Tunisia’s New Envoy Reflects On Arab Spring, Five Years Later

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On Dec. 17, 2010, after police in the town of Sidi Bouzid confiscated his fruit cart and humiliated him for not having a permit, 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi poured a can of gasoline over his head and publicly set himself on fire.

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Photo: Lawrence Ruggeri of Ruggeriphoto.com
Ambassador Fayçal Gouia

Anti-government protests began within hours. A month later, Bouazizi was dead, longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled after 23 years in power — and the Arab Spring was in full bloom, from Morocco in the west to Bahrain in the east. Before long, Hosni Mubarak (who had ruled Egypt since 1981) was overthrown, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (in power since 1969) was hunted down and killed, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced into exile after 33 years as head of state, and a popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad plunged Syria into full-fledged civil war. Lesser revolts erupted in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania and Sudan.

Turmoil continues to wrack the region — and the reverberations have been felt around the world. As civil war consumes Syria, the Islamic State has seized on the vacuum to capture parts of Syria and Iraq, extending its tentacles all the way to Paris, where last month’s horrific terrorist attacks killed 130 people. That assault came after a twin suicide attack in Lebanon that killed over 40 people and the downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that killed 224 passengers and crew. The Islamic State has claimed credit for all three attacks.

This month, as the fifth anniversary of Bouazizi’s self-immolation approaches, Tunisia has endured its own share of terrorist bloodshed, though it remains the only relative Arab Spring success story — an achievement reflected in the selection of its National Dialogue Quartet as winner of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.

The quartet’s representatives will receive the prize at a Dec. 10 ceremony in Oslo, and Fayçal Gouia has every reason to be proud.

“We never intended to influence any other country, or to be a model for other societies. Each country has its own realities,” said Gouia, Tunisia’s new ambassador to the United States. “But I think the Tunisian example is now very much appreciated. We enjoy freedom of expression and free speech, and we have recovered our dignity.”

The eloquent, soft-spoken Gouia is Tunisia’s fifth ambassador here in as many years — perhaps a reflection of the chaotic times in which his nation of 11 million finds itself.

Ten days before Bouazizi lit a match to himself, sparking the so-called Jasmine Revolution, Mohamed Salah Tekaya took over the job from his transitory predecessor, Habib Mansour. At first, Tekaya defended the dictator who had sent him to Washington. Later on, following Ben Ali’s ouster, the diplomat skillfully changed his tune and began supporting the uprising.

But in June 2013, shortly after the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC) named him its Ambassador of the Year, Tekaya resigned his post and was replaced by Mokhtar Chaouachi. Six months later, Chaouachi himself left, and Tunisia sent a new envoy to Washington: Mohamed Ezzine Chelaifa.

Like the men who came before him, however, Chelaifa didn’t last long; he was promoted to vice minister for foreign affairs. Gouia, 56, arrived to fill the vacancy, presenting his credentials on May 18. Three days later, Gouia received Tunisia’s newly elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, on an official visit to the White House.

“The country’s been going through a lot of transitions in recent years, so it’s not a great surprise that we’ve seen a lot of ambassadors representing Tunisia’s different phases in its march to democracy,” said NUSACC’s president and CEO, David Hamod.

“Very few people in Tunisia understand the U.S. as well as Fayçal Gouia does,” Hamod told The Diplomat. “He spent time here in the embassy years ago and started building lifelong relationships. He was head of the Americas desk back home, and in terms of getting to know Congress, he’s done an extraordinarily good job.”

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Photos: Larry Luxner
Water gushes out of a fountain in front of souvenir shops in the medina of Tunis. Recent terrorist attacks have sought to hurt Tunisia's vital tourism sector, which represents 7 percent of the country's $42 billion GDP and employs 400,000 people.

Gouia grew up in Kairouan — one of Islam’s holiest cities — studied in Tunis and Paris, and has degrees in finance and management. For the last 26 years, he’s been a diplomat, having previously served in Washington from 1995 to 2001, first as cultural and press counselor, then becoming economic and commercial counselor in 1997, and finally as deputy chief of mission starting in 1999. He was later sent to Jakarta as Tunisia’s ambassador to Indonesia (also covering Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines). Before his latest stint, Gouia was director-general for the Americas and Asia at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then secretary of state for foreign affairs.

