No stability in Tunisia without stability in Libya: Tunisian FM

Tunisian Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Tunisian Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—The deteriorating security situation in Libya is having a debilitating effect on Tunisia’s own economy, security and stability, Tunisian Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi said.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Hamdi said: “Unfortunately, the Libyan problem has become a Tunisian problem, because its security, political, economic and social repercussions are affecting Tunisia. I do not believe that there can be any Tunisian stability without Libyan stability.”

The Tunisian Foreign Minister cited a number of negative effects that the Libyan crisis is having on Tunisia, including the decreasing local, regional and international confidence in investment in North Africa. He also said that the arrival of a large number of Libyan refugees in Tunisia is having a negative impact on the country’s economy.

Despite the problems, Hamdi said that Tunis is optimistic about a solution to the Libyan conflict, believing that internationally-backed efforts to hold a national dialogue will bear fruit. “We are optimistic about the prospects of reaching a political solution in Libya soon and ending the crisis,” he said.

Libya presently has two rival parliaments and governments. Tunisia and the majority of foreign powers recognize the parliament based out of Tobruk, in east Libya, which was elected last summer, over an Islamist-led government in the capital Tripoli. Libya’s government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thani, was formed by the Tobruk parliament although a decision by the country’s Supreme Court—based out of Tripoli—called for the dissolution of the parliament, something that the Tobruk-based body rejects.

“Tunisia took the initiative to support reconciliation between the different Libyan parties and I personally spoke with officials from a number of states who are concerned about the situation in Libya. We also sent a message to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon . . .calling for the Libyan brothers to work seriously to hold inter-Libyan national dialogue,” he added.

The Tunisian Foreign Minister stressed that his country is backing the mediation efforts of UN envoy Bernadino Leon, adding that “everybody must know that there is no alternative to a political solution in Libya.”

Commenting on Tunisian-Algerian diplomatic relations during this tense time, Hamdi said: “Relations are normal; we believe that our futures and destiny are one. The security of Tunisia is the security of Algeria and vice versa. There is a strong desire on the part of both countries to strengthen our relations.”

Regarding claims that more than 3,000 Tunisian nationals have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Hamdi said: “We were very upset when we heard about these figures and we are looking at what prompts Tunisians, who come from a country that is known for its social justice, to take up arms in these conflict zones. While we are upset by these reports, we are prepared for all possibilities.”

As for the possibilities that Tunisia is prepared to confront, he said: “I am talking about security issues, but we will deal with these within a legal framework. Specialist parties affiliated to the Interior Ministry have been tasked with dealing with those returning from the conflict zones . . . because many of them have been deceived.”

“They will be dealt with in all firmness and seriousness. The national interest must be our priority,” he added. Hamdi also confirmed that the authorities are working to clamp down on parties inciting Tunisian youth to travel abroad and take up arms, adding that a number of “networks” that facilitate the transfer of Tunisian fighters abroad have now been dismantled.

Veteran Sebsi leads Tunisian presidential race: exit polls

Presidential candidate and Nidaa Tounes party leader Beji Caid El-Sebsi leaves a polling station after casting his vote, during the first round of the Tunisian presidential election, in Soukra, outside the capital Tunis, on Sunday, November 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Mohamed Werteni)
Presidential candidate and Nidaa Tounes party leader Beji Caid El-Sebsi leaves a polling station after casting his vote, during the first round of the Tunisian presidential election, in Soukra, outside the capital Tunis, on Sunday, November 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Mohamed Werteni)

Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—Veteran Tunisian politician Beji Caid El-Sebsi leads the race to become Tunisia’s first directly elected president since the ouster of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, according to initial exit polls.

Sebsi’s campaign manager claimed he was ahead of his nearest rival, incumbent Moncef Marzouki, by at least 10 points, though he added there was a “strong possibility” the vote could go to a second round, according to the Associated Press.

Another vote will be held on December 31 between the top two candidates in the race if no candidate is able to gain at least 50 percent of the vote.

Figures from one polling company indicated Sebsi currently had 47 percent of the vote, with Marzouki on 27 percent. Other polling companies gave similar initial results, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Marzouki’s campaign manager, Adnan Munsir, told reporters on Sunday that the “worst case scenario” for Marzouki would be a second-round runoff with Sebsi, with a possibility still remaining for his candidate to jump ahead of Sebsi “by two to four percentage points.”

Initial figures from the country’s independent elections commission indicated turnout had reached around 54 percent of a total electorate of 5.3 million Tunisians, after figures from earlier in the day had pointed to a much lower 20 percent.

Sebsi, whose Nidaa Tounes party won a plurality in parliamentary elections on October 26, has run on a platform of returning stability to the country, which has seen a number of security problems and plummeting economic fortunes since kick-starting the Arab Spring in January 2011.

Some voters have been wary, however, of Sebsi’s past, with the 87-year-old having served as head of parliament during the Ben Ali era.

Marzouki, meanwhile, faces similar suspicions from voters, due to his links with the then-ruling Ennahda Movement, which helped bring him to power in 2011, and which many Tunisians are now wary of due to the turbulent period during which they were in power in parliament.

Speaking to a number of voters outside polling stations on Sunday, Asharq Al-Awsat found that many were still undecided on who to vote for up until the last minute.

Forty-year-old Rawda said she still hadn’t decided who to vote for, “but what I’m sure of is that I cannot vote for Sebsi. He will return to us Ben Ali’s men.”

Speaking of Marzouki, she said: “He is in cahoots with Ennahda. And he didn’t do anything for Tunisia [during his presidency]. He had his chance and he wasted it.”

Businessman Abdelghani Khedeira, who went to the polls in the morning, said he was voting for Sebsi, whom he hoped would win from the first round, and said he had gone to the polls as he wanted to do his “historic duty” for his country.

