Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mongi Hamdi said that Tunisia was “extremely worried” about the security situation in Libya. He added, “We consider that [the crisis in] Libya is an internal problem for Tunisia,” and was seeking to hold a meeting for Libya’s neighboring countries to activate an inter-Libyan dialogue. He called on Arabs to work together to combat terrorism, “which threatens the whole region,” and said there was already cooperation between the United States and Tunisia for security in fighting terrorism.
In an interview with Al-Hayat, he said his country was eager [to maintain] “its close and strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia,” adding, “There is no misunderstanding and the atmosphere has become clear between us.” He stressed that the two countries agree on fighting terrorism, and that, “during the first visit of the Tunisian prime minister to Saudi Arabia, we expressed our desire to have strong and firm ties with Saudi Arabia, [at a meeting where] we met with the Crown Prince [Salman] bin Abdulaziz, and Foreign Affairs Minister Saud al-Faisal.” He noted that he made a second visit to Riyadh a few days ago to take part in an Arab-Asian meeting.
On current Saudi-Tunisian ties, he said, “There was some misunderstanding [previously], and we cleared the air between us. There is no misunderstanding right now; we have resolved the issues. In Saudi Arabia, they know that we are keen on having good and solid ties, and Saudi Arabia is being effective in the Arab and Islamic region. Thus, dealing with it must certainly be serious, formal and brotherly, to help Tunisia at this stage.”
Did you agree on specific areas of cooperation? He answered, “We asked them to encourage Saudi investors, who have contributed to many projects in Tunisia. There are senior Saudi investors who are still investing in Tunisia.” He continued, “What I have done [as foreign minister] to support Saudi-Tunisian ties is to keep them close, and make sure they can be strategic. There is one problem related to terrorism, which threatens the whole region, and fighting it must be a common denominator for all the countries of the region.”
Did you agree with Riyadh to cooperate in fighting terrorism? he was asked. He answered, “We all agree that terrorism is a regional and international problem that can only be addressed regionally and internationally. A single country cannot alone resolve it. Our brethren in Saudi Arabia and we agree on this issue [to combat terrorism].
When asked to what extent Tunisia is worried about the deteriorating security in Libya, he replied, “We are extremely worried about the situation in Libya. We consider that [the crisis in] Libya is an internal problem for Tunisia, and we are addressing it as an internal problem, because our security is part of Libya’s security, the security of Libya is of ours and Libya’s stability means stability for us. It is as if we are building a house in Tunisia next to something that is bad; i.e., the problems in Libya have significant repercussions on Tunisia.” He said, “We will not remain idle under the (current) circumstances in Libya. For this reason, Tunisia took the initiative for an inter-Libyan dialogue, and we have consulted with a number of countries interested in the Libyan affairs, including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom, Italy, the United States, to reach a formula to activate the inter-Libyan dialogue.”
Are there any practical steps? He answered, “During a meeting that was held [a few days ago] in Morocco, we agreed to hold a meeting to gather Libya’s neighboring countries to start an inter-Libyan dialogue in Tripoli. Hopefully, it will be held as soon as possible.”
On the developments regarding the Tunisian diplomats who were kidnapped in Libya, he said, “Attempts are currently underway day and night, and the Libyans are assisting us, because they are the only ones who have official and unofficial communications with those groups. We have officially contacted the Libyan government and placed on them [the Libyans] the international responsibility of protecting the diplomats. They are using all of the means and pressure available, and using the tribes and other ways to release the kidnapped Tunisians. We are one people in Tunisia and Libya, and the kidnapping of Tunisians is equal to the kidnapping of Libyans. There are nearly 1.8 million Libyans in Tunisia, and nearly 1.2 million of these are settled here. They are welcome in Tunisia and they know it. The Libyan government and many Libyan people are embarrassed of this event [the kidnapping of Tunisian diplomats in Libya].”
Are there any Qatari efforts to release the diplomats? He said, “Not that I know of.”
On the kidnappers’ demands, he said, “They want the release of two terrorists involved in the killing of a Tunisian army colonel and sergeant. We said that we will not be subject to pressure, blackmail, bargaining and bartering for the blood of the martyrs. Yet, all channels of mediation are desired.”
On the developments of Tunisian-Qatari ties, he said, “Ties are almost ideal, and the brethren in Qatar are doing everything they can. They helped us, and we are thankful. Hopefully, their aid will increase after I meet with the prime minister and Minister of the Interior Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and finance minister, Ali Shareef al-Emadi. There is a preliminary agreement to continue to assist Tunisia in the economic field. There are projects and a preliminary agreement to provide job opportunities for Tunisians in Qatar, which is a good thing. Qataris recognize the efficiency of Tunisians and welcome competent people.”