“My mission is relatively easy now because back then, I served at a time when Tunisia was criticized by U.S. decision-makers, either on the Hill or the administration, for its human rights abuses and lack of liberties,” Gouia said of his previous U.S. posting. “Now Americans consider Tunisia a success story. We succeeded in overcoming political difficulties by adopting a progressive constitution, by organizing free and fair elections and by going through a smooth transition. There’s a lot of appreciation for Tunisia in the United States.”

Even when Tunisia was a dictatorship, it was a fairly moderate, progressive one. Europeans flocked to Tunisian beaches, the economy grew and women enjoyed a level of rights often unheard of in the Arab world. But beneath the surface, dissatisfaction with corruption, inequality and stubborn unemployment under Ben Ali’s regime festered until finally exploding five years ago.

Since then, Tunisia has made tremendous strides on the political front, although it has faltered in delivering the economic and security stability that Tunisians have been clamoring for.

On Jan. 26, 2014, the country adopted a new constitution guaranteeing key civil and political, as well as social, economic and cultural rights. These include the rights to citizenship; freedom of expression and association; the right to form political parties; and freedom from arbitrary detention and torture.

In addition, Tunisia’s first national parliamentary elections since the 2011 uprising took place in October 2014. That resulted in victory for the moderate, secular Nidaa Tounes party, which usurped Ennahda, the first Islamist party to govern since the start of the Arab Spring. While Ennahda was also a moderate party that emphasized political compromise, it failed to turn the country’s battered economy around or address concerns over radicalization. The peaceful transfer of power from Ennahda to Nidaa Tounes paved the way for many established elites and technocratic officers to return to office, along with a smattering of leftists and reformers.

Tunisia’s democratic achievements were recognized with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to a coalition of labor union, business, human rights and lawyer groups that helped to mediate a political crisis in 2013 after protests broke out against the Ennahda-led government. Ultimately, fearing a reprisal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster in Egypt, Ennahda agreed to cede power and form a technocratic caretaker administration until elections could be held.

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A man bicycles along a shop-filled street in the city of Tozeur.

“It is for good reason that the Tunisians won the Nobel Prize over other favorites” such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif or Pope Francis, the Economist opined Oct. 9. “The country offers a rare example of progress in an otherwise wretched region. It deserves encouragement. And the rest of the Arab world deserves a little cause for hope amid all the anger and bloodshed.”

Yet in the wake of three horrific terrorist attacks this year and widespread frustrations with the pace of economic reforms, Gouia is taking nothing for granted.

Most recently, in late November (after this article went to press), the Islamic State claimed credit for bombing a bus carrying Tunisia's presidential guard that killed 12 people. The Islamic State also took responsibility for a spectacular strike on March 18 in which gunmen attacked the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, killing 22 people — mostly European tourists (though the Tunisian government blamed a local splinter group of al-Qaeda). Then on June 26, an armed gunman opened fire on a beach resort north of Sousse, killing 38 people. Again, most of them were European tourists, mainly from Britain. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for that assault as well.

Essebsi, Tunisia’s president, immediately deployed 1,300 armed guards to protect hotels and tourist sites and declared a state of emergency that lasted until October. The attacks followed a string of extremist-inspired political assassinations that took the lives of two prominent political leaders in 2013.

Street protests erupted after the assassinations, which were also followed by the deaths of eight Tunisian soldiers near the border with Algeria. The soldiers’ bodies were then mutilated and their throats slit. Blame for the killings focused on Ansar al-Sharia, a hard-line Salafist movement seeking to implement Sharia law across Tunisia.

“These terrorists intend to destroy what Tunisians have built since the revolution. They don’t want Tunisia to be democratic or free, but to impose their own ideology: bloodshed and killing,” Gouia told us during a recent interview at his Washington residence. “They have no relationship with humanity or religion or common sense. All they want is anarchy, violence and terror.”

It is ironic that Tunisia — perhaps the most advanced and secular of the Arab League’s 22 member states — has also contributed more foreign jihadists to the Islamic State bloodbath in Syria and Iraq than any other country. Tunisia’s own interior minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, told reporters in June 2015 that at least 2,400 Tunisian citizens have become combatants in Syria since 2011, mostly as fighters for the al-Nusra Front and Islamic State. Some 400 of them have returned, while thousands more have been prevented from traveling.

a5.cover.tunisia.glance.story“They are targeting Tunisia because it’s a success — the only candle in the wind — and they don’t want this candle to shine anymore,” said Gouia. “Unfortunately, many of these Tunisians were trained in Libya, Syria and Iraq.”

