because it is in the interest of the international community and the world that the Tunisian experience is a success and serves as an example to other countries. So we are waiting for significant collective aid especially from the EU countries. We believe that it is unfair that the EU is giving around 100 billion US dollars to countries like Greece and is only giving Tunisia less than one percent of that amount. That is unreasonable because in our view Tunisia is just as important as Greece, if not more; if there is no security and stability in Tunisia then that will have an impact on the region, the Mediterranean and Europe.
Secondly, I turned the French Foreign Minister’s attention to what is happening in Ukraine, and the possibility that the world’s eyes are so focused on Ukraine that it has forgotten about Tunisia. I also mentioned that the G8, which launched the Deauville Initiative in 2011, promised aid amounting to around 5 billion dollars to Tunisia but we have not yet received any of it. I was very clear with Foreign Minister Fabius and I told him that many countries such as Qatar, Turkey and Algeria have helped us but the EU has failed to lend a helping hand and even France has not done much.
Q: But French sources say that 500 million Euros has been earmarked for Tunisia and will be split between funding infrastructure and development projects on one side, and to restructure outstanding Tunisian debt into investment projects on the other. Is that not true?
This is true, and we welcome that. However, there is no clarity regarding how it [the money] will be used and it seems to us that it is tied up with a range of conditions being met. In any case, Tunisia requires additional support.
Q: What are the current challenges facing Tunisian diplomacy?
The first challenge for us is to support economic growth by focusing on economic diplomacy, in other words by encouraging foreign investment and promoting tourism to Tunisia.
The second challenge in our view is security. Tunisia believes that it must coordinate with neighboring countries such as Algeria, Libya and other countries to exchange information and expertise in order to reduce the dangers of terrorism which is a problem that does not only relate to Tunisia but to the region as a whole. Therefore, there should be a focus on establishing cooperation and coordination on the regional and international levels. In this regard, we need help with technical equipment and the provision of expertise. In Tunisia we lack the equipment that is required to confront terrorism effectively.
Q: Was France willing to respond to your needs?
Yes, France is willing and it has a set of ideas in this regard.
Q: Is it the case that a French delegation will travel to Tunisia very soon?
Yes, a delegation of senior officials will visit Tunisia next week. The foreign ministers of France and Germany will also visit the Tunisian capital soon. We suggested that they visit on April 24 and 25, 2014; perhaps the visit will take place before that date as our government is keen to work quickly.
Q: How does Tunisia deal with Libya in light of complaints from various countries regarding the lack of security at the border with Libya?
First, I would like to acknowledge the exemplary security cooperation and coordination between Tunisia and Algeria. This has helped us to deal more effectively with the security issues in the area of [Mount] Al Sha’anabi close to the Algerian borders. There is daily and complete coordination between the security leaderships of both countries.
Q: So could one argue that the security problems in west Tunisia are on the decline?
We are completely reassured by the existing relationships between us and Algeria.
Q: What about Libya?
Everybody knows that the security situation in Libya is deteriorating, and this has negative repercussions on Tunisia.
Q: What are your doubts about this? Are weapons being smuggled into Tunisia from Libya? Are personae non gratae entering Tunisia?
We suffered from the issue of arms smuggling during a phase that was characterized by the collapse of [security] control [in Tunisia]. Today, however, we are completely vigilant regarding this phenomenon. The security forces monitor all vehicles entering Tunisia [from Libya] and the same applies to other ports of entry. But I would not go as far as saying that matters are one hundred percent secure.
Q: In that case would it be fair to say that there is no kind of coordination with Libya?
Coordination is very simple. The Libyan government itself is at a loss about what is happening in the country.
Q: Rome is due to host a conference on Libya next Wednesday that will address the issue of security and borders. Is Tunisia invited to participate in this conference as Libya’s neighbor?
Yes we have been invited to this meeting and I personally am going to attend.
Q: What will you propose and what will you demand?
We will proceed based on the principle that the war on terrorism must take place on the regional and international levels. This means that there are obligations and commitments. The other issue is that Tunisia hosts 1.9 million Libyans. There are about 1.2 million Libyans residing in Tunisia and between 700,000 and 800,000 Libyans traveling between Libya and Tunisia.
