Tunisia’s economy is regaining momentum this year after six years of slow growth, driven by the revival of the vital tourism industry prime minister Youssef Chahed recently announced.
Tunisia has been praised as an example of democratic transition since the overthrow of former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. But many people are concerned about the cost of living, unemployment and the marginalisation of rural towns – factors that fueled the uprising that sparked the Arab Spring revolts. Tunisia expects economic growth to rise to 2.5 % in 2017 after failing to exceed 1 % for the last six years. The government is under pressure from international lenders to reduce public spending and cut its deficit as part of economic and financial reforms that have been delayed for years by political infighting and inertia.
New Europe has spoken in Brussels with the Tunisian minister of foreign affairs, Khemaies Jhinaoui, asking him what makes the Tunisian specificity.
Khemaies Jhinaoui: Tunisia is very different from the other Arab countries, for obvious reasons. Tunisia has always been open to the rest of the world. This constitutes our difference. Our first leader, Habib Bourguiba, made major choices: first of all, he was fundamentally liberal and he chose to side with the international non-aligned camp; secondly, he invested in education. Whatever meagre resources we had, we put them in education. and the social services.
New Europe: And you were also sending students to the Socialist camp, to countries such as the USSR and Romania.
Yes. Those students got scholarships. We had no ideological prejudices then about such countries, but we were sending students also to France and Belgium and other Western countries. Investing in education changed totally the cultural spectrum of our society. Also, 60 years ago we adopted a law granting women an equal status with men. That helped a lot shaping the Tunisian society and to create a large middle class.
Wasn’t Algeria doing the same thing, at the same time?
I wouldn’t like to make comparisons between neighbouring countries. The fact is that those reforms led to the creation of a large, educated, open-minded, tolerant middle class in Tunisia. At the same time, in the last twenty years we were subjected to a lot of influence from the Gulf Arab countries, particularly among the young generations. Salafi fundamentalist preachers came to us, having an impact on some fringes of the society and bringing with them a strict, narrow interpretation of Islam. Nevertheless, this did not affect our mainstream interpretation of Islam, so when the Revolution took place, when it erupted in 2011, the whole setup of the Tunisian society was ripe for a new, democratic political system. Of course, one of the major parties, the moderate islamist Ennahda, had been oppressed by the ancient regime and this is why they have won so many voices in the first parliament in the beginning. It was more out of sympathy for them having been oppressed, than because people believed that Ennahda was bringing a social and political solution. But when people discovered that this party wanted to imposed a Constitution based on the Sharia, on the Islamic law, or when they heard that according to the Islamists women are inferior to men, there were mass protests that led to the demise of that government. Now we have the most democratic Constitution in the Arab world.
Do you think these changes are irreversible? Do you feel that yours is a solid society now?
Frankly, we are just at the beginning, but there is a strong commitment from a majority of the population to keep our gains. The new democratic experience that has started in 2011 has now to be enlarged and consolidated.
How badly were you affected by the wave of terror attacks?
We had three major terror attacks in 2015 and 2016 that affected badly our economy and the tourism. Since then, our security services have acquired more capabilities and they can now react preventively against any perceived threat. We were able to eradicate most threats from within. Concerning tourism, I can say that Tunisia is now as safe as any other country. Actually, there is no country in the world that can be said to be totally immune to terrorism. You have seen what happened in Brussels, Paris, Nice or Berlin. Terrorism can happen in any country.
You have been ambassador to Moscow. As an associate country with the EU, are you taking part in the sanctions against Russia?
No, nobody asked us to take part in those sanctions.Russia is a friend for us. We have always maintained very good relationships. Russia was among the first countries to support Tunisia last year and the year before, after the terror attacks. When many European countries advised their citizens not to visit Tunisia, Russia sent us some 600,000 tourists. We are very grateful to the Russian people.
Also as a country associated with the EU, and given that you yourself have also been ambassador to London, do you feel affected by Brexit?
Not really, this is rather a European domestic issue. It does not affect our relations with the United Kingdom. We just hope that Brexit can be finalised in an amicable way.
How do you cooperate with the EU in the refugees crisis?
I will give you just one example. Last year, Tunisia received back more Tunisians, expelled from EU countries, than it sent to Europe. We took back 1,300 expelled asylum seekers or other unwanted citizens, while less than 1.000 left Tunisia for Europe. You see the balance. It means we are controlling the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution. We have had difficulties in controlling our borders earlier. Not anymore. Now we are controlling them totally, in accord with our European partners. No more illegal emigration flowing out from Tunisia to Europe.