He added, explaining his vote for the octogenarian veteran: “Sebsi is an accomplished statesman who possesses experience and merit. He will return Tunisia’s prestige, and will put an end to the lack of security and chaos that the country is living through.”

Also speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Nawal Saleh, who came to vote with her husband and children, declined to reveal who she was voting for, but lamented what she saw as a low election turnout.

“I feel really bad because Tunisians have failed to realize the importance of their votes. I remember well the 2011 [parliamentary] elections; it was like a day of celebration, everyone was happy, and all the polling stations were crowded. Back then, we even heard [women] ululating. I don’t know why everyone is scared now . . . I think the security presence is worrying people, and that is why people are afraid of what will happen [if they come to vote].”

More than 50,000 security forces were sent to secure polling stations and public spaces across the country on Sunday, along with 30,000 members of the armed forces across polling stations.

Despite the day running generally smoothly, there were some violent instances. Amina El-Qalal, from NGO Human Rights Watch’s Tunisia office, told Asharq Al-Awsat some violent incidents had occurred on the day in the Western El-Karam region, some 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of the capital Tunis.

She added, however, that the incidents were “limited and won’t have an effect on the final results of the poll.”

Despite security troubles, political instability and a struggling economy, Tunisia is generally regarded to have fared better than fellow Arab Spring countries Libya and Egypt. The election of the new president is seen as the final step in the country’s transition to a fully fledged democratic system.

Monji Saidani contributed additional reporting.

UN Gaza investigator says will not resign despite Israeli pressure

This undated file photo shows UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) investigator William Schabas. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
This undated file photo shows UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) investigator William Schabas. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The head of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) probe into Israel’s war on Gaza has told Asharq Al-Awsat he will not resign from his post despite pressure to do so from the Israeli government and media.

Canadian international law expert and UNHRC investigator William Schabas told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I will not resign unless the UNHRC considers my presence as head of the committee to be a hindrance to the investigation.”

Israel’s media has fiercely criticized the UN’s decision to investigate the Gaza conflict for war crimes, particularly condemning Schabas’s appointment as head of the investigation.

Schabas had previously participated in the Russell Tribunal, a citizens’ group of legal experts and activists that charge Israel of having violated international law and which works to hold Israel accountable for such violations.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced that the appointment of Schabas as head of the committee proved that “Israel cannot expect justice from this organization [the UN].”

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Schabas denied accusations that he has pre-existing anti-Israeli sentiments. He said: “I do not hate Israel and I do not want to enter into an argument on my previous stances on Israel. I had stances on Palestine and Israel in the past which have no relation to my current task . . . and they will not affect the course of the investigation.”

“The committee only received objections from Israel and the United States, while the whole world wants to shed light on what took place in Gaza two months ago,” he added.

Schabas said the UNHRC committee he is heading will include a total of six or seven members who will gather eyewitness testimony regarding the events in Gaza. He added that a special website is due to be launched where citizens can provide testimony both in Arabic and Hebrew.

Schabas did acknowledge that UN investigations often fall foul of politics. “Political factors certainly influence UN work, but I hope that in a generation or two, the world will be more just and democratic,” he said.

The UNHRC Gaza probe will include Doudou Diène from Senegal, a former UN special rapporteur on racism, and former New York judge Justice Mary McGowan Davis. She replaces Amal Alamuddin, a UK lawyer who specializes in international law and human rights, who took the decision not to serve on the panel.

Schabas affirmed that the investigation is ready to get underway and that investigators will visit Gaza soon. The committee is expected to send its report to the UNHRC in March 2015.

Tunisian Defense Minister: War on terror requires patience

Tunisian Minister of National Defence Ghazi Jeribi speaks during a press conference at the Government Palace in Tunis, Tunisia on 17 July 2014. (EPA/Mohamed Messara)
Tunisian Minister of National Defence Ghazi Jeribi speaks during a press conference at the Government Palace in Tunis, Tunisia on 17 July 2014. (EPA/Mohamed Messara)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Minister of National Defense Ghazi Jeribi highlighted Tunisia’s efforts against terrorism, acknowledging that the war on terror is an asymmetrical war that requires patience.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Jeribi said that Tunisia is on course for “true democracy,” citing the Tunisian military’s commitment to political neutrality as one of the reasons for this development. He also acknowledged that the Tunisian military establishment is facing a number of tests, not least confronting terrorism and protecting the country’s borders, but said that the military will be able to meet challenges.

In a rare interview, the Tunisian Defense Minister spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the country’s war on terror, Tunisian attempts to secure its borders with Algeria and the recent resignation of Army Chief of Staff Mohamed Salah Hamdi.

Asharq Al-Awsat: The success of the Tunisian political experience can be attributed to the military, which distanced itself from political decision-making and is committed to the principle of political neutrality. But how long can the military keep up with this political neutrality? Is it time for change?

Ghazi Jeribi: The Tunisian military establishment is committed to defending its independence from politics and politicians and is committed to complete neutrality and remaining equidistant from all political parties and factions in the country, and as far as possible from political debates. This is because it has remained steadfast and committed to its primary mission according to the law and national duty. Moreover, this is a positive neutrality based on defending legitimacy and protecting the country from all internal and external threats.

Consequently, the military has contributed to a large extent to protecting the first stage of democratic transition by guaranteeing the normal course of life, socially and economically, as well as protecting state institutions and vital installations . . .as well as protecting Tunisia land and sea borders and airspace.

The military can also be credited with safeguarding and guaranteeing the National Constituent Assembly elections which today is working with the same determination [as the military] to complete the second stage of democratic transition after Tunisia has made great strides on its democratic course. Tunisia now has a constitution, an Independent Electoral High Commission and a set date for the next elections. I believe that all this paves the way for real democracy and the establishment of a state of law, freedom, justice and citizenship in Tunisia.