Q: Do they represent a problem for you?
We must err on the side of caution. As you well know, Tunisia is the only country that Libyans can enter without a visa unlike Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, for example. Naturally this situation results in additional burdens.
Q: A Libyan source has asked: “Why don’t the neighboring countries control the borders on their side? Why do they say that the responsibility is on us when they are fully aware of our situation?” What is your comment on this?
I met with my Libyan counterpart recently. [I said to him]: “Do you want Libya to abandon its duties and hand over its responsibilities as a state to us?” We know that Libya is experiencing great difficulties in imposing control over its territory and borders. The Libyan government is weak and the militias there are making matters more difficult. Therefore we will be supporting the Libyan government until it is able to take control of the security issue because, after all, Tunisian security depends on Libyan security.
Q: The Italian prime minister announced on Wednesday that his first overseas state visit would be to Tunisia. Does this gesture relate to the issue of illegal immigration?
I don’t think so. I believe that he wants to deliver a message of support and friendship to Tunisia. It is unlikely that immigration is behind [the visit] as it is no longer an issue on the table for us. Migration to the Italian shores does not start off from Tunisia; that is what happened in 2011. This phenomenon has decreased significantly. It is well known today that the boats of illegal immigrants set off from Libya. Security in Tunisia today is better than ever before. Of course there is surveillance of the ports.
Q: The problem might not be with the Tunisians, but with [sub-Saharan] Africans who aim to reach Europe by any route available. Is that the case?
Tunisian security has put a stop to illegal immigration operations whether [the migrants are] Tunisians or [sub-Saharan] Africans—or has at least put a stop to the majority of these illegal operations.
Q: What have you received so far as a result of the Deauville Partnership ?
We have received very little, to the point that we are embarrassed to mention it. Many promises were made; however, very little has been achieved.
Q: Can this be attributed to the political problems and disputes in Tunisia? Could one argue that after the adoption of the new constitution and the establishment of a neutral, technocratic government matters will speed up now?
That might be the case. During my meeting with Foreign Minister Fabius I stressed that our government is independent and technocratic and I asked him to intervene with the partners of the Deauville Partnership to implement the promises that were showered upon us three years ago. Today we hope to get additional aid from France and Germany. I previously mentioned some of the countries that stood by our side. The United States helped us with 1 billion dollars in loan guarantees.
Q: Many authorities are calling on the Maghreb states to merge, especially the European Union. Do you think there is an opportunity to revive the Arab Maghreb Union? Or is the idea dead and buried?
There is hope. I took part in the ceremony in Libya two weeks ago that celebrated 25 years since the establishment of the Arab Maghreb Union. Unfortunately, your description is correct: The Union is not actually doing anything and a re-launch is dependent on rapprochement between the Algerians and the Moroccans. We have always played the role of the conciliator between parties, and for that reason hope is not lost.
Q: Tunisia’s relations with a number of the Gulf states have witnessed tensions recently. Have matters improved with the advent of the new government?
Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa’s first state visit was to Algeria; this is normal. We also visited Morocco. However, the destination for the second phase is the Gulf states. Since I became foreign minister, I have sought to reconcile with the UAE, which recalled its ambassador from our capital. Alongside the prime minister, we have exerted efforts and succeeded in reinstating the UAE’s Ambassador to Tunisia. We are determined to improve our relations with Abu Dhabi and we will take part in a tour of all the Gulf states including the UAE in March, then Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Our goal is to develop our ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council states, which we see as strategic ties, not just normal ties. We want to encourage investors from the Gulf to come to Tunisia. Moreover, it would be unusual for our ties with the Gulf states—led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE—not to be of an excellent and distinctive standard. This in our view is essential. I will not hide the fact that we need investment in Tunisia from the Gulf, and if the Europeans abandon us and don’t invest in our economy then we would count on the Gulf countries and their investors, who are welcome in Tunisia. For that reason we call on them and urge them to come to Tunisia and to make the most of the investment opportunities on offer. I would like to highlight that we were extremely happy with the reinstatement of the UAE and Saudi ambassadors who visited us, and we agreed on developing relations to the highest level possible.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.