Press Conference in Tunis, Tunisia

Press Conference
William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Gordon Gray, U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia
Embassy Tunis
Tunis, Tunisia
February 24, 2011

AMBASSADOR GRAY: Good morning everyone. Thank you very much for coming. It is a personal pleasure to introduce Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns. His visit here is yet another tangible indication of the support of the American people and the American government for the Tunisian people’s revolution and further transition. I’m very pleased to hand the floor over to him and thank him for coming.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you very much and good morning everyone. I’m quite happy to be back in Tunisia, especially at such an historic moment. Tunisia’s revolution should be a source of great pride to Tunisians, and it is a source of inspiration for people across this region.

No one will ever forget that the wave of aspirations sweeping across the region – for freedom, for dignity, for opportunity – began here in Tunisia. No one will ever forget where this new Arab awakening began.

As President Obama has said, Americans are also inspired by what Tunisians have achieved. We know the road ahead will not be easy. We know that it can only be navigated by Tunisians, but we will do all we can to help, just as we did more than half-a-century ago at another historic moment when Tunisians won their independence.

My colleague David Lipton from the White House and I have had excellent meetings with the interim Prime Minister, with his economic team, with the interim Foreign Minister, and with a wide range of civil society leaders. We listened carefully to their priorities, and we will now look urgently at ways in which we can align our resources and our support behind those priorities.

We’re working with our partners in Europe and around the world to focus on rapid and tangible support for short-term financial stability, as well as long-term economic modernization for growth that will create benefits and opportunities across Tunisian society, not just for a small group at the top.

We’re working urgently on short-term assistance, on long-term support, and as a practical step, we’ll be sending an American trade mission to Tunisia next month, which is an important opportunity to advertise the basic strengths and the enormous potential of the Tunisian economy.

We will do all we can to encourage an open, transparent, and inclusive political transition with a clear roadmap toward free and fair elections and the democratic institutions that Tunisians have sacrificed for.

I’ll leave Tunisia later this morning mindful of the many challenges ahead, but optimistic about Tunisia’s prospects and determined to do all we can to help at this crucial moment. I’m convinced that Tunisia’s success can set a powerful and positive example across the region. I’m convinced that Tunisia’s success is America’s success, just as it was at another moment more than half-a-century ago.

Thank you very much, and I’ll be glad to take your questions.

QUESTION: Thank you very much Under Secretary Burns. It’s not a secret [that] in less than a month we had three successive visits from American officials. This is not only a question from a Tunisian journalist, but also from the Tunisian street. What is behind this? Are you so concerned about the future of Tunisia? We would like to understand the message behind [this], apart from assuring people that “we are here to support the Tunisian people, we are here to support the Tunisian Revolution.” What is behind [this]? We would like to understand more about that.

Another question is that yesterday there was news that NATO may intervene in Libya. Would you support a military intervention in Libya? What is Washington’s position on that? Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: On your first question about Tunisia and our partnership with Tunisia, as I said in my opening comments, we are quite optimistic about the prospects for a successful transition in Tunisia. We understand the importance of supporting economic recovery as a pillar of that political transition, and we want to work with Tunisia and with our other partners around the world to support that.

We understand what’s at stake here, not just for Tunisians, but for the wave of change that’s sweeping across the region. We believe that Tunisia has a very important opportunity to set a strong example of a successful political transition, and successful economic modernization here can help encourage similar kinds of models across the region.

Tunisia has a number of important strengths: it has a positive record of economic growth, it has a very well-educated and capable workforce, a tradition of respect for women’s rights, a tradition of tolerance, many of the key ingredients for a successful democracy and a successful political transition. So, we want to invest in that, and the United States is committed to that kind of a partnership.

On your other question about Libya, as President Obama made very clear last night, the United States joins with many, many others in the international community and in this region in strongly condemning the violence in Libya and strongly supporting the basic human rights and the aspirations of the Libyan people. This was reflected in a strong statement from the UN Security Council a couple of days ago, and in similar statements by the Arab League, by the African Union, by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and by the European Union.

So, over the coming days we’re going to be consulting intensively with our partners in Europe, in this region, and around the world about practical steps that can be taken to address our collective and growing concerns about the situation in Libya.

QUESTION: Mr. Burns, I would like to know… Tunisia faces, as a result of events now taking place in Libya, a massive surge of Tunisians and foreigners coming to the borders. We also fear that Libyans may come to Tunisia fleeing the violence. What is the U.S. attitude with regard to this phenomenon? Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you for the question. Certainly, what we’re seeing in Libya is horrific. The violence and the abuse of people’s rights – it obviously has an impact on Libya’s neighbors. I was in Egypt a couple of days ago, and as you know, there are hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers in Libya, and that is a source of great concern for the Egyptian Government.