In response to a question, he said, “We mainly agreed on 20,000 new job opportunities for Tunisians during the next two or three years. This is not to mention the 15,000 Tunisians who are currently working in Qatar.”
As for his message to the Arabs, he said, “Our message is that we, in Tunisia, gave an example of good management of the transition period. We also proved that the national dialogue is able to lead to an agreement, despite political and ideological differences. This actually happened in Tunisia before the eyes of the world. This has brought us considerable sympathy from Arabs.”
He was also asked about the obstacles in the “Arab Spring” countries. “I repeat what I said many times before that we, Tunisians, started our revolution and had no intention to export it or create an ideology. We export expertise and love to export goods. Other countries sympathized with what happened in Tunisia. We have triumphed and, God willing, they will triumph as well. However, this phenomenon [in Arab countries] is rife with many problems.”
Regarding the arrangements to conduct presidential and legislative elections, he said, “The Supreme Committee for Elections has been entrusted with holding the elections and will set a date as early as possible. It has been agreed that the elections will take place before the end of 2014. The Tunisian government has nothing to do with the elections. It is only responsible for ensuring that the elections are fair and transparent and to support the committee with the logistic and financial issues.”
Will the current Tunisian technocratic government continue after the upcoming elections? He said, “It is known that the Tunisian people are content with the current government because it is made up of members who do not have any affiliations with political parties. They all have one thing in common, which is the highest interest of the homeland and not political parties. Most of the ministers used to work in high positions abroad and left their posts to perform a national duty in Tunisia.
“However, whether this government will continue or not is another issue. Our sole goal is to uphold the government until the end of 2014. This is a historical responsibility. We strive to save Tunisia at the economic, security and diplomatic levels. Indeed, the country’s image has enhanced internationally and we have received great sympathy from the world. For the first time in Tunisia’s history, we have received the foreign ministers of Turkey, India, the United States and Russia, in addition to the foreign ministers of Germany and France, who arrived together. We are awaiting a visit from the foreign ministers of Italy, Portugal and China, which is further proof that Tunisia’s democratic transition is respected and valued.”
Is the situation in Tunisia stable or are there any security and economic threats to the country? He said, “The security, economic and political situation is sound, but we still have a long way to go. We cannot claim that we have done everything. Our economy needs to boom to create job opportunities for the young people who started the revolution. We have more than 600,000 unemployed and we need to provide them with job opportunities. For this we need some time, but it can all be done in one or two years.”
“We face other security challenges, as economy and security are closely linked. We are working day and night to promote security and stability, which is very obvious to anyone in Tunisia. We are also working on achieving stability in Libya, because the repercussions in Libya affect Tunisia. We hope that there will be security and stability in Libya, which would make things better in Tunisia. However, generally speaking, the situation has improved a lot and the people expect good from the government. We have a promising future and the government’s top priority is to develop a vision and a strategy and stick to it, otherwise our country will not embark on the path of progress,” he added.
Hamdi also said, “I accompanied the prime minister during his visit to the United States and we were warmly received by President [Barack] Obama, who expressed his willingness to support Tunisia to the fullest extent. He said the United States wants Tunisia to have an experience that makes it proud, that the Western world will not leave Tunisia to strive on its own and that it can be a model for countries that aspire for freedom, democracy and stability. We had a strategic American-Tunisian dialogue, stressing the cooperation between both countries in terms of security, economy, trade and higher education.”
Regarding the nature of security cooperation with the United States, Hamdi said, “Of course, it is aimed at fighting terrorism. The United States will help with mechanisms and logistical issues only. We did not ask for more than this.”
Speaking about the Syrian crisis, he said, “We are following up on the Syrian crisis with great interest, because the Syrian situation matters to the entire region. We are sorry for what is happening in Syria and we support the Syrian people’s aspirations for freedom and democracy, but we refuse any foreign interventions in Syria.
“In this context, one must say that the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, is because it is an impossible mission. Brahimi has failed, as did Kofi Annan and anyone who will attempt it for the third time will fail as well, God willing. It is an impossible mission. The Syrian affairs concern us very much, especially since a great number of jihadists from Tunisia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are fighting in Syria. We are eagerly following up on the situation in Syria and we wish that our Syrian brothers will solve their problems peacefully, because there is no other solution but the peaceful solution. Problems are not solved by force.”