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Turning political support to investment: Tunisia's foreign minister speaks to Ahram Online

On the eve of parliamentary elections, Manji Hamidi spoke to Ahram Online about Tunisia's foreign policy priorities, including security issues in Libya, and seeking partnerships of mutual interest across the region

Karam Yehia in Tunisia, Saturday 25 Oct 2014
Ahram's Karem Yehia interviews Tunisia's Foreign Minister Manji Hamidi

On the eve of fresh legislative elections in Tunisia, Ahram Online met with Tunisian Foreign Minister Manji Hamidi. He is the fifth foreign minister since the 2010-11 Tunisian revolution. HIs hometown, Sidi Bouzid, paved the way for the Arab Spring.

Hamidi, who was previously a diplomat at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, is — according to some analysts — leading what could be described as an overhaul of the ministry, seeking to dispense with the practices of ousted president Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali, where ambassador and attaché positions were meted out as political rewards, and rehabilitate the foreign service that was harmed by those practices. 

Hamidi is also addressing a similar outcome under former Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessala, who is married to the daughter of Rached Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda movement. However, about his immediate predecessors Hamidi is circumspect, avoiding questions related to their legacy.

On the way to meet Hamidi, news broke that Ansar Al-Sharia organisation had threatened to kill the prime minister and minister of interior. On arrival, we began the interview by asking Hamidi about these threats.

Ahram Online: On the breaking news of threats against the prime minister and other ministers: Do you give these threats credence, and what are your thoughts about the timing?

Manji Hamidi: These threats are continuous. We take them very seriously and in this instance they (Ansar Al-Sharia) are trying to disrupt the elections. Yet they certainly will not affect the electoral process. The state has prepared around 80,000 guards and policemen to secure the elections. So we expect them to occur in a safe environment. But there are definitely those who do not wish success for the Tunisian experience.

Are you inferring that there are other countries, or perhaps regional powers, behind such terrorist threats?

We cannot say this and we have no information about the involvement of other states. Terrorist groups have ideological backgrounds as well as big ambitions. They are the ones that would like to stall Tunisia’s democratic transition.

Are you not worried that your visit to Turkey just a few days before the election might give the impression that Tunisia is a part of a regional axis in that area? Why visit Turkey at this time?

Not at all ... This visit was postponed twice and is part of a framework of strategic cooperation that began beforehand. The cooperation has economic dimensions. We are not party to any axis. Tunisia is a small country working on its relations with all brotherly and friendly countries in its regional surroundings. The entire region is experiencing tension and crises, as well as security challenges. The situation needs coordination and cooperation between all countries in the region, and it requires strategic relationships as opposed to normal ones. In this context, our relationship with Egypt must be highly strategic.  

How are you reforming your country's foreign policy after two years of Ennahda controlling the ministry?

I do not like the claim that I am leading a reformist movement as I also do not wish to address the policies of my predecessors. But I'd like to say that since our presence in this government (formed at the end of January 2014), we set out a clear strategy based on four pillars. The first is to focus on economic diplomacy. The second is coordination and consultation regarding security issues with neighbouring countries. Third is to uphold our relationship with the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia. We also have good relations with the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. The fourth theme is the search for promising markets in Africa. In all of the above, our ​​principles are clear: good relations within the framework of mutual interests and mutual respect, without any interference in internal affairs.

Do elections have an impact on foreign policy in a country like Tunisia?

At the present time there is no effect. But maybe there will be in the future. This would depend on the nature of the next government.

There are parties that have called for reinstating severed diplomatic relations with Syria. What is your response?

We communicate with our community in Syria (about 6,000 Tunisians) via the consular presence in Damascus to provide services. But restoring diplomatic ties will occur in due time. Syria is a sister state and the Syrian people are our brothers and friends. We deal with our relations on a state to state basis and not with a system that can change at any time.

Have there not been discussions recently in the foreign ministry about re-establishing ties?

This will happen at the appropriate time.  

For some, talk about "the Tunisian experience" or "Tunisian model" raises sensitivities. How do you see this?

I personally would not like to use the term "Tunisian model.” We can say it's an experience specific to Tunisia alone, and that it is not for export. Tunisia has its own specific conditions. The reason for the success of our experience is that we have strong institutions and an active civil society and political parties conscious of national responsibility. All this has led to national interest prevailing over narrow interests. Thus, through national dialogue, it was agreed to proceed with the democratic transition away from political disputes and to achieve fair and transparent elections in the best conditions.

