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Tunisian envoy: Counterterrorism cooperation with US is new normal

Tunisian Ambassador to the United States Faycal Gouia opens up about the war in Libya, US assistance and his country’s economic needs.

The United States and Tunisia are cooperating more tightly than ever to combat terrorism in North Africa, the fledgling democracy’s envoy to Washington told Al-Monitor in a pair of recent interviews.

Faycal Gouia said relations between the two countries are closer than he has ever seen them in 25 years on the job. Days after a US strike in Libya near the border killed several dozen suspected terrorists — including an alleged mastermind of last year’s attacks in Tunisia — he suggested such operations are becoming the new normal as nations throughout the Middle East and beyond join forces to defeat a common enemy.

“We are witnessing a time and a reality that encourages and urges all efforts to be gathered to fight terrorism,” Gouia said. “Sometimes we have to ignore national egos and even part of our sovereignty to give full success to our fight.”

Gouia spoke with Al-Monitor at the embassy Feb. 26 and again March 3 during a visit to Capitol Hill with Nobel Peace Prize winner Ouided Bouchamaoui. The wide-ranging discussion touched on his hope that US President Barack Obama will stop by for a visit during his last year in office — “it’s so important symbolically” — and the country’s efforts to battle corruption and reform its economy.

Gouia declined to weigh in on pending legislation in the House that would label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, but warned against conflating political and militant Islamists. The Brotherhood-inspired Ennahda party is a key member of Tunisia’s governing coalition and has been lobbying for the past two years to assuage US concerns about their motivations.

“We have to draw a clear difference between Islamists and terrorists,” Gouia said. “I think it is normal that political parties — Islamist or not — win open, democratic and transparent elections.”

While upbeat about Tunisia’s future, he warned that progress would be elusive as long as chaos reigns in Libya. He urged the State Department to rethink plans to cut military funding for Tunisia even as it boosts much-needed economic aid.

“They increased economic support, but reduced security assistance,” he said. “Now we’re going to fight, so to speak, to try to shore up military aid because it’s very important.”

The career diplomat previously served as his country’s second-highest ranking diplomat in Tunisia’s technocratic government in 2014. Since taking his post in May, he has made it a priority to encourage US investment in Tunisia’s battered economy, notably through the passage of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

“It is important for the exchanges [of goods and services], but it is also symbolic,” Gouia said. “We will be able to say to the world, “Don’t worry, come to Tunisia and make the best deals ever!”

Below is a transcript of the interviews, condensed and edited for clarity.

Al-Monitor:  Washington seems more and more convinced that some kind of US intervention will be needed to prevent the Islamic State from expanding its control over Libya. Is Tunisia at risk? 

Gouia:  Libya will not fall into the hands of the Islamists. In Libya you have all tendencies, all political orientations. Remember who won the election in 2014? It was the liberals, not the Islamists.

These [terrorist] movements have no chance in going far in their endeavors, because they will be combated and pursued anywhere they are, either in North Africa or the Levant or the east. They will be trapped by the local population and security forces and also by [international] coalitions.

Second, we have to draw a clear difference between Islamists and terrorists. I think it is normal that political parties — Islamist or not — win open, democratic and transparent elections.

There is no fear for Tunisia. Tunisia is a nation of more than 3,000 years; it’s a very old and historic civilization. Tunisia is a country with institutions, with a government; we have a constitution, we have an elected parliament. In Tunisia, only the political process can bring people to power — you cannot take power by force.

Al-Monitor:  A US strike near Libya’s border with your country killed several dozen IS recruits last month, including a Tunisian suspect in last year’s terror attacks in your country. Is this a sign of closer ties between our two countries?

Gouia:  There is cooperation between countries on fighting terrorism on a daily basis. And that’s normal. I don’t know a single country that is not making terrorism a priority on its political agenda, and I don’t know of a single country that is not ready to cooperate with the international community to fight terrorism.

This is an international network; it exists everywhere on this planet. Some information talked about plans to attack Tunisia, so fighting against these individuals is essential.