To keep the extremists out, Tunisia recently announced its intention to build a 100-mile-long berm along its 300-mile desert frontier with Libya — where all three gunmen involved in this year’s two attacks received training — and will reinforce existing border crossings.

While the ambassador isn’t ready to declare victory over the terrorists, he did say another Bardo-style attack is unlikely, noting that, “Tunisia is now under control of our military and security forces. They are doing a tremendous job, and most of the terrorists [who went to train in Libya] cannot return because Tunisia is very well controlled.”

Yet Tunisia remains a tempting target — and driving tourists away is one obvious way of destroying the economy, given that tourism represents 7 percent of Tunisia’s GDP and employs 400,000 people.

In 2010, the year before the revolution, more than 7 million foreigners visited the country’s Mediterranean beaches, ancient Roman ruins and desert landscapes so otherworldly that “Star Wars” director George Lucas used Tunisia as a backdrop for the mythical planet Tatooine. But after the June slaughter of unsuspecting tourists sunning themselves on the white-sand beach at Sousse, arrivals tumbled by 35 percent.

“Our outlook for the summer season was very positive,” Gouia said. “But with the second attack, tourism was very badly hurt, and the impact was huge.”

In that regard, Tunisia resembles another North African country — Egypt — that is also highly dependent on tourism. On Oct. 31, a Russian jetliner crashed over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula shortly after takeoff from Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people aboard. Evidence suggests that a bomb destroyed the Airbus A321, and a local Islamic State affiliate has already claimed responsibility for the attack.

Yet one thing has nothing to do with the other, said Gouia.

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This panoramic view shows the presidential palace in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, as well as Carthage, a seaside suburb known for its archaeological ruins. Five years ago, Tunisia gave birth to the uprisings that have redefined the Arab world.

“Both operations that took place in Tunisia were done by individuals. In Sousse, it was one person, and at the Bardo Museum, it was two — not groups using heavy equipment,” he said. “There is no link at all between what’s going on in other countries and what’s going on in Tunisia.”

Why then are so many of his countrymen joining violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State? Gouia says he’s not sure, but offers some possible explanations.

“Tunisians are moderate people, but for many reasons, they are easily indoctrinated,” he speculated. “Maybe it’s marginalization, though I don’t think poverty is behind it. After many years of dictatorship, people are looking for any kind of freedom. They want to express themselves, to convince themselves they exist.”

But economic stagnation is, in fact, a very serious problem — and with the loss of tourism and foreign investment following the recent attacks, Tunisia’s economy has taken a beating, endangering all of the painstaking political progress made thus far.

“Unless the Tunisian government moves rapidly to turn the economy around, Tunisia could well turn out to be the country where the Arab Spring both was born and died,” warned Karim Mezran and Mohsin Khan, senior fellows at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

In a policy brief issued Oct. 9, the authors wrote that Tunisia has barely made progress on economic reforms that could achieve the 6 to 7 percent annual growth necessary to create desperately needed jobs and make a significant dent in unemployment, which currently stands at 15.2 percent (with youth joblessness much higher). In fact, as recently as this spring, the IMF and World Bank had been projecting Tunisia’s real GDP to rise by 3 percent in 2015, but that was before this summer’s carnage in Tunis and Sousse.

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Photo: UN / Eskinder Debebe
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, accompanied by Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, second from right, shakes hands with a shop owner in the Jan. 14 Square in Tunis. January 14 marks the day that then-Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down from power in 2011 following the country's "Jasmine Revolution."

The government now projects real GDP to rise by only 0.5 percent in 2015, with some indications that the year could end with GDP shrinking, as was the case in 2011.

“The biggest single issue Tunisia faces is the creation of productive jobs as part of a growing economy,” noted NUSACC’s Hamod. “Tunisia lives in a tough neighborhood, and they have suffered the effects of regional challenges. Having said that, I’m optimistic that the people of Tunisia will pull through.”

So is Hussein Abassi, head of the Tunisian General Labor Union, which is part of the National Dialogue Quartet that also includes the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. The quartet — formed in response to the 2013 political crisis — won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to keep Tunisia on the path to democracy.

But Abassi beseeched the World Bank and other financial institutions not to put unrealistic pressure on Tunis to overhaul its economy at the expense of social justice.