We also obviously understand the concerns of the Tunisian Government, and that adds to the urgency with which we approach this issue and with which we and others in the international community need to act.

QUESTION: I would like to ask you about the subject of Israel. Now that Israel has taken an explicitly hostile position toward the Egyptian Revolution, will you still consider Israel a model of democracy in the Middle East?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I can only speak to America’s interest and America’s perspective on the region and on the changes that are sweeping the region. All I would say is the following: First, no society in this region is going to be immune from the changes that we’re seeing, from people’s very powerful aspirations for freedom, for dignity, and for opportunity. Those aspirations and those changes are something that the United States and the American people strongly support. We see it as a source of strength and opportunity for the future of this region. Every society is going to be different in the way in which it deals with those kinds of challenges, but as I said, no society and no leadership is going to be immune from that.

So, it seems to us in the United States that it’s very important for the leaderships and people, including civil society leaders, to understand the importance of getting ahead of that wave and of addressing people’s legitimate concerns for political change, for economic change, and for broadening opportunities. As I said, that’s an aspiration that we are going to continue to support.

We think, whether it’s in Tunisia or in Egypt, which I just recently visited, of course there are difficulties on the road ahead. But it seems to me that there is every prospect that Tunisians and Egyptians and others in this region can succeed in those transitions and build those kinds of democratic institutions. It’s very important to create those kinds of models of success in the coming years, and we want to do everything we can to help.

QUESTION: My question is, it was said in the U.S. Congress that the American interest and its role in the Middle East is a necessity, not a choice. Do you still maintain this opinion about the Middle East?

Then, will Tunisia also become a necessity or a choice in terms of the future American strategy? Practically speaking, what will the U.S. offer Tunisia?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: As I said in my opening comments, I think the success of Tunisia’s transition is a very important priority for the United States. As I said before, the United States is proud of the role we played in supporting Tunisia’s original transition more than a half-century ago at the moment of independence.

This is a similarly historic moment for Tunisia and, at this moment, just as was the case more than a half-century ago, we want to do everything we can to be supportive. A stable, prosperous, politically open Tunisia is deeply in the interests of the United States and we believe in the interests of the whole region. Tunisia’s was the first of the revolutions that are sweeping across this historic era in the Arab world, and therefore it is especially important that it be a success.

QUESTION: I’d like to know if you think that American technology, with the internet, Facebook, Twitter, were more efficient [in] bringing democracy to the Arab world than the U.S. Army, like we saw in Iraq?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: First, as proud as we are of our contributions to technology, I don’t think those technologies are American, they’re global right now. I think they’re accessible to people around the World.

The truth is that successful transitions, whether it is to open economies or [to] democratic societies, are driven from within. Tunisia is a perfect example of that. It’s Tunisians who made your revolution; it’s Tunisians who are going to make a successful transition. That’s the critical ingredient to any kind of positive political change.

Outsiders, partners, friends like the United States can do a lot to help, just as we have in other transitions around the world in recent decades. We’re determined to do that, but we understand very clearly that the drive, and the energy for success in Tunisia comes from Tunisians.

QUESTION: Have you developed a budget or a work plan for the trade delegation? Aren’t you preparing a small Marshall Plan for the region?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think Tunisia, as I said before, is fortunate in the sense that for all the obvious short-term challenges that Tunisians face – the significant drop in tourism revenue for example, the economic dislocations that have occurred in recent weeks – the fundamentals of the Tunisian economy remain impressive.

Tunisia has attracted considerable foreign investment in the past. It’s clearly a very attractive site for tourism and will continue to be in the future. It potentially has a great deal to offer because of its well-educated labor force. So, I think there’s a great deal to build on here.

The jobs that Tunisians need and the growth that Tunisians need to spread opportunity across all parts of Tunisian society in the end are going to be driven primarily by private sector growth, which is a function of domestic capital as well as foreign investment.

So, even as we look at the very real challenges of short-term financial stability, which we recognize, we also want to invest in long-term economic modernization here. There is considerable potential for increasing American and foreign investment here, creating good jobs for Tunisians in the private sector, building even further on the tourism industry. I think there are many ways in which Tunisia’s economy can grow. Liberalized trade is another area which can benefit Tunisia over the medium-term.

