Tunisia rid of political burden, time for economic revolution
Tunisian Ambassador to Turkey Mehrez Ben Rhouma says Tunisia needs to focus on economic development. (Photo: Today's Zaman)
Tunisian Ambassador to Turkey Mehrez Ben Rhouma says Tunisia needs to focus on economic development. (Photo: Today's Zaman)
Tunisia, the motherland of the Arab Spring that spread through North Africa and the Middle East, is looking to a better future with its new democratic system. Yet, for this government to build further confidence from the Tunisian public, it needs to make major advances in terms of the country’s economic development, says Tunisian Ambassador to Turkey Mehrez Ben Rhouma.

“We had our political revolution, and now it’s time for an economic revolution,” claimed Rhouma during an interview with Today’s Zaman last week. To that end, Rhouma has called on Turkish businessmen to invest in Tunisia, which is currently experiencing a time of stability with its post-revolutionary government in the process of a making a constitution. Moreover, with the ousting of the previous regime -- the 23-year dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali -- the climate is more conducive to foreign investment. Due to that change, education is enjoying a significant place -- around 25 percent of the state budget. And among the state’s investments during the old administration, Tunisia now has a qualified employment potential and advanced technical capacity, which could be an incentive for foreign investment.

The ambassador urged Turkey to share its experience in economic development, highlighting the agreements signed between Turkey and Tunisia after the revolution. Turkey will work with Tunisia in investing in and building the proposed industrial zones in the country. During a visit to Ankara earlier in March, Tunisian Regional Development and Planning Minister Cemaleddin Garbi met with Science and Technology Minister Nihat Ergün and made a special visit to Turkish industrial zones in the city.

Citing the biggest challenges in the Tunisian economy as unemployment and regional development, Rhouma said that Tunisia can benefit from Turkey’s experience economically so as to implement a successful development project.

He mentioned that the Tunisian uprising spread to the region of Sidi Bou Zid due to the unequal economic development of that area as regards the country in general. “Our target is to benefit from the Turkish experience and success. It is now a major player in the region and a success story -- it leads or is holding its own, not only economically, but also politically, institutionally, culturally and so on,” explained Rhouma.

Rhouma suggested that Tunisia could be “a door” or “transit country” for Turkey into the entire Magreb region and to South Africa, due to its politically stable environment. Mentioning Tunisia’s family ties with Libya, which also experienced a revolution after Tunisia and Egypt and Libya’s importance as a trade partner for Turkey, the ambassador states that those countries could undertake partnerships for successful developmental projects.

In January, a trilateral business forum was held in the Hammamed region of Tunisia, in which 600 businesspeople from Turkey, Tunisia and Libya participated. This resulted in improved cooperation among the countries in the areas of logistics, telecommunications and tourism.

After the revolution, Tunisia experienced a revival in tourism. Along with textiles and agricultural products, tourism is vital for the country in terms of revenue.

The country has received large amounts of aid from US, Qatar and some EU countries, so has managed to pay its external debt with this as well as by stimulating investment in the country, with a more facilitative framework for foreign investment.

Turkey, Tunisia share common political, international position

“Tunisia can be a little Turkey,” said Rhouma, emphasizing the similarity between the two countries, from their economic vision and policy focus to regional development.

Rhouma evaluated the Arab Spring whose first spark was in Tunisia at the end of 2010, and its spread to North Africa and the Middle East, saying, “There are differences between each country’s experiences.” He added that only the Tunisian revolution led the country to a better future with a successful transition period and no sign of civil war.

The ambassador emphasized the similarities between the Turkish and Tunisian political experiences. “We share the same values of democracy, liberty and dignity. Also, Turkey has managed to reconcile both tradition and modernity in its political mindset, just like Tunisia,” he said, adding that both countries have turned their attention to Europe, with its important trade and political links to the EU.

Tunisia is the first Mediterranean country that signed an agreement with the union in July 1995. It is also a part of the European Neighborhood Policy, under the framework of Union for Mediterranean (UfM), as is Turkey. Turkey has been a candidate country to the EU with a continuing negotiation period since 2005.

‘Annan plan should not be wasted by regime to stall for time’

Tunisia is as deeply concerned about the Syrian situation as Turkey is, according to Rhouma, who criticized the regime for delaying the implementation of international envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan. “The Syrian regime should not use it to win more time. There are six points in the Annan plan, not one. We have to apply the other points of Annan’s plan,” the ambassador asserted. He ruled out any foreign military intervention in the situation, claiming that it would bring more complicated results, with implications such as an all-out civil war in the region.

Tunisia was the venue for the first Friends of Syria group meetings, seeking a diplomatic way out of the Syrian crisis. Subsequent meetings were hosted by Turkey and France.