Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party today highlighted its commitment to a civil, democratic state at the opening of its first congress since taking office (above). The conference coincides with moves to promote a U.S.-Tunisia free trade agreement to help support a transition threatened by an ailing economy.
“Despite the challenges, our country has preserved its civil character and attachment to democratic principles, all based on an Islamic reference,” said Hemadi Jebali, the prime minister and party secretary general, stressing “freedom as a fundamental value and the sanctity of human rights.”
The party’s spiritual leader Rached Ghannouchi told some 10,000 supporters that Tunisia needs a new consensus to resolve tensions between secularists and Islamists.
“I want to assure the people that the country is in good hands,” he said.
“This country needs a national consensus. We call for national reconciliation,” said Ghannouchi, playing down the crises that have shaken Tunisia and its ruling coalition as “normal” for a post-revolutionary state.
“In Tunisia, all movements can cohabit,” he said.
Observers believe the gathering will witness efforts to reconcile the party’s pro-democratic modernist faction with more militant hardliners.
“The congress will resolve the direction of movement … whether it [be] the Turkish experience or a walk towards the Afghan model,” said analyst Nabil Zagdoud.
“It is likely that Ghannouchi will remain in his post as leader of the movement because he is the most able to communicate with the two components of the movement.”
“The most important objective of this congress is … to establish Ennahda as a moderate Islamist movement [that is] open, focused on the concerns of Tunisians [and] on achieving their ambitions,” Ghannouchi told journalists.
Tunisia must maintain its republican system and its record of promoting equality between men and women, said Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the head of the center-left Ettakatol Party, a coalition partner of Ennahda.
“Just as we have denounced the use of religion by the state, so we will not tolerate tyranny in the name of religion and the attacks on individuals’ privacy,” he said, referring to violent protests by Salafis.
The conference welcomed Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement (right, with Ghannouchi), with “thunderous applause and cries of ‘the people want the liberation of Palestine,’” AP reports:
“Take your time to recover and rebuild,” he told delegates. “Getting over this transitional period is a priority. We are not a selfish nation. We cannot ask you to start a war against Israel when you have other priorities.”
“We want to prove that, with the philosophy of alliance, we can achieve a strategic convergence, because the transition period could last between 10 and 15 years, the objective being to establish stable and irreversible democratic foundations,” party official Riadh Chaiba said this week.
The US can most effectively support Tunisian efforts “to solidify democratic gains by expanding trade and commercial ties,” says House Rules Committee chairman David Dreier (R-CA), the founding chairman of the House Democracy Partnership.
“The Tunisian government is the one in the region that shows the most promise,” he told The Cable. “We’d like to see talks begin in early 2013.”
According to congressional sources, Dreier first discussed the topic with Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali at the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum in March, just months after Dreier introduced a bipartisan resolution calling for a free trade agreement with Egypt and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative relaunched Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks with Tunisia. Even though Dreier’s proposal has yet to gain a substantial congressional base, he is partnering with House Committee on Foreign Affairs senior member Rep. Gregory Meeks* (D-NY) and Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN).
Dreier can probably mobilize bipartisan support for a free trade pact, says Tamara Wittes, Middle East director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of support on the Hill for Tunisia. I think members of Congress understand how important it is to have a successful model in North Africa for the other countries struggling with democratic reform,” she told The Cable:
Washington has already pledged to help Tunisia with short-term economic problems like debt and unemployment. In March, it was announced that the United States would transfer $100 million to Tunisia, which faces a $25 billion debt, and in June the parliament in Tunis voted in favor of a bill allowing for a $400-450 million sovereign bond issue “with up to 100 percent of the principal and interest guaranteed by the U.S. government,” enabling Tunisia to “borrow at almost risk-free rates.” The State Department’s Middle East Transitions office is pursuing a series of “smaller but important steps.”
“There are investment regulations, border controls, and other regulatory changes that could help facilitate trade between the U.S. and Tunisia,” Middle East Transitions program director William Taylor told The Cable. “What we’re hoping is that by taking some of these steps earlier on, they might get some of these trade benefits sooner than if they were wrapped into one large negotiation for a free trade agreement.”