Q: Does the resignation of the head of the Tunisian army Mohamed Salah Hamdi have anything to do with the controversy surrounding the army’s performance?

Army Chief of Staff Mohamed Salah Hamdi’s submitted his resignation for personal reasons and I took the decision to accept this based on Chapter 27 of the military code on the basis that he has passed the retirement age and had been granted two one-year extensions to his military career on an exceptional basis.

I would like to take this occasion to express my thanks and appreciation to all officers, non-commission officers and soldiers who have served their country with sincerity and loyalty. The appointment of new army Chief of Staff Ismail Al-Fathali comes within the framework of changing positions and because change in strategy sometimes requires a change in personnel. The new Chief of Staff meets the conditions and capabilities required of him and have the attributes and capabilities to succeed in this post.

Q: Is Tunisia’s military establishment successfully coping with the demands of the war on terrorism, particularly given the human losses that it has suffered?

The war on terror is not a traditional war between two regular armies; it is an asymmetrical war between a regular army and extremist organizations that rely on surprise. This requires a review of organizations and strategies until these extremist organizations are being combatted in the appropriate manner . . .including forming new combat units and taking advantage of the experience of fraternal and friendly countries that have passed through the same ordeal.

Overall, the war on terror requires a lot of patience and the losses that we have suffered should not discourage us from uprooting the scourge of terrorism.

Q: Has Tunisia intensified its cooperation with security agencies in the recent period, in line with the increasing terrorist presence in the country?

Cooperation with security agencies is ongoing and has been strengthened in response to the nature of the threats we are facing during the current period. We have put in place new mechanisms to guarantee close coordination and facilitate intelligence sharing. As for field operations, new specialized units have been created to intervene in urban and non-urban environments to combat terrorism. Recent operations have confirmed the efficiency of these new specialized units.

Over the past few weeks, a number of changes have taken place within the military institution, including strengthening counter-terrorism intelligence gathering; creating a special unit to monitor terrorist groups; creating a unit to look at ways that these gangs recruit members; and using recently acquired armored vehicles in operations.

Q: Tunisia’s borders with Libya are increasingly porous, particularly given the escalating security unrest taking place in the neighboring country. To what extent can Tunisia’s military secure the border region?

It is difficult for any country to completely and absolutely secure its land borders. Following the security deterioration in Libya, Tunisia’s military establishment has been able to put into place a security mechanism that allowed it to secure its borders, despite the difficulties caused by the influx of refugees [from Libya] in the recent period.

The transformations taking place in the region, as well as the high frequency of smuggling, increasing rates of organized crime and cross-border infiltration and terrorism, has created a complex security situation on the Tunisian-Libyan borders. In addition to this, Libya is still in the process of a difficult transition phase, trying to stabilize the political scene in the country. We are all committed today to resolving the issues that arose during the 2011 revolution, and the subsequent arms smuggling, to put in place an effective and vigilant military and security system and make the border region safe.

Q: There is talk about security cooperation between Tunisia and Algeria to confront the border issues together. Have any military or security pacts been signed?

Tunisian-Algerian military cooperation is being looked at with great interest from both sides. We have worked to support and develop this and move towards true partnership in the fields of training and exchanging experience, including responding to the requirements of the two national armies and enhancing their operational capabilities.

In response to the nature of the current stage, a security agreement was signed between Tunisia and Algeria in May in the fields of combatting cross-border terrorism and organized crime. This agreement revolves around four points; securing control of the border; coordinating field operations and establishing operational coordination over border security; establishing partnership in the fields of sharing information and intelligence; exchanging experience and expertise in the fields of border security and increased specialized training.

This is an abridged version of an interview originally published in Arabic.

Hamadi Jebali: Tunisian president must be above partisan politics

File photo of Hamadi Jebali in Tunis in July 2013. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
File photo of Hamadi Jebali in Tunis in July 2013. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
File photo of Hamadi Jebali in Tunis in July 2013. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—Former Tunisian prime minister Hamadi Jebali told Asharq Al-Awsat that, should he run in presidential elections set to be held by the end of the year, it will be as an independent candidate without the backing of his Ennahda party.

The former Ennahda party Secretary-General made his comments a day after Tunisia’s constituent assembly confirmed both presidential and legislative elections will be held by the end of the year. Tunisia’s elections chief told the press on Saturday that the poll would likely be held in November.

This round of elections, the second since the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, will be held amid ongoing concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Ennahda party, of which Jebali is a member, and its ability to govern. The Ennahda government led by Rachid Ghannouchi, who took over from Jebali after his resignation in February 2013, was forced to resign in March this year following protracted negotiations between his ruling coalition, known as the troika, and civil society leaders.

Although the common account runs that Jebali was forced to resign over his inability to form his desired technocratic cabinet amid instability following the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaïd, the Tunisian statesman implicated his predecessor’s mismanagement in his inability to govern effectively in comments to Asharq Al-Awsat.

Asharq Al-Awsat: You recently announced your resignation as Secretary-General of the Ennahda Movement, and that if you stand in the presidential elections it will be as an independent candidate. Do you still hold firm to this decision?

Hamadi Jebali: In the statement that I issued after my resignation from the General Secretariat, I confirmed that this decision is final and irreversible.

Q: How do you respond to those who say that you only resigned your post as prime minister as a prelude to announcing your presidential candidacy?

My resignation has nothing to do with the elections, and I clarified that I took this decision for a number of personal and objective reasons.

Q: Does your resignation as the secretary-general of Ennahda represent your resignation from the Ennahda movement as a whole?

My resignation as secretary-general does not necessarily mean my withdrawal from the party as a whole. I am still a member of Ennahda, but if I do stand in the [presidential] elections—and I will decide whether to do so at a later stage—I will stand as an independent candidate.

