Tunisia, which earlier this year marked 50 years as a republic, is a land of crowded sidewalk cafés, spectacular Mediterranean beaches, traditional Arab markets and vast, trackless deserts. It’s also a tempting target for al-Qaeda extremists bent on turning this secular North African nation into an anti-Western Islamic republic.
Mohamed Nejib Hachana, Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States, says his country is determined not to let that happen.
“If your domestic situation is safe and sound, you can fight any threat coming from abroad,” he said. “In Tunisia, there is no poverty, no ignorance and no high unemployment rate. This is the main mission of our government—to give hope to every Tunisian.”
Site of the ancient city of Carthage and a former Barbary state under Turkish control, Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1881. It achieved independence under nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba and opened its Washington embassy in 1956, ending the monarchy a year later.
Bourguiba served as president until 1987, when he was deposed in a bloodless coup by his prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Bourguiba died in April 2000 at the age of 96.
“It was a very delicate moment because Bourguiba was very sick and there was a big risk that fundamentalists would rise to power,” Hachana recalled. “It was a moment when all Tunisians had lost hope.” Yet Ben Ali was able to consolidate his leadership quickly. Shortly after taking power, he abolished both polygamy and the presidency-for-life mandate.
“Since that time, he’s introduced a new policy and enacted political reforms to let the Tunisian people freely elect their representatives in the legislative bodies and in presidential elections,” said Hachana. “In the most recent elections, there were at least four candidates,” the ambassador noted—although Ben Ali always invariably seems to win (the next elections are in 2009).
Wedged between the North African giants of Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is a relatively small 63,170 square miles, making it slightly bigger than Wisconsin. Islam is the religion of nearly all of Tunisia’s 10.2 million citizens, with very small Jewish and Christian minorities.
“Each country has its own specifics, its own culture, and we have our own recipe for democracy,” the 52-year-old ambassador explained. “This is very important because many people confuse things. We cannot import a model from other countries because it will not be successful.”
He added: “There is a national consensus around the person of Ben Ali. He is the savior of Tunisia and is putting our country on the right track in this very risky and difficult moment. He is deadly serious about democracy and pluralism.”
Hachana—originally from Khellal, a town near the Mediterranean resort of Sousse—was only 1 year old when Tunisia won independence from France in 1956. The next year, on July 25, 1957, the country declared itself a republic—a landmark event that the ambassador considers “a reward to the Tunisian people for their fight against colonialism and for the liberation of their country.”
Hachana studied law and economics at the University of Tunis and has been in Tunisia’s diplomatic service since 1980. He holds a certificate of applied statistics from the University of Boulder in Colorado and a diploma from the National Institute of Defense for Strategic Studies in Tunisia.
Hachana previously served a stint as deputy chief of mission at the Tunisian Embassy in Washington, coming back in March 2005 as ambassador. He’s also served as Tunisia’s top envoy to Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, as well as director of both the Maghreb (North African) Countries and Arab Countries Departments at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In a lengthy interview at his Northwest Washington residence, Hachana told The Washington Diplomat why Tunisia must remain on guard against Islamic fundamentalism.
“The main challenge we face is the threat of terrorism and violence. This is the new scourge all countries face,” he explained. “Our fight against terrorism has two components: the short-term threat posed by extremists, and the more important, long-term threat posed by poverty, ignorance, underdevelopment and unemployment. This is the real risk.”
Terrorist activity is clearly on the rise throughout North Africa’s Maghreb, a region that encompasses Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. Groups allied with al-Qaeda have taken responsibility for several attacks across the region, including two September terrorist attacks that killed more than 50 people and injured hundreds in Algeria. Although not as prone to bombings, Tunisia has also seen its share of terrorism. A 2002 truck bombing in front of an ancient synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba killed 21 people, mostly German tourists, and shocked many Tunisians who thought their country was immune to such things.
Tourism Minister Tijani Haddad, speaking earlier this year in Djerba to reporters from various overseas publications including The Washington Diplomat, insisted that the truck bombing was a fluke and not at all indicative of the mentality of average Tunisians.
“We were one of the first countries to fight extremism in this region, and we have succeeded in eradicating it here,” he insisted. “The Europeans know Tunisia very well, and what happened in 2002 doesn’t go at all with Tunisian behavior. Since that event, we’ve regained what we lost [in tourism numbers].”
Indeed, Europeans—coming mainly from France, Germany and Spain—comprise the bulk of the 6.5 million tourists who visited Tunisia last year; Tunisia’s goal is to receive 10 million tourists annually by 2010.
