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Regime Change cannot be imposed by foreign powers tunisian Foriegn Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui

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Regime change cannot be imposed by foreign powers: Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui

Interview by Suhasini Haidar

NOVEMBER 08, 2017 00:02 IST

UPDATED: NOVEMBER 08, 2017 16:50 IST


Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui on bilateral trade, the fight against terrorism and the learning from ‘Arab Spring’

During joint consultations held in New Delhi recently, Tunisia and India discussed the possibility of exchanging information, intelligence, and putting security agencies in contact to develop more cooperation on terror. In a freewheeling discussion on terrorism, trade and the threat from Libya, Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui emphasised, “The aim of terrorism is to destabilise a country, and we must all cooperate to fight this aim.”


In the road map for ties that you unveiled after joint consultations, India and Tunisia have committed to cooperating in the fight against terrorism, radicalism and extremism. Do both face the same threat, and how do you see the two countries cooperating?

Terrorism is not specific to one country; it has no religion, and no boundary. It is an international phenomenon and requires closer cooperation amongst all countries. India and Tunisia are both victims of terrorism, and even if the origins of the terrorism differ, the result is the same. In 2015 and 2016, Tunisia was struck by major attacks (including the Sousse Beach massacre, where a gunman killed 38, and the Tunis museum attack where Islamic State gunmen killed 21), which had a devastating effect on our economy, tourism and the general situation in the country. We have now overcome the aftermath of those two attacks, and today Tunisia is as secure as any country in the world. [Sushma Swaraj] and I discussed the possibility of exchanging information, intelligence, and putting our security agencies in contact to develop more cooperation on terror. The aim of terrorism is to destabilise a country, and we must all cooperate to fight this aim.

When it comes to the threat from Islamic State (IS), Tunisians form the fourth largest group by nationality of foreign fighters in Syria. As the IS falls, how much do you worry about these terrorists returning to Tunisia?

First of all, let me tell you, it is absurd to think anyone has been able to fully count how many have come to the IS and from where. This is an inaccurate figure that Tunisians had the highest numbers in Iraq and Syria. We have come through difficult times since 2011. We have seen very radical parties come to power in Tunisia after [the “Arab Spring” uprising]. But even by the largest estimates, we have hundreds of Tunisians joining the IS, not thousands.

You don’t believe the latest estimate that there are 2,300 Tunisians in IS-held areas?

No. No one can give such an accurate figure. There are Tunisians; most were attracted for economic reasons rather than ideology, because they were living in such depravation. Some of them, they were educated, and were promised by IS recruiters that they would be taken for better jobs. They didn’t even know they would be made to fight.

Regardless of what they may say their motivation was, such large numbers that joined ISIS from around the world weren’t just looking for employment…

I would like to make a distinction between Tunisia and the rest of the world. For the last 60 years in Tunisia, we have given our people a liberal education. From 2011 to 2014, however, we had a government composed mainly of Islamists. While I don’t blame ministers and leaders in the government directly for [radicalisation] of the youth, the general atmosphere they created, the speeches they would give, helped convince young people to join groups like the IS.

What attracts young people around the world is a big question. One of the big problems is satellite television that broadcasts religious programming that is not in tune with the general understanding of religion. These channels, that we had no control over, would centre on a very narrow interpretation of Islam, and say there is only one truth, and they bombarded and brainwashed our youth. Another reason in some countries is the backlash of immigrants, those who are not well integrated, and are reacting to ill treatment in those countries. In England and France, there are second and third generation immigrants who are joining the IS. Why do these young people who have grown up entirely in Christian countries, now want to kill Christians? In some western countries, where we saw Tunisians involved in IS terror attacks like in Nice and in Berlin, what we also found out was that many of the terrorists were criminals. The attacker in the Berlin incident for example had been jailed in Tunisia and Italy for stealing, and then escaped. So you see, it’s not all about religion.

During a visit to the U.S. this year, you gave a warning about the numbers of IS recruits who are now entering Libya. Do you think that Libya could become the next IS stronghold?

In Libya, unfortunately, there are three competing factions, each trying to rule the whole country. There are two governments, to the west and the east. But no one has control of any part of Libya, which makes the whole country a safe haven for terrorists. That is very worrisome for us in Tunisia because we have 540 km of an uncontrolled border with Libya.