Q: Don’t you think it would be better to run as an Ennahda candidate, given the guaranteed support base that comes with Ennahda backing?

My view is that it is vital for the next president to be a consensus candidate, for him to be an independent figure who has nothing to do with partisan politics. The presidency should be a shelter for all Tunisians, and this is difficult to achieve if the president represents a political party. Tunisia needs a president who will work for all Tunisians.

Q: Was this your plan from the beginning, or did you change your mind following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, particularly with Islamist former president Mohamed Mursi now in the dock?

During my attempts to form a technocratic government, I was certain that we were facing a period that requires a government that stays away from political division and which has a clear program to restore the constitution and move towards elections as soon as possible. We could have achieved this within a year, but unfortunately we were too late, not just for reasons relating to the troika government and its member parties, but also because of the opposition and the general situation in Tunisia.

I am convinced that in the next post-election phase we must work to achieve the idea of a technocratic coalition government where the president is above party political concerns. This is because the country will be facing difficult economic, social and security problems during the next phase. In light of this, it will be too difficult for any political party to unilaterally govern the country while also dealing with battles with the political opposition. This was my belief even before the events in Egypt, and I believe that Tunisia needs a five- to ten-year period of [political] harmony.

Q: You faced a number of obstacles during your premiership, and ultimately took the decision to resign. Don’t you have concerns about standing for the presidency?

There is something we must clarify: the opposition and some media figures always rush to say that Hamadi Jebali “failed.” The opposition has put forward this view as evidence that the troika failed and that Ennahda failed, but this view is based on bad intentions. I never announced that my government or the troika had failed. I said that it had failed in some things and succeeded in others. The best evidence of this is our political and constitutional situation today. As for our economic and social problems, I do not think that any government could have resolved them.

From the beginning, I spoke frankly to the Tunisian people and told them that I had taken office for a specific period, but that period was extended. The opposition, civil organizations and trade unions who organized strikes and protests must take their share of responsibility for this, and so must the remnants of the former regime and even the government of Beji Caid El-Sebsi [the first post-revolution prime minister, from February 2011–December 2011]. The same applies to the security situation. In any case, we want to ensure the endurance of the state, success of the constitution and achievement for Tunisia as a whole. If I do stand for the presidential elections, then my previous government experience will be an asset I can build on.

Q: You have mentioned the performance of the Sebsi government before—what is your opinion of it?

Although I do not want to make the issue personal, everybody now knows what the Sebsi government did just before the elections, particularly in terms of expanding the size and purview of the civil service, while the security situation was also very bad. I do not say that either Sebsi or I failed, but it was clear that my government inherited a very difficult situation. Let me confirm once again that Tunisia cannot bear any more confrontations, nor can it bear the traditional concept of government and opposition. Yes, there is an opposition but it needs to make concerted efforts to participate.

This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.

EU Parliament VP: The Union for the Mediterranean has failed

File photo of European Parliament Vice President Gianni Pittella. (Asharq Al-Awsat/James Hanna)
European Parliament Vice President Gianni Pittella. (Asharq Al-Awsat/James Hanna)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—European Parliament Vice President Gianni Pittella said that Europe and the Arab world must look to develop a new “project of cooperation” following the failure of the Union for the Mediterranean.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat in London this week, Pittella spoke about relations between the European Union and the Arab world, the Arab Spring and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Gianni Pittella is an Italian politician from Basilicata, in southern Italy. He is a member of the Italian Democratic Party who has been a member of the European Parliament since 1999.

Asharq Al-Awsat: You have often highlighted the importance of cooperation between Europe and the Arab world. What is your vision for realizing this?

Gianni Pittella: The Union for the Mediterranean has failed, and we now need a new framework to develop a new project of cooperation between Europe and the Arab world. I think we should focus on more concrete and specific projects, in particular in the field of education. Human capital is the most important asset in today’s society.

Q: There is an ongoing debate about right-wing political parties in Europe gaining ground. Why do you think this is and how do you expect this to affect the Arab and Muslim communities living in Europe?

This is a complicated issue. I think that we need a symmetrical effort both from the political system and from the Muslim communities to marginalize extremist forces.

Q: The conflict in Syria not only poses a threat to regional stability, but has also had a terrible humanitarian cost. Although the EU expressed deep concern about the situation in Syria from the start, you have been relatively slow in working to resolve this issue. Why is that?

This is because the EU effectively has no foreign policy. In terms of humanitarian assistance, the EU Commission is already doing a lot, but we need a political answer and Europe will always be unable to respond politically unless member-states devolve more powers in terms of foreign policy to the EU.

Q: The Arab Spring has seen new stages of unrest in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. What are the main reasons for this?

The transition to democracy is a very complicated process and it does take years. It takes time. The previous authoritarian regimes left very weak political structures, and now it’s time to rebuild a democratic system. Let me add that these three countries are also experiencing very different situations . . . although in Tunisia the outcomes are quite positive.

Q: What do you think of the new Tunisian government, and the new Tunisian constitution?

It is a very important step towards a more democratic and free Tunisia. It is also an indication that the Arab revolutions are still an open process.

Q: What is your view of the idea that the Arab people are not yet ready for democracy? Do you agree with such views?

Not at all . . . Democracy is a universal value which does not belong only to the West. That is why we have experienced the Arab revolutions.

Q: Education and culture lead the way to improving society. How do you evaluate the state of education and culture in Europe today? Are European education and culture institutions coping well with new technologies and new media?

We have to do more . . . Non-material resources like the Internet should be supported in a more assertive way. I call for the launch of a special government program at the European level to support the digital society. The French government has already launched a proposal. Now, the Italian presidency of the EU in the next semester has to put into this issue at the center of its agenda.