So, for all the short-term difficulties, which are real and which are obvious, I think the medium-term potential of the Tunisian economy is considerable, and I think American businesses recognize that and will act on it.

QUESTION: Good morning. I have a short question. Has the Ghannouchi government presented you with its requests for military assistance? What is the amount of financial assistance the U.S. Government can provide in the economic field?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The United States has had a long partnership with the Tunisian military in support of shared interests in this region, and we look forward to continuing that partnership and continuing security assistance in the years ahead.

On the economic side, as I said before, we listened carefully to the priorities that the Interim Government is laying out. We listened carefully to the priorities that civil society leaders and business leaders explained to us, as well. What we will now look at urgently are ways in which we can help in the short-term, but also, as I said, ways in which we can promote greater trade and investment over the medium-term. That’s going to be one of the keys to Tunisia’s long-term economic success.

QUESTION: I would like to know if you met any military officials in Tunisia.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: No, I did not have any such meetings on this trip.

QUESTION: You spoke earlier about the difficulties the Tunisian Interim Government is facing. Can you tell us more about this? What kinds of difficulties are they facing based on your conversations with Tunisian government officials?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think the difficulties are not peculiar to the Interim Government. They’re difficulties that Tunisia as a society faces today, and they are the obvious ones that all of you understand as well as I do. It’s the challenge that any society faces in taking concrete steps in a political transition, building the atmosphere for free and fair elections. It’s dealing with the short-term economic losses that Tunisia has suffered, the hit in tourism, for example, and addressing the need to build financial stability, but also recognizing the opportunities for longer-term economic modernization.

Those are the challenges that I mentioned. It’s dealing with problems of corruption. It’s dealing with problems of accountability for abuses that have been committed in the past. All of those are very real challenges, not only for Tunisia, but for any society in transition.

QUESTION: Thank you for giving me this opportunity for another question. Since the fourteenth of January a lot has been said about the direct role of the United States in toppling the ex-president. Would you confirm that? Were you in touch with General Ammar at that time, and do you have any idea about the current situation of the toppled president? We heard that he is dying, but nothing was confirmed. Do you have any information about that, any news about that?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I have a very simple answer, and that is that Tunisia’s revolution is something that was carried out and accomplished by Tunisians. This is a story about Tunisia, and it’s a story that Tunisians can be very proud of.

The United States is determined to do all we can to support the transition that is following that revolution, and, as I said before, Americans are genuinely inspired. You saw this in the reaction to the President’s comment in his State of the Union speech last month. Americans are genuinely inspired by what Tunisians have achieved. But this is Tunisia’s story.

QUESTION: So you were totally surprised by this event?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The United States, for a long time, has raised our concerns and our criticisms about human rights practices under the previous leadership. If you look at our Human Rights Reports every year, those concerns are underscored quite clearly. We had our differences with the previous leadership going back to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait 20 years ago.

It’s been no secret that we’ve had consistent concerns about human rights practices and about the lack of political openness in Tunisia. But as I said before, the revolution that has occurred in recent weeks in Tunisia is an achievement for Tunisians. It’s something that has been accomplished by Tunisians, not anyone else.

QUESTION: Senator McCain, who was sitting in your place a few days ago, spoke about the risk of someone taking the government by force in Tunisia. Do you have specific information about that? I would like to know if the U.S. Government has specific information about that threat.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The role of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb is certainly something that the United States, Tunisia, and many countries in the region and around the world are concerned about.

What I would say is that I have great confidence in the ability of Tunisians to succeed in their transition, and it seems to me that the best antidote to violent extremism in this region, whether it’s Al-Qaeda or anyone else, is to succeed in the kind of positive agenda that Tunisians have set before them to build a society and government that reflects people’s aspirations for freedom, for dignity, and for opportunity.

Violent extremists like Al-Qaeda are very good at describing what they want to tear down and what they’re against. They’re not so good at describing what they’re for. They’re good at describing a negative agenda, but not so good at describing a positive agenda that will offer opportunities of the kind that Tunisians and people around the region want.

It seems to me that the wave of change that’s occurring in the region, especially when you can point to successful transitions, which I believe Tunisia’s will be, is ultimately the most powerful answer and the most powerful antidote to the challenge and the threat that is posed by violent extremists.

QUESTION:  Mr. Burns, do you have any news about the rumors and conflicting information circulating about the health of the former Tunisian president, Ben Ali?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: No, I don’t. Thank you all very much. It’s a pleasure to be back here and good to meet you.