Interview with Mr. Rafik Abdessalem (former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia)

Mediterranean Affairs has had the opportunity to meet and interview Mr. Rafik Abdessalem, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia from 2011 to 2014, and currently in charge of international affairs in Ennahda, a party supporting a moderate expression of Islam. Ennahda, despite losing last year elections, is part of the coalition government that approved the progressive constitutional reform, a “compromise between the government and free association, because the parties agreed on the need to continue the process of democratization in Tunisia”, resulted from the Jasmine Revolution.

Indeed, Tunisia has been spark of the Arab Spring that has brought about the collapse of Ben Ali’s regime. Unlike other neighboring countries, Tunisia is “an example of stability” as the former Minister stated. According to Mr. Abdessalem, after the government’s resignation and the removal of Ben Ali, free elections and the consolidation of the democratic process have been successful in Tunisia. Tunisia is the only country in North Africa to have successfully survived the political and social turmoil, resisting to extremist violence and the daily attempts to upset the balance achieved. Democracy is not the solution to all problems per se, according to Mr. Abdessalem, rather the means through which the economy and policy and security initiatives will be able to promote and secure socio-political balance and development in Tunisia.

Five years have passed since the self-sacrifice of the young fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire to protest against unemployment, the economic crisis, indifference and corruption of the regime forces. A tragedy that triggered the domino effect of protests expanding in the Maghreb and in the Mashreq. Dictatorships, which for decades have caught their populations in economic and social grips, plummeted under the impetus of the masses that took the streets and occupied the squares, despite many states falling in a cold Arab Winter. In these cases, civil wars, tribal conflicts, and Islamic terrorism have taken the place of the hope of the young protesters. 2013 is the annus horribilis of Tunisia. Whereas Egypt participated in the removal of President Morsi and in the bloody repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Tunis lay people turned against Ennahda, accusing the party of being too soft on the Tunisian branch of the Islamic fundamentalists, and also of being a low-profile ruling party promoting the process of Islamization of the country, a state founded on Islamic law. After the fall of Ben Ali, the elections of the Constituent Assembly have seen the triumph of Ennahda, the Islamist movement close to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood matrix and the main form of opposition to power since the Eighties. Despite the leader Mohamed Ghannouchi had rejected violence and declared his faith in a pluralistic democratic system, the party had been frequently subject to coercion, firstly with the President Habib Bourguiba and then with Ben Ali. During his tenure, Ennahda worked to promote political integration of Salafis, a co-option that could have brought some benefits electorally by securing the consensus of the Left, the moderates, and non-Islamic voters showing positions close to the Salafis’.

In 2013, the murders of the main representatives of the secular opposition front, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, have revealed deep social disease nurtured by the violence of the Salafists and jihadists. The protests against the Islamist Ennahda’s government, considered the principal political instigator, led to the resignation of the PM Ali Laarayedh. In this power vacuum, violence got out of control and the Islamist party sunk. Ennahda, an experiment of the Muslim Brothers, has shown to be unable to lead the country towards the economic and social improvement, and take up the legacy of the Jasmine Revolution. Ennahda took a step back and the government resigned to counter the risk that the turmoil-taking place in Egypt could spread to Tunisia.

In 2014, the elections marked the victory of President Beji Caid Essebsi, determined opponent of Ennahda who is not particularly appreciated by the whole society.

Islamic terrorism in Tunisia includes the violence at the Bardo National Museum, the massacre carried out on the beaches of the seaside town of Sousse, and the terrorist threat of Daesh, that has carried out terrorist attacks in Tunis, blowing up a bus of the Presidential Guards in the heart of the capital, in Avenue Mohamed V. This has triggered the fear of new alarming campaigns against the government building of the Kasbah and the prisons of Mornaguia and Borj al-Roumi to free prisoners. Not to talk about the plague of foreign fighters. We have asked Mr. Abdessalem what, according to him, are the factors behind the spike in the number of young Tunisians swearing allegiance to Daesh. Tunisia, in fact, holds the record of highest number of foreign fighters.

“I think there are two elements behind the problem of foreign fighters leaving Tunisia for [Syria]. The first is the weakness of Tunisian state institutions after the revolution. It is expected in a post-revolution situation that the means of control of the state are weakened, [above all since] the previous regime we suffered from was a despotic regime based on police institutions. The people targeted the headquarters and the equipments of the police forces: so post-revolution institutions have been very delicate in this perspective.