Q: What about the EU’s take on Britain? In light of the growing public euroskepticism within the UK, what do you think the British public needs to hear ahead of the European Parliament elections scheduled for May?

The British public should not surrender to populism. The main economic players in the UK have been clear: the UK leaving the EU would be a disaster for the British economy. If the voters want to change Europe the best thing to do is to participate within the decision making process.

Q: The European economy has been a key issue for you—and indeed, all of Europe—during your time in Parliament, and you have long supported the issuance of Eurobonds even though this would widen the gap between the UK and the Eurozone. Do you agree that this move will only serve to further alienate Britain from the European community?

No one in Europe wants to exclude the UK, but sometimes I am under the impression that they want to exclude themselves. The debt service in the Eurozone is too high, and for this reason we need Eurobonds. If the UK wants to join the Eurobond initiative, they are more than welcome.

Q: With Europe still facing the after-effects of the economic crisis, do you think that that new legislation that helps open the door to others is vital now?

What does “others” mean? Who are the “others”? Romanians, Bulgarians, Italians, Germans? They are not the others; they are Europeans, since they have European citizenship. And let me remind you that hundreds of thousands of Britons live abroad, particularly in southern Europe. If the UK wants to close its doors to Europeans, the other European countries will do the same and that is not a good result.

In conversation with BBC news anchor Wafa Zaiane

File photo of the BBC's Wafa Zaiane. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
File photo of the BBC’s Wafa Zaiane. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Wafa Zaiane is the first Tunisian news anchor to appear on the BBC since it first began broadcasting more than 75 years ago. She is known as a conscientious broadcaster, often appearing in the field to get a scoop. In addition to appear behind the news anchor desk, Zaiane also hosts the well-received Ana Shahid (Eye Witness) television show.

In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat Wafa Zaiane looks back at her career in the media, speaking about how she first got involved with journalism, her journalistic role-models, and her view of contemporary Arab media.

This interview has been edited for length.

Asharq Al-Awsat: How did you get involved in journalism? Was there a specific moment when you were certain that this was the right career path for you?

Wafa Zaiane: After completing my Masters in Translation and Linguistics from Westminster University in London in 1999, I decided to turn a new page in my professional life. I must admit that at that point I was not sure if I wanted to get into journalism but my curiosity drove me to join the United Press International (UPI) in London. Perhaps what was happening in the world played an important part in drawing me into journalism, as I was greatly influenced by the rapid changes taking place around me in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and its major influence on the Middle East.

A lust for the truth and a love of spreading this has always been one of my greatest attributes, so I decided to stick to this field instead of pursuing an academic career as I had originally planned. I realized that I was in the right place when I joined the Arabic team at the highly esteemed British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). At the BBC, I moved from writing to broadcasting, and soon found myself facing one of my greatest challenges, namely reading the news.

I don’t hide the fact that I am extremely proud to be the first Tunisian to read the news on the BBC since it was first established in 1938. However my news reading did not take away from my journalism and field work, which I have continued as host of BBC Extra, which was launched in 2005.

With the launch of BBC Arabic I moved to the newsroom and joined its team of presenters. I currently present the program Ana Shahid which explores topics in the media by citizen journalists, from recorded coverage on the ground, to live coverage from London and abroad.

Q: What is your most memorable story?

In my career in radio and television, I have reported on many emotional events that have affected me on a personal level. Most notably was the revolution in my home country Tunisia, where I reported on events live during the first days of the revolution.

One event I would like to see and cover, from both a personal and professional angle, is the election of the first Arab female prime minister or president.

Q: Who is your journalistic role model?

Like every other Tunisian, I followed the late presenter Naijib Al-Khattab who was known for his sharp language and smooth delivery. He was excellent at debating with his guests, whether they were political, literary or cultural figures. Yet, I believe that I learnt the most at the BBC; nobody who enters the BBC leaves the same.

Q: What media figure, in your view, could serve as a suitable journalistic role-model for Tunisia?

Jeremy Paxman, the famous British presenter, is well known for his insistence on getting honest remarks from his guests without being rude or vulgar. This is this is something we lack in the Arab media landscape.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about your day-to-day life in the media? Does your family life suffer as a result of this?

I work about forty hours per week which is standard under British employment laws during which I perform a variety of duties. I only feel stressed or tired when I can’t meet the goals I have set for myself. I also get three days off a week which helps me make time to take care of my family and home life, but I am always interacting with the news. I remember in the summer of 2011, I insisted on joining my husband—also a journalist—when he decided to go down to the streets to investigate the violence in the London riots.

Q: Do you believe that news coverage is an individual, or team effort?

Whenever I present the news I consider what the audience is watching to be the result of a whole team effort from the editor-in-chief to the editors and video technicians. Therefore, I consider myself responsible for presenting the efforts of all these people in the best possible light, and this is the same responsibility I carry regarding my radio listeners.

Q: What’s your view of new media? Do you believe this will take over the role of the traditional media?

Firstly, without new media we would not have the show Ana Shahid which depends on this kind of citizen journalism. New media has definitely tipped the scales, especially when it comes to reporting the latest up-to-date information in the Arab world. This is without a doubt the best way of collecting instant responses, and it is an incredible source for news and information. At the same time, however, it presents a real challenge for the traditional news agencies because of the difficulty of authenticating what is being reported in this manner.

Q: Do you believe specialization is important in journalism? For example, for a journalist to have an area or region of expertise, such as Iraq, or Al-Qaeda?

A specialized correspondent is always a strong addition to any newsroom; knowledge is a great competitive advantage. Personally, I appreciate sports journalists or economist journalists because they are more knowledgeable about their own field.

However, personally, I prefer diversity in my work, sometimes reporting from a war zone, while at other times from the red carpet.

Q: What is your favorite news blog or website?