To what extent is it important for Tunisia’s elections to be internationally recognised for impartiality?

Success in the elections is an important step in our path towards completing the democratic transition. It is a path that we expect to continue on for years to come and definitely will not simply end with elections. All that I hope is that the success of the elections creates momentum for a leap in the Tunisian experience that attracts foreign investors, as well as Tunisian ones.

How do you see the relationship between political transition and economic development?

The big investors, especially those in the Gulf, are waiting for the completion of the elections and the country's stability and visibility in order to invest in all sectors. There is much international sympathy for Tunisia ahead of the elections as we have been visited by many foreign ministers and the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. This is evidence of political support for the Tunisian democratic transition and we would like to invest this support economically.

Is there a single European-American policy on the transition in Tunisia, or is it more complicated?

America and Europe have been friends in their support of the Tunisian experience. They support us economically and in terms of security. And because we have a new policy strategy towards Washington, we began strategic dialogues with them on many topics, such as economy, trade, security and military.

Doesn’t this cause sensitivity with Paris?

We deal with France the same way we deal with America, and with the same measure.

How do you currently assess relations with Egypt? And have there been errors made in the past that could be corrected?

I do not want to talk about those who preceded me, nor do I want to be called a reformist. Our foreign policy at the present time definitely requires that we have a strong, strategic and distinct relationship with a state that has authority on the African level, regionally and internationally as Egypt does. Evidence of this orientation is how we deal with the Egyptian community that emerged from Libya. They are our Egyptian brothers. We have welcomed about 20,000 Egyptians without a visa and gave them easier access to airports. We have also fully coordinated with Egyptian authorities to send them back to Egypt in safe conditions. No problems were caused by this.

Have any of them remained in Tunsia?

Till now Egyptians enter through the port of Ras Jedir and we make it easier for them to cross. However, their numbers are far lower than before. We are of course committed to helping our Egyptian brothers as long as their presence does not create security problems, and this is in coordination with the Egyptian government.

What are the foundations of Tunisian-Egyptian cooperation on the situation in Libya?

Tunisia and Egypt are the neighbouring countries of Libya. We have met on several occasions in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. The next meeting will be in Sudan in accordance with the date fixed by our fellow Sudanese.

We decided during the previous meeting in Hammamet on 13-14 July to set up two committees, one political and the other to deal with security. The first is Egypt’s responsibility, while the other is the responsibility of Algeria.

It was agreed to delegate the reports of the two committees to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia who, in turn, will assess the situation. This actually happened in the Cairo meeting during the month of August. The new statement, which I am authorised to share, is that there is coordination of security intelligence. We are working on urging our Libyan brothers, and to convince them, that national dialogue, reconciliation and a peaceful solution is the only way to resolve the crisis. Also, it will be necessary to collect weapons from the militias in the framework of agreement between the parties. It is naive to imagine they would give up their arms outside the framework of a political solution.

Is there a new initiative in this context?

Yes ... there is an initiative undertaken by Algeria with support from neighbouring countries. It aims at assembling the different Libyan parties in a conference held in Algiers. We expect it to be soon. But it is difficult to determine accurately the time, as of now. The neighbouring countries also support the efforts of Mr Bernardino Leon, representative of the secretary general of the United Nations, to achieve the same goal — urging parties to reject violence and engage in national dialogue. No doubt the Arab League and the African Union contribute to the efforts of neighbouring countries.

How do you deal with the Tunisian diplomatic governments in Libya?

The nature of the historical relations between Tunisia and Libya requires us to be at the same distance from all parties. And our diplomacy depends on positive neutrality about the situation in Libya. We are working within the framework of respect for the sovereignty of Libya and non-interference in its affairs, and to maintain the territorial integrity of the country. At the present time it is required to recognise the existence of the elected parliament, and the government (of Abdullah Al-Thinni) that recognises its legitimacy. But at the same time we ask it not to monopolise power and not to use legitimacy as a tool for private power. In all friendliness and cooperation, we call for harmony between all parties and avoidance of exclusion, and insist on the necessity of the participation of all parties that are willing to renounce violence.

What are the immediate effects of the crisis in Libya on Tunisia?

We currently have more than a million Libyans (in Tunisia). But we do not consider them refugees. Rather, they are honoured guests and loved ones, despite the fact that their presence has negative effects on the economy — one that is largely subsidised, especially gasoline and food prices.

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