I am here in Tunisia on the anniversary of a revolution that marked the departure of dictator Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, an event which inspired the so-called Arab Spring that ousted long-standing autocrats Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya from power and has shaken the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It is a good occasion to reflect on the fundamentally changed landscape from the perspective of flourishing Turkish-Tunisian relations.
There are different ways to explain why the government of Tunisia turns to Turkey as a key “strategic partner” to work with in the post-revolution era. These range from the deep-seated historical and cultural ties the Ottoman Turks maintained in this beautiful northernmost African country to the spite felt at France for supporting Ben Ali’s repressive rule for decades.
Another valid argument is that Tunisia, faced with huge economic and social challenges, needs economic powerhouse Turkey to address its unemployment woes, hoping to benefit from the Turkish experience in building the economy up from scratch. Added to that, the economic crisis in the EU, Tunisia’s largest trading partner, is forcing Tunisia to find alternate markets and investors to keep kick-start the sputtering economy.
No doubt that all these are reasonable explanations, but they only give us a partial account of what is currently going on in the minds of the Tunisian leadership. For one reason or another, the Tunisian government also wants to cultivate close ties with other countries, including Russia and China, hoping to free the country from the grip of France, which holds most (almost 90 percent) of foreign investment there. It clearly wants to diversify its portfolio and pursue a multidimensional policy to minimize external shocks to its economy. By the way, Turkey is not the only Muslim country Tunisia eagerly wants to develop ties with. Tunisia also looks to Muslim democracies such as Indonesia and Malaysia in the Far East in establishing relations with Muslim countries.
But why is it that Turkey differs from the rest of the flock when it comes to the top priority list the new Tunisian government has drawn up? It is mainly because Turkey is the only country which, at the moment, seems capable and strong enough to help the political consolidation of the delicate Tunisian democracy. And Tunisians look up to the successful Turkish experience in combining Islam, democracy and secularism in the governance of the country while tackling corruption and enhancing transparency in the state bureaucracy. Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, which won 40 percent of the general vote in the October elections of last year, said his party uses Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as an inspirational model. Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, led the formation of a coalition government in Tunisia last month.
Coupled with that, Turkey emerges as a key ally of Tunisia in aiding its brethren in Libya in confronting domestic political challenges. In the post-Gaddafi era, Libya continues to be a major source of concern for neighboring Tunisia because of the many internal problems it urgently needs to address. Turkey can play honest broker in Libya using the trust it has earned based on its positive contribution to the Arab Spring. The Arab League is in disarray, and it can barely get its act together, even in the face of a deepening Syrian crisis. In short, there is simply no credible alternative to Turkey’s role out there at the moment.
When I had a chance to talk this through with Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem on Wednesday night aboard a plane en route to Tunis from İstanbul, I found out that he firmly believes in that role as well. “You rarely find a Tunisian family that has no ties with Libya. We share a language and everything else,” he said, stressing that “it is crucial for Libya as well as Tunisia to have a partnership with Turkey.” He warned that Libya needs political development and not just investment in infrastructure and construction. “Turkey can help us greatly in that regard,” he underlined, describing the trio’s relations as “the best partnership” in the region.
The Turkey-Tunisia-Libya tripartite business forum, held at the Laico hotel in Hammamet this week, was part of this plan in laying the groundwork upon which all three countries are expected to build stronger relations. When Tunisian and Turkish nongovernmental organizations suggested the idea of holding a tripartite business forum to the Tunisian government, which later welcomed the proposal, the French ambassador in Tunis rushed to lobby with the government and NGOs to hold a similar event under the auspices of France. He was rebuffed and offered a bilateral forum with French companies instead.
Tunisians believe Turkey is the engine of this trio and the only country that can deliver what they hope to gain in the first place. Delivering the opening speech at the business forum, the Tunisian deputy prime minister for economy, Ridha Saidi, announced that a new strategic partnership model is emerging between Turkey, Tunisia and Libya that may be an example for other countries in the region. “We would like to establish a permanent structure for sustainable development among these three countries whose economies do not compete but rather complement each other,” Saidi underlined.
It is clear that both Tunisia and Libya have high expectations from the only Muslim country — commanding Europe’s largest army in NATO — that sits at the table of the gathering of the world’s major economies as a G-20 member. Ankara realizes that this web of relations not only poses opportunities, but may pose risks as well for Turkey. If it fails to live up to high expectations, it will create huge frustration and the possibly of a backlash in these countries. If it wins, it will gain a valuable strategic foothold in the Maghreb countries. Turkey cannot carry out this responsibility alone, and it needs global and regional partners to accomplish the stated goals. It is encouraging to see that the Americans are on board with Turkey in putting Tunisia and Libya back on the recovery track.
Turkey wants to implement the model it successfully applied in the Balkans to Tunisia and Libya as well. It will work on a carefully planned strategy to bring the countries in the North African region together in solving their problems while lobbying with regional and global powers to back up reconciliation efforts in post-revolution Arab countries. Exactly for this purpose, Turkey signed an action plan for 2012 with Tunisia when Tunisian Foreign Minister Abdessalem paid his first official foreign visit to Turkey this week. The plan details what steps both countries should take to bolster ties in a very specific timeframe, coupled with follow-up mechanisms.
Tunisia, with a well-educated population and a mature society in terms of tolerance toward each other as well as the soft landing — in terms of an orderly election and a much lower death toll compared to the transitions in Libya and Egypt — in the transition from authoritarian rule to a newborn democracy, is an ideal partner for Turkey to project what it hopes to be a successful experience onto other troubled countries in the Middle East and North Africa.