We are witnessing a time and a reality that encourages and urges all efforts to be gathered to fight terrorism. Sometimes we have to ignore national egos and even part of our sovereignty to give full success to our fight against terrorism.

Al-Monitor:  Italy appears ready to host armed US drone missions over Libya, according to press reports, but only if they target foreigners and not Libyans. Do you think the West should resist getting caught up in Libya’s internal conflict?

Gouia:  I doubt that this info is right. To me it doesn’t make sense. When I go on a strike and I know that in this city or village there are terrorists, I stop everything and I ask, "OK, before I attack these terrorists I have to ask, please give me your ID"? It doesn’t make sense.

Terrorism is an international cancer. Fighting it should not take into consideration nationality.

Al-Monitor:  The House Judiciary panel just voted to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Would such a move risk destabilizing Tunisia, whose governing coalition includes the Islamist Ennahda party?

Gouia:  This is just a draft law, and it is given to the secretary of state to have the final word. I think we have to wait until we see more clearly what the secretary of state says.

As far as Ennahda is concerned, it doesn’t belong to the Muslim Brotherhood movement. And second, Ennahda is not a terrorist organization — it is a legal party in Tunisia, they are part of the government and the parliament; they are a very moderate party and they are playing a major political role in Tunisia and no one can doubt about their importance on the political scene in Tunisia.

Al-Monitor:  The US foreign aid budget proposed for Tunisia in FY 2017 is pretty flat at $140 million, but economic support is up about $20 million over last year’s request. Is that the right approach? 

Gouia:  They increased economic support, but reduced security assistance. Now we’re going to fight, so to speak, to try to shore up military aid because it’s very important. Terrorism and challenges of all sorts that threaten Tunisia’s stability and security must be taken into account as we reinforce cooperation between our two countries.

One of the main challenges for this government and the previous government and I think the next government is employment. Without creating jobs for hundreds of thousands of youth in Tunisia, the social situation will be insecure, especially among those who have higher degrees and are unemployed. Now they are demanding their right to be active and get a job.

By favoring the economy in the US assistance, we have an American contribution to the social peace in Tunisia by creating jobs and developing regions and developing the Tunisian economy. And it helps on the security side. Once you have social peace in the country, you can have control over your security.

Social peace in Tunisia, a better economic situation, creating more jobs and a peaceful Libya — all these elements are important to secure Tunisia and let the government work on the other reforms needed for the country, such as education, public health, transportation.

Al-Monitor:  There’s been talk over the years of negotiating a free trade agreement with Tunisia. Would that help?

Gouia:  That’s something that I’m trying to do every day.

Our business community in Tunisia is asking for an FTA with the United States. It would give Tunisia another dimension and show the world that Tunisia is a close partner with the biggest economy in the world. It means our economy is reliable and trustworthy.

Jordan, Morocco, Oman, if you compare before and after their FTAs [with the United States], you can see the difference. It is important for the exchanges [of goods and services], but it’s also symbolic. We will be able to say to the world, “Don’t worry, come to Tunisia and make the best deals ever!”

Al-Monitor:  What is the status of the banking and tax reforms? Some US officials seem to think Tunisia is dragging its feet.

Gouia:  I understand both sides. Of course the Americans would like to help Tunisia, and for them — as well as for the international financial institutions like the World Bank, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] — they would really like to see Tunisia develop its economic situation.

But, on the other hand, there is a new reality in Tunisia. First you have a parliament and any law should be adopted by the parliament. And the parliament has been in action only for one year. You cannot ask a new parliament to deal with tens and tens of new laws in such a short time.

Also there is a procedure, as there is here [in the United States] or in any democratic parliament. Any draft law should go through a process, commissions — they invite experts, they invite the administration and there is a big debate — until it reaches discussion at the plenary and is adopted. So it is a long process, and as a democratic country now we have no power over the parliament. Can you go to Congress and say, "Hurry up, get this done"? You cannot. It is the same in Tunisia.

