H. E. SEYF-ALLAH REJEB, Ambassador of Tunisia: Multicultural African Arabs

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First to change things, first to become stable

Tunisia was the first country to spark the Arab Spring and the first to deal with the consequences of it, while profiling itself as the most democratic Arab country, together with Lebanon. We are bringing you an exclusive interview with H.E.SEYF-ALLAH REJEB, the Ambassador of Tunisia.

Tunisia was the first country to spark the so-called Arab Spring, and 8 years later, it is once again the most democratic Arab country. How do you assess the country’s development from 2011onward?

– Tunisia has successfully implemented its democratic transitional process while giving birth to a new constitution, and holding free and transparent presidential and legislative elections in 2014. Owing to the national consensus, Tunisia succeeded in overcoming certain issues that threatened its internal stability in the past four years; the reason for which merited the country to win the Nobel Prize for peace in 2015. Active parties on the Tunisian political stage have always played a positive rolein dealing with the social and economic problems. Currently, Tunisia is focusing on its economic transition to better tackle the socio-economic issues which erupted right after the revolution, especially unemployment of university graduates. The first results of the efforts invested into resolving this matter have been very positive, but we still need more support from our partners and friends to reach our goals in ensuring a stable economic growth and sustainable development.

In the meantime, the big, mighty neighbour Libya plunged into chaos trying to do the same thing, but with nasty interference of the foreign factors. How does Tunisia cope with such cross-border challenge?

– Regarding the current situation in Libya, which is one of our most important neighbouring countries as we share 540km long common border, Tunisia has always tried to keep a close contact with all relevant stakeholders concerned by the conflict in Libya and played a very active role in bringing them to table to have a constructive discussion about the future of their country. Indeed, Tunisia was the precursor of the initiative involving Algeria and Egypt with the aim of reaching a comprehensive political resolutions of issues that have plagued the crisis-wracked Libya. The main goal of the initiative is that the three countries should step up their efforts to achieve comprehensive reconciliation in Libya through dialogue between all relevant parties and protect the territorial integrity of Libya while avoiding any military intervention, under the auspices of UN. The conflict settlement, as intended by the UN, envisages a three-stage action: first one implies creating a judicial framework, an electoral code and a constitutional text, the second one would be realized through holding elections in Liby, while the third and last one entails holding a round table to which representatives of all Libyan social categories would take part and discuss the possibilities of restoring security in Libya.

The migrant crisis was something Tunisia was well-acquainterd with, experiencing the large influx of migrants from Sahel for years. Now, after the events from 2015 onward, the problems of migration have become the burning issue for Europe and even the USA, Brazil and Colombia, as it seems that the people are on the move everywhere. How do you manage the migrants and refugees from your neigbourhood and Sahel and prevent the illegal migration towards Italy?

– Migration is a traditional phenomenon that has been present for a long time. In 2011, in the southern part of the country, Tunisia accepted 2 million Libyan citizens and other nationals that fled from Libya, with the support of the UN and international organizations. Together we worked hard to ensure a safe return for them to their homelands. Regarding the resolution of issues related to migration, Tunisia believes that the international community should deal with the influx of the migrants from Libya, Syria and Sub-Saharian Africa in line with the policy that gives these young people good opportunities for living in their countries so that they stop looking for better options in Europe, risking their lives by crossing the Mediterranean or by becoming prey to smugglers and human traffickers. Besides, Tunisia is managing the non-conventional migration to Italy by implementing the existing bilateral agreements for readmission and visa agreement, as well as jointly improving the protection of its sea borders. Our country is also negotiating with the EU about readmission and visa facilitation agreements which is sometimes very challenging for both parties. But beyond securing our borders and supporting EU in managing theirs, Tunisia’s interest lies in creating hope for young Tunisians by investing in job creation, reforming education and promoting regional development.

Tunisia is now stable after the unrest and terrorist attacks and has experienced tourist growth recently. What awaits this economic segment in the future?

– Concerning tourism, there is an ever-growing confidence among tourism professionals that the sector is definitely and completely recovered. Since the beginning of the year all performance indicators were positive – Europe’s largest tour-operators have returned; and during the first trimester of 2018, many tour-operators have issued stop sale notices for the summer season. 8 million tourists visited Tunisia in 2018, among them 8,000 Serbs. At this rate, that number is expected to climb to 10 million by the end of 2020 especially after aboition of visa regime with many countries. The tourism development strategy, drafted during the Tunisia Tourism Debates in 2017, stipulates implementation of 25 projects under six priorities with the aim of boosting, innovating and further diversifying the Tunisian tourism products which will attract an even bigger number of tourists as the tourist infrastructure has been recording a notable development while the picturesque beaches, the historical and cultural heritage and the mild Mediterranean climate make Tunisia a beautiful destination all year around.

Tunisia is sometimes described as “Switzerland of Africa” and it is the most “Europeanised” African and Arab country (the latter with the exception of Lebanon). How do you reconcile various traditions, the French and Italian past influences, Arab and Berber heritage and both Western and Islamic tendencies?

– Tunisia has always been diverse. Tunisian culture is a product of more than three thousand years of history and an important multi-ethnic influx. Ancient Tunisia was major civilization throughout history; different cultures, civilizations and multiple successive dynasties contributed to the country’s culture over centuries with varying degrees of influence. This unique mixture of cultures and its strategic geographical location in the Mediterranean made Tunisia the core of this great civilization. For Tunisians, appreciating diversity is a philosophy and a way of life as well. The important elements of Tunisian culture are diverse and represent a unique, mixed heritage. This heritage can be seen in the museums such as the Bardo Museum, in the contrast and diversity of city architecture such as Sidi-Bou-Said or the Medina of Tunis, in the national cuisine staples such as couscous which originates from the Berbers, in the music reflecting the Andalusian and Ottoman influences, religion, literature, cinema, etc.

Recently, a Tunisian Jew, René Trabelsi, became the minister in Tunisian goverment. It is a great step towards the reconciliation of different groups in the Mediterranean and building a civil society. Can others use Tunisia as a role model in this and many other areas?

– As I have mentioned in my previous answer, Tunisia takes its essence from diversity and has always been a land of peace, tolerance and co-existence between cultures and religions. Judaism is actually one of the ancient religions that were practiced in Tunisia. The Ghriba synagogue is thousands of years old where Jews from all over the world come for pilgrimage. The recent appointment of Mr. René Trabelsi as the Tourism Minister of is not the first one in our history. We had Jewish ministers and high officials on several occasions since we were a kingdom and after independence. We are proud that because of this we can be a role model to other countries.

OLD FRIENDS

Last but not least, Serbia and Tunisia have been friends for decades. We are thankful to Tunisia for its stance towards the Kosovo issue. What is your assessment of the billateral relations and what can we ecxpect in the future, including cultural cooperation?

Tunisia and Serbia have always maintained excellent level of bilateral relations based on friendship and cooperation. These relations resulted in the signing of several agreements in 2014 following the visit of the President of the Republic of Serbia to Tunisia. In terms of the depth of relations and cooperation between the two countries, I can say that 2017 and 2018 were very important for us, with the Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Mr. Khemaies Jhinaoui visiting Belgrade in December 2017, after 26 years. The first joint session of the Economic Cooperation Committee was held in Tunis in November 2018. Moreover, Tunisia has tried to participate in the most important trade fairs in Serbia in order to increase the dynamic of exchange between different technical structures of both countries. In the field of culture, 2019 looks promising as the Embassy’s goal is to organize a number of cultural activities in Belgrade in order to promote the Tunisian cultural life to the Serbian citizens.

Text: Žikica Milošević

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