The second element is related to the crises [generated by] the revolutions themselves at the regional level, as for example in bordering Libya. We are affected by the regional environment and more particularly by the crisis in Libya and the dismantlement of the Libyan state apparatuses: this has made the illegal circulation of arms increase in Tunisia. We suffered from two political assassinations of two political figures: these were the result of the circulation and the smuggling of arms coming from Libya.

These are the reasons why we have a big number of foreign fighters who are going to the regions at the center of these crises. There are no definitive solutions, but we are doing our best by implementing security measures to face this challenge as it regards many from our young generation. We have heavy controls in the airports and the borders to preclude young people from going to Turkey and other countries, preventing the risk they go to Syria or Iraq. We have heavy security measures, including military at our borders with Libya. So we are doing our best to control this risk.”

The threat of Islamic terrorism and the issue of Tunisian fighters joining Daesh, the economic crisis, strong emigration flows, and a moderate and conservative society dealing with important social issues such as women empowerment and homosexuality are all factors that contributed to keep Tunisia united. In summer 2013, “when the process of democratization was about to collapse under the weight of political assassinations and unrest”, four organizations from civil society – l’Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, l’Union Tunisienne de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l’Artisanat, la Ligue Tunisienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme and l’Ordre National des Avocats de Tunisie founded a structure that “has put the country in a position to establish a constitution and system of government that guarantees fundamental rights to all the Tunisian people regardless of gender, political belief or faith.”[1]

Mr. Abdessalem, what is the position of Tunisia about human rights, today?

“Significant achievements have been reached in Tunisia. In a post-revolutionary situation there are guarantees, we have a progressive Constitution, we have a check-and-balance system of powers, and we have the power of the Parliament. Therefore, public and private freedoms are protected by the Constitution [and by] an active civil society. We have had transgressions and cases of human rights abuses, but civil society and the Parliament intervened, so it does not happen in a systematic way. The State does not intervene in the private choices of the people. The role of the State is to regulate the public sphere, and not to intervene in the way people think or [they dress] or live. This is up to them. It’s not up to the state to control the private lives of the people”.

Looking at the Mediterranean Sea, the African coast is the starting point of migration towards Europe. What is the commitment of Tunisia in this regard? How does (and can) Tunisia intervene on this issue?

“This migration is a regional phenomenon, stemming from political crises in different countries of the region – in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, everywhere. Europe pays the price of this, as well as other countries in the region as Turkey, for example, which has a significant presence of refugees on its soil. I think that the role of Tunisia is crucial: we have implemented heavy security measures to control our borders, as to preclude the migratory waves to reach Europe. Tunisia is playing an avant-garde role in protecting the borders, as to preclude the waves of migrants coming from the Southern part of the Mediterranean. However, I want to look at the relationship between Europe and Tunisia from a wider perspective than that of the migration issue: of course, it is crucial, but we have to look at other aspects too, such as the economic, political, strategic partnership between Europe and Tunisia.

The first visit of the Italian President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, outside national borders was in Tunisia. How are the bilateral relations between Tunisia and Italy? In addition, with Europe?

I think the relationship between Tunisia and Italy is based on the interconnectedness of geography as well as the historical legacy that connects the two countries. Let us bear in mind that Italy is the second trade partner for Tunisia, that we are just one-hour flight away from Rome: it is crucial for the two countries to consolidate their bilateral relationship in terms of economy, security, and all that follows. I could call it a ‘strategic partnership’ between the two countries.

Our relationship with Europe also is very deep. More than 83% of our trade is with the European Union. We are in the process of negotiating privileged partnerships with the European Union. Of course, the support is limited, but I think it is in the interest of the European community, in the interest of Italy, to support Tunisia in this process of democratization. If we succeed, we would send a very positive message in the whole region, that democracy is possible in the Middle East and more particularly in the Arab World.

The words of the Mr. Abdessalem instill hope to a country that has remained out of the armed clashes that have affected Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, but that is still afflicted by problems such as social injustice, corruption, police violence, and a significant distance between the State and the citizens. These issues seem still unsolved four years after the Jasmine Revolution. Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab revolutions in 2010, remains suspended between the democratic process and the risk to cede to religious fanaticism. As Mr. Abdessalem stated, it is in the interest of Italy and of the European community at large to support Tunisia’s democratization and nurture the strategic partnership with the country.

Federica Fanuli

Master’s degree in Political Science, European Studies and International Relations (University of Salento)


[1] The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015 is to be awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. See: “The Nobel Peace Prize 2015 – Press Release,”, October 10, 2015.

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