As I am living in the UK, I follow the digital versions of all the major newspapers including The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, and the Economist in addition to all the leading Arabic papers. Like the majority of London residents, I like to read the news while on my daily commute to and from work.

Q: What advice would you give to young journalists at the beginning of their career?

My advice to young journalists would be to pursue this profession only if they truly love it because it has its pitfalls.

Q: Can you describe what you view as a successful journalist or media professional?

A successful journalist, in my opinion, is one who has the talent and ability to report the news simply and seamlessly however complicated it may. With regards to presenting, it is the visual presence which is of upmost importance, for without that the presenter simply cannot communicate their message. Of course, this comes after some other necessary attributes including expertise, curiosity and objectivity in handling the news they are dealing with. This last issue has perhaps been lost thanks to the polarized state of the media that we are now experiencing.

Q: In your opinion, what has been your most successful news story to date?

I am very proud of my coverage of the Arab Spring, especially in Tunisia. I traveled from the capital Tunis, where the fate of the country was determined, to Sidi Bouzid the cradle of the Arab Spring, and I was one of the few journalists to interview Fadia Hamdi, the woman accused of slapping Mohamed Bouazizi.

Bahraini Justice Minister: The View from the Dialogue

Bahrain's Justice Minister Khalid Al Khalifa, speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. (AP)
Bahrain’s Justice Minister, Khalid Al Khalifa, speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. (AP)
Manama, Asharq Al-Awsat—Sheikh Khalid Bin Ali Al Khalifa, the Bahraini Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs, called for the opposition parties to return to the National Dialogue, adding that their boycott of the dialogue session was illogical.

Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Sheikh Khalid—who is a leading member of the ministerial team representing the government at the national dialogue—said: “The dialogue will continue; it will not stop until its objectives are achieved.” He added that the excuses given by the five opposition groups for suspending their participation in the dialogue sessions were unacceptable and akin to political extortion.

“Returning to dialogue is the only way for Bahrainis to overcome the current crisis and its numerous complications,” he said.

The five groups that make up the National Democratic Opposition Parties suspended their participation in the national dialogue in September following the arrest of leading Wefaq opposition figure Khalil Al-Marzouq on charges of inciting terrorism.

Sheikh Khalid told Asharq Al-Awsat that “a consultation session was held last week between participants in the dialogue, which was not attended by the five opposition groups who suspended their participation.” He said that the meeting discussed the message sent by the opposition to the Justice Minister on September 18, which announced the suspension of their participation and called for the release of all those held on terrorism charges. However, the Bahraini Justice Minister said that the participants cannot agree to the opposition’s demands, adding that the constitution must be respected.

The Minister said: “The three parties taking part in the recent consultation meeting pointed out that the security of the country and its people are not up for negotiation,” and that “the recent escalation in terrorism in the Kingdom resulted in a meeting of the National Council on July 28, which made a number of important recommendations on confronting terrorism. These terrorist threats, however, were not condemned by the five opposition groups, despite the threat they pose to national security, and to political and social stability. They [the opposition] did not take a clear and firm stance regarding these acts of terror.”

He added, “What is needed–instead of adopting a negative attitude by suspending their participation in the dialogue–is for the opposition to demonstrate a clear stance towards this terrorist threat, and to announce an unequivocal condemnation which is equal to the public resolve as embodied by the National Council regarding terrorist violence. Instead of suspending their participation in the dialogue, they should have supported the government’s judicial measures against the incitement of terrorism and open support for this phenomenon.”

“This includes what happened during an event held by one of the opposition groups, in which an opposition leader blatantly announced support for a terrorist organization, a fact that is documented and in the public domain. That will not be ignored, because it is a blatant violation of the law,” Sheikh Khalid told Asharq Al-Awsat.

As for the four points of national concession agreed prior to the national dialogue, which began in 2012, the Sheikh Khalid summed them up as following:

“First, dialogue is the only way for participants to resolve political problems and to rationalize the conflicts and arguments that keep the crisis going. The [opposition’s] constant suspension of their participation is unfair on the participants, and political blackmail is not acceptable,” he said

“Second, one of the obvious ploys is the excuse used to suspend participation . . . as if what was required was the immediate automatic acceptance of all visions and proposals, not achieving consensus on them, and not having discussed them. This would mean that the dialogue loses its purpose and viability, because it would turn into a body merely imposing conditions on others,” he added.

“Therefore, it is imperative to stress the importance of accepting the logic of dialogue, its mechanisms and its aims. . . . Dialogue depends on national consensus and is not tied to conditions, and no real or serious progress can be made outside of a consensus,” the minister said.

As for the third point of consensus, the Justice Minister said this was “the agreement on rejecting rebellion against state institutions and the constant casting of doubt about them and rejecting the distrust of the judiciary—because the principles of the sovereignty of law and independence of the judiciary cannot be compromised—in addition to confirming that no one is above the law, regardless of their religious or political position.”

“These are the most important principles on which a civil state is built—a state of law and institutions. The adherence to the state of law means ending demands not to enforce laws,” he added.

Regarding the fourth point of consensus, Sheikh Khaled turned his attention to the five opposition groups and their boycotting of the dialogue. “The excuses used by the five opposition groups regarding what they term ‘prisoners of conscience’ to suspend their participation in the dialogue is totally rejected, because it is based on a misunderstanding. There are no prisoners of conscience in Bahrain today, only people who have been convicted of committing crimes according to law—unless these groups consider breaking the law to be a form of opinion,” he said.

Sheikh Khalid told Asharq Al-Awsat: “There is no alternative to the dialogue table to discuss all political issues that concern the state and its citizens. The suspension of participation contributes to increasing the tension and delaying the opportunities for a solution. That is why the dialogue will continue until the five [opposition] groups join.”