We never thought that we would be attacked, but two major attacks in Tunisia came from Libya. There is now a greater focus on finding a political solution in Libya so a proper government which can fight terrorism can take over. In the absence of that, Libya is a terrorist safe haven.

Are you hopeful of a solution? Talks between these rival groups and the UN just ended in Tunis.

Well we are trying to push them together. Remember all diplomatic missions, including that of India, also UN offices for Libya, now run out of Tunisia. We allow Libyan leadership of all kinds to come there for talks and we don’t interfere. They just concluded two rounds of talks, with the aim of amending their last agreement. They agreed that instead of a council, the Libyan consensus government should be led by a president and two vice-presidents, but are now arguing about who should have which position. For us, Libya is a vital issue and we have a stake in Libya being stabilised. After the European Union, Libya used to be our biggest partner, with bilateral trade of $2.5 billion. This has evaporated post-2011, and instead of being a source of opportunity, Libya is now a threat. That’s why President Beji Caid Essebsi tried to bring a political settlement there, and brought Algeria and Egypt into the dialogue in 2017.

First, we agreed that the settlement cannot be a military settlement. No faction of Libya can impose its rule on any other, so it must be a political settlement. It must be inclusive, including everyone except of course, any terrorists. It must respect the territorial integrity of Libya, and the settlement must be under the UN umbrella. Based on that, Libya’s neighbours are now speaking in the same voice.

Six years ago, Muammar Qadhafi may not have been the ideal ruler, but he did achieve all of the conditions you speak of. Was it a mistake to push him out?

Any regime change by an outside power is a mistake. It has to be a genuine change by the will of the people. You can’t change a regime by bombarding a country. When [NATO forces] destroyed the regime, they destroyed all systems in the country and then they went away, not helping the Libyan people construct a new system. That’s the opposite of what we were able to do in Tunisia. There was an old system here [led by deposed President Ben-Ali, who fled the country at the start of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011], that didn’t represent Tunisia’s hopes for a democratic nation. Once he left, we started to rebuild the system through a home grown, consensual way. If you want to impose a system from outside, pushed by foreign powers, particularly in a rich country like Syria, you will not get democracy. That’s one of the lessons of what they call this ‘Arab Spring’. What you see in Libya today is just killing people, and the international community has a responsibility to help Libyans construct a better system.

What you are saying is that for the international community, or UN Security Council and NATO to have pushed Qadhafi out so violently, and ultimately, his brutal death, was a mistake…

Let’s just say, Qadhafi ruled Libya for 42 years, so it was about time there was a change of leadership, but not the way it was done. You cannot rule for 42 years and continue to be a just and equitable leader for all your people. So changing Qadhafi maybe was required, but the way it was done, was not right.

Tunisia is called the “anomaly of the Arab Spring”, because it has come through the revolution more or less intact, despite the change at the top.

Yes, today Tunisia is an exception, because we had built a system over 60 years. Our education is a general education, not religious, and was made compulsory for boys and girls till the age of 16. Do you know that Tunisia abolished slavery in 1846, before even the United States did? In 1956 [President Habib Bourguiba] brought gender equality in law, divorces done in court, prohibited polygamy, and this created a special situation for women in Tunisia.

This also created the possibility of a large middle class in Tunisia, all of which helped Tunisia come through the turmoil of 2011 more smoothly than others. We still have major economic difficulties, but once we overcome those we hope to prove that democracy can deliver.

Is that the difference then, given that Tunisia was the first country to see the uprising called the ‘Jasmine revolution’ that was seen as setting off the ‘Arab Spring’ ?

I don’t believe in this word called the Arab Spring. Firstly, the protests one saw in different countries were not connected, they happened for different reasons. Spring means something new, but it also means something good. In most of the Arab world, there was so much turmoil, where was this spring? Tunisia, as I told you, has had a different process from the beginning.

India-Tunisia bilateral trade hasn’t moved up however, in 2016 it stands at just about $370 million. How will you achieve the goal announced, of $1 billion?

Of course, this reflects an ambition. It is a target, and it is up to the business community to see that it increases to the benefit of both countries. Of course, fertilizers constitute a major part of the trade between us for the last 45 years. India used to be one of our biggest markets for fertilizers, and we now have a joint venture in this for some years.

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