“I told them to be patient. Don’t treat Tunisia as a stable country, because they are asking us to embark immediately on major reforms,” said Abassi, speaking Nov. 4 at the Rafik Hariri Center. “Please talk to us as a country in transition that is still looking to revive its economy. Please be patient.”

Abassi suggested that while Tunisia must restructure its labor and investment laws, fiscal reform can take place in 2016 — and that reforms not achieved by the end of 2015 can be tackled in 2016 or even 2017.

“We don’t want to be claiming heroism here,” said Abassi, noting that it was only because civil society groups and politicians put national interests above partisanship that the country had not slipped into anarchy. “If they were not responsive to us, the dialogue would have never succeeded, and we would have never been able to talk about this exceptional success of Tunisia.”

While the West has touted Tunisia as the rare Arab Spring bright spot, political rifts remain — both between leftist and former regime elements within the ruling party itself and between Nidaa Tounes secularists and Ennahda Islamists.

Despite the ongoing turbulence, Gouia says talk of Tunisia descending into chaos or a Libyan-style civil war is nonsense — and he outlined five reasons why.

“First, we have an educated population; literacy in Tunisia is very high. Secondly, our politicians are aware of the challenges that threaten the country and have a strong sense of patriotism and responsibility. Third, we have a strong and dynamic civil society, so even if sometimes we cannot agree, civil society puts strong pressure on politicians to form a consensus,” he explained.

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An illuminated night view shows the Grand Mosque of Sousse, a beach resort popular with Europeans that suffered a terrorist attack in June that killed 38 people.

“Fourth, women’s participation in civil and political society is very important. Tunisian women played an important role before the revolution, during the revolution and after the revolution. And fifth, unlike other countries, we have strong institutions and a civilization more than 3,000 years old. So we have learned how to live together.”

It may seem like a paradox, said Gouia, but unlike the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Gaddafi’s Libya, civil society associations existed even in the time of Ben Ali.

“They were not illegal. The regime was not the stereotype of dictatorship that exists in other countries,” he said. “Tunisia is a unique case in the Arab world. Tunisians are well-educated and open-minded. That’s why it’s a tourist destination. Our first president, Habib Bourguiba, also had a very big influence on Tunisians. He emancipated women in 1956; he was more occidental than oriental.”

But Tunisia still has plenty of unfinished business to attend to, both at home and abroad. As ambassador, Gouia said he’s meeting on a daily basis with lawmakers, business leaders and think tank experts trying to encourage U.S. investment in Tunisia.

In 1995, he said, Tunisia signed a free trade accord with the European Union — becoming the first country in the world to do so — and today, more than 3,000 European companies are doing business there. By comparison, only 66 U.S. firms have operations in Tunisia, “which don’t reflect the strong relations that exist between our two countries.”

In November 2014, USAID opened a new office in Tunis, an event attended by Gouia. Since 2011, the aid agency has given Tunisia $288 million to support the country’s economic growth and democratic transition.

But what Gouia would really like to see is a free trade agreement between Tunis and Washington that would give his country greater access to the lucrative U.S. market.

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A narrow alley lines Sidi Bou Said, a picturesque district of Tunis.

“In the Middle East, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Oman all have FTAs with the United States,” he said. “I think Tunisia will be the next.”

“Tunisia and the U.S. could certainly benefit from an FTA. We’ve seen the positive effects on the U.S.-Morocco relationship, and this would be comparable,” said NUSACC’s Hamod. “As to whether the politics is right at this time, I defer to the two governments to answer that question.”

Indeed, angry opposition by both Democrats and Republicans to President Obama’s push to join the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership — not to mention the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union — make any further trade deals unlikely, especially in an election year.

Another sticking point for Tunisia is what to do about the ex-dictator whose suppression of human rights and basic freedoms sparked the Arab Spring in the first place. Ben Ali, now 79, remains in exile at an undisclosed location in Saudi Arabia. On April 12, 2014, Tunisia’s military court of appeals confirmed the former president’s life imprisonment sentence in absentia, but significantly reduced the sentences of all other former senior officials.

Meanwhile, the government is working to get back the assets Ben Ali and his family stole; estimates of the loot range up to $45 billion, though Gouia says that’s probably an exaggeration.

“We would like to see the former president brought to justice in a fair trial,” he told The Diplomat. “We have no intention of abusing his rights. If he’s returned, he will be given every right to defend himself and will be treated according to international law.”


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on December 1, 2015

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