Sheikh Khalid added, “The five groups must clearly declare their respect for the constitution and the law, and for the state of law, and their clear and unequivocal rejection of all forms of violence and the violation of the authority of the law, disowning all violent and terrorist acts which are carried out daily by lawless groups without any open condemnation.”

In Conversation with Tunisia’s Central Bank Governor

File photo of Tunisia Central Bank Governor Chadli Ayari. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
File photo of Tunisian central bank Governor Chadli Ayari. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat against the backdrop of the G8 Deauville Partnership Investment conference in London, Tunisian central bank Governor Chadli Ayari discussed the bleak economic situation in the country post-Arab Spring, blaming the political stalemate for the country’s financial woes.

Chadli Ayari highlighted the effect that Tunisia’s political crisis is having on the economy, saying that the country could be facing a “disastrous situation” if this is not resolved by the end of the year. The central bank governor called for austerity measures, saying that the country will likely not have the resources to increase wages in 2014.

Asharq Al-Awsat: During your visit to London you attended the G8 Deauville Partnership Investment conference held by the British foreign ministry. What is the most important work being done by this conference?

Chadli Ayari: The conference is part of the G8 summit. It is important as it includes the largest economies in the world and they have embraced the so-called Arab Spring nations.

Q: What do you mean by “embracing” these nations?

I mean that they will help find solutions to restart economic development in those countries. They’ve tried to widened their scope. Their projects were limited to Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt of course. Now they’ve included Morocco and Jordan, given that those countries are also facing transitional periods. They believe these nations need support from Western nations. So the Deauville Partnership was established through an agreement that was signed in Deauville, France, more than two years ago to support the Arab Spring nations.

Q: Two years ago Britain and the West were generally more excited about helping the Arab Spring, states but now it seems there is some apathy. Has the West’s willingness to support the Arab Spring nations really changed?

I won’t say that the the West is apprehensive, but they’re certainly questioning things. They took a particular course of action. Although they didn’t favor the Islamists, they worked with them in the hopes of advancing the so-called moderate Islam solution. They were hoping for stability and democracy, but developments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt contradicted their expectations. Their political calculations were disappointed as developments took an unexpected turn. For instance, they expected that the return of the Islamists would be a return of moderate and democratic Islam. However, they saw that the removal of the dictators led to Islamic extremism and a form of terrorism. This was not the scenario they wanted. They found themselves dealing with havens for terrorism. Now they have to address a variable they had not accounted for: the threat of terrorism. In Syria, for example, Islamic extremism has taken over the opposition threatening the Afghanization of Syria.

Q: Are the post-revolution nations facing the same economic difficulties?

No. Everyone should know that each nation is facing its own particular situation. What is happening in Egypt is different than what is happening in Libya. Every nation is different, and addressing all of problems in the same way would be a mistake. The “Arab Spring” is a label for many countries facing different problems.

Q: Experts and the opposition in Tunisia has condemned the manner in which the financial and economic situation has been administrated, saying this has led to a reliance on loans.

Whomever criticizes us should first know the situation we’re dealing with. Three-quarters of those criticizing us don’t know the actual state of the country. We’ve been financially weak for some time. You can’t create wealth without investment. If you want investment you have to look for sources of funding and that basically depends on national savings, and our domestic resources, and the difference between the investment that we need and the resources we have available. Anyone who criticizes us on the the subject of loans is mistaken.

Today, Tunisia’s debts are between 45 and 46 percent of our production. Compared to other countries that is acceptable and controllable. The important thing in accepting loans is how to use the funds. If I wanted to take loans to fund everyday consumption that would be a problem. But taking loans to create industrial or agricultural growth is not a problem at all. In the future you’ll gain revenue from what you’ve created. The issue is misuse.

Q: Is it true that all of the loans taken out by Tunisia will be spent on wages because the government cannot support the wages of its employees?

No, that is incorrect. I won’t hide that fact that we wanted the bulk of the loans to go towards development alone. But that didn’t happen because of the pressure of wages and oil and food subsidies, which amount to TND 3–4 billion. Oil prices are steadily increasing and gas is an important factor. This puts pressure on all resources and draws on hard currency. It is like a cancer.

Q: Did you not find cooperation from within the government regarding the implementation of this plan?

Right now, we’re repeating the same rhetoric with every budget. We warn the government that the budget after the revolution must be an austerity budget. It is impossible to have a revolution it its early years without a period of austerity.

Q: What answer have you received from the government?

So far, the austerity plan is not included in the Tunisian budget. And we’re paying the price for it. We’re discussing the 2014 budget right now and it appears that for the first time the government is heading towards limiting expenses. But we can’t continue like this. Austerity in consumption particularly. I don’t imagine that we have the resources to increase wages in 2014.

Q: Given the transitional circumstances, the government could believe that imposing austerity measures would put them in danger of being removed from power. Doesn’t this therefore place them in a predicament?

Of course. I totally agree. That’s correct. But our roles are different. My role now as the central bank governor is to set of the alarm, given that I am independent. I’ve said this before. We’ve said and repeated that the financial and economic situation has reached a critical phase. When I took the position as governor of the central bank 13 months ago, I was more optimistic. I wasn’t unduly optimistic. I was talking about the possible return to economic growth. but I began to doubt that last February after the assassination of Chokri Belaid. Even with those difficulties, I was still optimistic.

But the situation has gotten worse. After the July 25 assassination of Mohammed Brahmi things changed with the calls for the fall of the government. A week ago I met with President Marzouki and I told him that if the political situation in the country does not stabilize the economy will suffer, because the economy is a hostage to politics. We have the capability to restart the economy and we have help from other nations. We, as experts, can create wealth in Tunisia. But, I’ll give you a simple example: the mine strikes. I can’t put together a plan because I don’t know what my revenue from phosphates will be, for example. That is connected to the policies of the Tunisian General Labor Union [the largest union in Tunisia]. I can’t present certain guarantees for the economy. It’s not that I’m not able to. Circumstances won’t allow it. We have delegations of foreign investors that have stopped coming. We asked them not to come because we’re wondering, who will they meet with? And they’re asking: Do you have a political plan? The answer is clear, we don’t.

