‘Fighting terrorism is the Libyans’ task,’ says Tunisian foreign minister
TUNIS - “Fighting terrorism is the task of Libyans before being that of the international community,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui told The Arab Weekly in an exclusive interview.
US fighter jets conducted strikes on February 19th against an Islamic State (ISIS) target in the Libyan town of Sabratha, 70km from the Tunisian border, killing about 50 people. Two rival governments have been vying for the control of Libya since the power vacuum was created after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s autocratic regime in 2011.
There has been talk of possible Western military intervention in Libya to stop attempts by ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates to expand their presence in the country.
“We want our Libyan brothers to move ahead with their Government of National Accord. We look forward to that government being endorsed by the Tobruk parliament and to be established very soon in Tripoli,” Jhinaoui said, referring to the parliament of the internationally recognised government in the eastern city of Tobruk.
According to Jhinaoui, Tunisia “is ready to provide every effort to help the government take root and be the body that leads Libya’s efforts to rebuild the country and fight terrorism”.
In mid-February, Libya’s Presidential Council named members of a revised unity government but infighting within the internationally recognised parliament hindered its final endorsement.
“We share the view according to which priority should be given to rebuilding the state and allowing it to play its rightful role,” Jhinaoui said. The role of the international community should “be within the framework of the United Nations”, he added.
Diplomats and security analysts say 750 militias and armed gangs operate across Libya, with the main militias backing one of the two rival governments.
Tunisia, noted Jhinaoui, places “great importance on the contributions of countries of the region towards the stability and security of Libya”.
It will host a meeting of foreign ministers of Libya’s neighbours on March 21st-22nd.
On the home front, Jhinaoui insisted that “real and tangible progress” had been made in boosting security readiness and efficiency in addressing terrorist threats.
Terrorist incidents in 2015 caused the death of 59 foreign tourists in Tunisia and virtually ruined the tourism sector, which accounts for 7% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and is its main hard currency earner.
Beyond the economic cost, it was, however, the human toll of the attacks that has had the most effect on Tunisians. Jhinaoui said: “We have lived the deaths of foreign tourists as a national tragedy.
“We have thoroughly reviewed and enhanced our security procedures since the 2015 incidents. Tunisian security forces have retaken the initiative in combating and preventing terrorism.
“Nobody is immune from the risk of terror attacks but we are determined not to spare any effort that is humanly possible to curtail such risk.”
Since the terrorist attack on the beach resort of Sousse in June 2015, Jhinaoui said Tunisia has kept its international partners abreast of efforts it has undertaken to improve security measures around airports and other travel installations. A steering committee, including representatives of the Group of Seven countries as well as Belgium, Spain and the European Union, has taken part in that process.
“We are hopeful our partners will take into consideration the tangible and real progress achieved when formulating their future travel advisories,” Jhinaoui said.
Following the terrorist attack in Sousse, Britain’s Foreign Office warned against travel to Tunisia. Some other European countries followed suit.
Beside the security issues, the Tunisian government is focused on improving social and economic indicators, Jhinaoui said.
“Democracy will be at risk without an adequate economic recovery,” he said.
The Tunisian government is pressing ahead with a package of economic reforms to create a “better environment for business and investment”, he said.
Government officials and experts say Tunisia needs to expand investment, mainly from foreign and local private sources, to at least 35% of its GDP from 25% currently, in order to energise growth and satisfy the urgent demands for jobs.
The country’s unemployment rate is more than 15% overall and 32% for university graduates.
“We are aware of the urgency of achieving such reforms and the government is working hard to make sure the necessary reforms become laws before next September,” Jhinaoui said.
“Tunisia is laying the foundations for a free and prosperous market economy in order to bolster strong growth and create opportunities and jobs for its population, especially for its unemployed youth.”
The Tunisian foreign minister called upon the country’s traditional partners to provide more tangible help.
“We need the EU to go the extra mile with us so that we meet our social and economic challenges as rapidly as possible and with the least amount of turbulence,” he said.
Nearly 80% of Tunisia’s foreign trade is with EU countries.
Jhinaoui said Tunisia continues also to count on the “pivotal role” of the United States as “a close partner”.
Washington backed Tunisia with two loan guarantees of $500 million and is considering a third loan to bolster Tunisia’s stand in the capital markets. The United States also provided Tunisia with financial aid worth about $500 million since 2010 and is a key provider of security and military support.
But it is the Arab world that could provide Tunisia with a “natural environment” for cooperation, Jhinaoui said.
In this regard, he mentioned the diplomatic effort spearheaded by the visits of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi to key Arab capitals.
“Tunisia is back in foreign policy. It will do its best to have good relations with everyone in our neighbourhood as well as with others,” he said. “Success of Tunisia to get out of its crisis and overcome terrorism and other challenges will be a success for our region and beyond.”