Second, there are many other reforms we are working on. We are working on reforming education, reforming so many sectors and even creating new agencies required by the constitution, such as the constitutional council.

And you have many tendencies within the parliament: Some who are more liberal, some who are socialists, conservatives, etc. To get all these people together and to get them to agree on one law is not easy.

Al-Monitor:  The Obama administration has been preaching the virtues of democracy throughout the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Is it unfair to then take Tunisia to task for its deliberative pace?

Gouia:  The Americans are our friends and allies, and they want us to succeed and go quickly. I don’t see any disadvantage to being behind us to push us.

We are working together and they understand the situation, but since they want us to succeed that’s why they are asking us to go faster.

As someone who has worked on Tunisian-American relations for the past quarter of a century, I can tell that our relation was never as good, as dynamic, as close as it is now. Because the administration and Congress believe that Tunisia can make it, can succeed. Americans would like to see Tunisia succeed, not only for its own people but as an example and a model for the rest of the region to tell the other people and countries of the region, yes, you can create a new, democratic system and you can succeed.

Al-Monitor:  Tunisia has often been called the Arab Spring’s golden child. Others see a country on the brink of economic ruin. What is your assessment?

Gouia:  On the political side, we’ve had so many achievements, but we have many challenges. No one can argue otherwise. The genius of Tunisians is how to transform these challenges into opportunities.

Let me explain. One of the most important challenges in Tunisia is the employment of about 350,000 young Tunisians with high education and university degrees. You can look at it as a problem, as a challenge, but you can look at it as an opportunity also for Tunisia. It is up to us, and our friends — the United States, the European Union — to help Tunisia transform these obstacles and difficulties and challenges into opportunities.

These 350,000 young people with high degrees and high education can benefit the country, can bring wealth and create start-ups and jobs for themselves and other people looking for jobs, if — there is an if, always — we give them an opportunity to create their own start-ups and projects and integrate the economy. This comes with a lot of needs: money, vision — and that’s what the government is doing now.

Once the situation is back to normal in the region, Tunisia will benefit because Tunisia relies on the outside world for tourism, for foreign investment, for exports. Everything is done with others. We cannot be successful if the region is not stable.

Al-Monitor:  Corruption remains a big problem. Some Tunisians seem to think things were actually better under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, when the first family took what it wanted but kept everyone else in line.

Gouia:  I don’t agree with those who say corruption now is worse than it was five years ago. It’s just not true. Now it’s about people asking for bribes. But before we had institutional corruption — that’s the danger behind that kind of corruption. The rule was, you had to partake in corruption, especially to create a new enterprise or for foreign investors.

Now it’s about small-scale corruption. Of course people are complaining. This is not part of our culture.

Al-Monitor:  Is it unfair to expect Tunisia to address corruption when the country has so many other problems?

Gouia:  We should not wait or give the impression that we accept the situation. No. The government is serious about it. We created recently a ministry in charge of fighting corruption. Many mechanisms are now in place to ask people to complain against any attempt at corruption. Many actions were taken over the past few weeks and months to fight seriously against corruption.

People should trust the system and the government and the institutions. A corrupt administration cannot be qualified as a good administration. Governance now is the keyword in Tunisia: Everywhere you go you hear about governance and fighting against corruption. I’m sure in the next few months, the situation will improve.

Al-Monitor:  President Obama has held up Tunisia as the Arab Spring’s success story. What more could he do in his final year in office?

Gouia:  President Obama has visited Africa twice during his eight years in office. We really hope that he’ll stop by, even for just a few hours, in Tunisia. It’s so important symbolically and significant for reinforcing the bilateral relationship.

Al-Monitor:  What is your parting message to Americans reading this?

Gouia:  I would like to tell Americans to look at Tunisia as a very important site for investment, for tourism and for partnership. Tunisia has very good institutions, has very good advantages — a free trade agreement with Europe, extremely qualified talents in all fields, and it’s very well located.

And I’m sure that when the region is secure — and believe me, it’s coming — many Americans and others will come to Tunisia. I’m very optimistic about the future of Tunisia.