Q: Do you see any hopes for a political solution on the horizon in Tunisia, especially since, as you said, the economy is a hostage to politics?

We’ve come to the end of the road. The transitional period is almost over and there has been a significant shift. Now, everyone wants the transitional period to end. This includes the people and the opposition. There has been a shift in the left, right and center. Everyone wants stability. But there isn’t a shared national consciousness. Everyone wants to get into a position and hold onto it. There are greater interests that aren’t being considered.

The focus on development isn’t there. All the thinking is in politics, and the economy is put to the side. There is a sense that the economy isn’t a priority.

Q: Do you think that continued economic decline could bring down the current government in Tunisia?

I’ll say that if there isn’t an awareness of the need to save the economy from collapse by the end of 2013, Tunisia could reach a disastrous state. We’ve put off dealing with this. I’ve said for months that every day the economic solution is absent is a political disaster. We’re still holding it together to some extent. We are in a very critical phase. I don’t have a political solution as I am independent.

I will tell politicians this: You are spending more than your resources allow. The cake you want to divide amongst yourselves won’t be there. What will you give out? Poverty? If democracy meant spreading poverty then that’s it, there is no hope.

Q: How will the Tunisian dinar remained stable despite all of these problems?

The dinar stores the country’s problems. Currency is confidence. You don’t have any other power. Currently, it is falling compared to strong currencies like the euro and the dollar. Since the revolution the dinar has dropped between 10 and 15 percent of its value, which reflects the decline in the Tunisian economy. Currency has declined due to the low exports and a drop in production. Europe is in a crisis which negatively affects the dinar. What do we do when we see it declining? We buy dinar, injecting hard currency. Observers could think about doubting the dinar and the economy. Currency is a coward, and we’re afraid to venture into it. The Tunisian exporter should place the currency in his account to use it as a resource.

Q: How has currency smuggling from Libya affected things?

Since the Libyan revolution we’ve seen the export and introduction of billions of dollars and securities in the parallel market on the border. The introduction of an unmonitored currency has disrupted our calculations. If you go to the regions near the borders, currency is sold like bread. But, thankfully, they’re selling it at near-official prices. Every week we see reports that they’ve stopped someone carrying more than EUR 100,000 into Tunisia. We’ve seen lists hundreds of pages long. We’re trying our best to address it but confidence is shaky.

Q: Is Tunisia headed for inflation?

Unfortunately, we’ve reached inflation rates we never expected. At 6 percent we’re not the worst in the world, but these are the worst rates we’ve seen in Tunisia since the 1970s. Inflation reached 6.5 percent, but in the last few months we started to see a decline. In August rates dropped below 6 percent and the trend is declining. But it’s worrisome, because we’re not used to it and there are calls for increasing wages. We have problems, there is no doubt about that.

Bahrain: National Consensus Dialogue nears agreement on core values

Protesters, holding Bahraini flags and anti-government banners, march during a rally organized by Bahrain's main opposition group Al Wefaq, in Budaiya west of Manama, July 5, 2013. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)
Protesters holding Bahraini flags and anti-government banners march during a rally organized by Bahrain’s main opposition group, Al-Wefaq, in Budaiya, west of Manama, on July 5, 2013. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)

London/ Manama, Asharq Al-Awsat—In a session held Wesneday, the working group of Bahrain’s National Consensus Dialogue reached a consensus on a number of principles and fundamentals values, Asharq Al-Awsat has learned.

Bahrain’s education minister, Majid Ali bin Al-Nuaimi, told Asharq Al-Awsat by telephone that the session was “positive and fruitful. . . . Therefore, it managed to emerge with a mutual vision and a unified formula for the consensual principles, values and fundamentals that will serve as a basis for the dialogue, pushing it towards achieving national consensus among the different participants, including representatives of the government, the political societies and independent [figures] from the legislative authority.”

Nuaimi said that Wednesday’s session explored the agreed principles and fundamentals and discussed a proposal submitted by the country’s five political societies on the same topic.

Among the principles and values discussed were good governance, judicial independence, easing access to the judiciary, while holding free and fair elections according to international best practice, affirming political pluralism, and the rejection of quotas based on sect, gender, race, language, religion or faith.

Nuaimi said: “It became clear in this session that the activity of the working group was positive and fruitful,” adding that a “a unified proposal has been drafted and will be proposed in the forthcoming public session, a thing that will undoubtedly help [the dialogue] follow the agenda and quicken its pace towards achieving national consensuses and positive results that will end the state of polarization and defuse tension.”

The education minister told Asharq Al-Awsat that he was optimistic about the future of dialogue sessions, saying: “Dialogue is an inevitability and necessity among brothers, even if they disagree. . . . I believe that the dialogue sessions held over the past months were beneficial and necessary to progress towards national consensus.”

“I think everybody is aware and convinced of this matter and wants truly to arrive at a consensual solution,” he said, adding, “We as Bahrainis have no choice but to reach consensus. It is our fate and future.”

The working group is comprised of the Minister of Justice Shaikh, Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa, and the Minister of Education, Majid bin Ali Al-Nuaimi, who represent the government; Abdulaziz Abul and Sawsan Hajji Taqawi representing the legislative authority; Khalid Mohammed Al-Qattan and Ahmed Sanad Al-Binali representing the Coalition of National Political Societies; and Hafidh Ali and Majeed Milad Ahmed from the national democratic opposition societies.

Abeed Al-Suhaimy contributed reporting.