Relatively few Americans visit Tunisia, although Hachana says bilateral ties are strong and that the two countries cooperate in a variety of areas. “Relations between Tunisia and the United States date back to 1796, when Tunisia was among the first countries to recognize the young, independent U.S.A.,” he said. “Later on, the United States played a very important role in supporting Tunisia during our period of liberation—mainly through the U.N. Security Council—demanding the independence of Tunisia.”
Since that time, relations between Tunis and Washington have remained “positive and constructive,” he said. “When the French left, our treasury was empty—we had zero dinars. The country which helped Tunisia survive was the United States, through food aid, which was granted to Tunisia in the form of cereals, wheat and vegetable oil. The U.S. also helped finance our primary infrastructure—schools, roads and hospitals.”
At that time, according to the ambassador, Tunisia’s per-capita annual income was only , compared to ,500 today. During the country’s initial 35 years of independence, Hachana said one of the first things Bourguiba did was to promulgate a National Status Code. Among other things, this code gave women the same rights as men—a radical thing for a Muslim country to do, especially in 1956. For instance, divorces are no longer granted upon the husband’s demand, but must be decided by the courts, and women have the right to vote and be elected to office.
In addition, as a result of years of investment in family planning and convincing people that their quality of life would improve with fewer children per family, Tunisia’s population now increases by only 1.3 percent a year—the lowest growth rate in the Islamic world.
Unlike its wealthier Arab neighbors, Tunisia’s economy is not dependent on petroleum, producing only enough for domestic needs and small-scale exports. In recent years, the country has managed to shift away from olive oil, wine and phosphates—the mainstays of its traditional economy—in favor of textiles and other manufactured goods, which now make up close to two-thirds of Tunisia’s exports.
“Since independence, Tunisia has had a vision, and that vision has been strengthened under the leadership of President Ben Ali,” said Hachana. “What is this vision? To build a large middle class in Tunisia. We are a very stable country because 85 percent of our society belongs to the middle class. We have also invested extensively in education and women’s rights.
“We must keep strengthening the role and status of women in Tunisia. When Ben Ali came to power, many were skeptical that he would continue on this path. These people are surprised that he continues to enhance the role of women in Tunisia. At least 10 amendments to the National Status Code have been passed regarding women’s rights.”
But women’s rights are only part of a larger equation. Hachana proudly notes that 80 percent of Tunisians own the homes they live in, while 84 percent are covered by social security and 99 percent are literate. He also pointed out that 35 percent of Tunisia’s national budget goes to education and another 21 percent to social welfare. Only 2 percent of the budget goes to defense, a rarity in a region where expenditures on weapons and the military typically consume 10 percent or more of a nation’s budget.
“Because of our educational system and our way of interpreting the Holy Quran and practicing progressive Islam, our mentality is very different from that of the rest of the Arab world. Tunisia was, and is still, at the crossroads of many civilizations, giving birth to an open society. We are very close to Europe. All these factors make Tunisia very receptive to new ideas.”
On the other hand, Hachana warned, globalization and openness can indirectly encourage terrorism. “Now all these extremist networks are using the Internet,” he said. “One thing our government authorities are doing to prevent the threat of extremism is to strengthen the large middle class, to ensure jobs for every Tunisian of working age.”
Although most Tunisians are Muslim and the country is a founding member of the Arab League, it’s also an African country, and as such “we have a very active policy in Africa,” Hachana said. “Many Tunisian experts are active in what we call technical cooperation, and we grant a lot of scholarships for African students to study in Tunisia.”
And though it’s far removed from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Tunisia is respected throughout the Arab world as having hosted both the Arab League (after the organization pulled out of Cairo following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which operated in Tunis from 1982 to 1994.
In fact, Hachana said Tunisia was instrumental in bringing the two sides together, despite an Israeli bombing attack against the PLO’s Tunis headquarters in 1985.
“Tunisia played a very constructive and positive role in the Middle East peace process,” he said. “The first dialogue between the Palestinians and Americans was in Tunis. This was followed by the first official dialogue between the PLO and Israel.”
Those two dialogues, he added, gave birth to the Oslo peace agreement and the historic 1993 summit between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Yet unlike Egypt and Jordan, Tunisia has yet to formally recognize the state of Israel.
“It all depends on the peace process,” he concluded. “Tunisia has said very clearly that when there’s progress on this issue, Tunisia will react favorably on the normalization of relations with Israel, but we must see tangible progress on the Palestinian-Israeli track—a sovereign state of Palestine living side by side with Israel. The main issue is still not solved.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.