Remarks With Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi at the U.S. Africa Business Forum
Secretary of State
Translated from French.
SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon everybody. We’re really very happy to be here. It is my great pleasure to welcome the Tunisian President Caid Essebsi, who you know. I am going to speak a little in French as he has asked me to. Mr. President, welcome. I am delighted to see you again.
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: Thank you very much.
SECRETARY KERRY: Tunisia is in the middle of a significant transition that started with the 2011 revolution. It is the only Arab Spring country that has a stable and democratic government. Why is Tunisia different?
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: From the others, you mean.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yes. From the other countries.
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: First, I would like to thank you for guiding this dialogue. For me this is a privilege and an honor. As you know, Tunisia is a small country. We have 11 million inhabitants. This morning we spoke of 180 million, 25 million. Tunisia has 11 million inhabitants. It's a country that was governed for three-quarters of a century by a foreign government. We were, you know, colonized by France. When we were liberated, we were then ruled for 33 years by an authoritarian government. No freedom, no press. And also a little bit of corruption. I say ‘a little’ because it was a lot. [Laughs]
So, then there was a revolution, fortunately, that cut between two periods and during this time after the revolution I was called back because I had been away from the country for 20 years. I returned because I was called back, as you know. We have now started a democratic system. But democracy is not easy. It’s practiced, it’s not imposed.
First, you have to reestablish the rule of law. And now we have had elections. We have a constitution, which we respect. We’ve had legislative and presidential elections. And this is how I was elected the first Tunisian President of the Republic. I am here. I’m very fortunate. And I am going to answer your question. Why is Tunisia not like the others?
Because since independence, which is to say for at least 60 years, we have undertaken substantial political reforms and especially social policy reforms. We have made education universal so that now any school age child goes to school for free. It’s been 60 years since we did that. And second we did something no other country did. We liberated women. Tunisian women have practically the same status as men. And it’s been that way for 60 years. So we have a totally different society. And then we have this other essential component, and that is the role of women. If women are not able to take part, a country cannot advance.
SECRETARY KERRY: So you’re saying you were already different before.
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: Exactly.
SECRETARY KERRY: And now you have a new government that was recently been formed… in August. What will Prime Minister Habib Essid and his government do to combat corruption and attract enterprises like those we see here today?
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: First, it's a young government. Though if you look at me, I am 80 years old. But the Prime Minister now is 41 years old. He could almost be my son. Second, his government is made up of young, competent ministers who have degrees from American, English, and French universities, and who now have experience. And what is also the most important is that he has included 10 or so women in his government, who have significant responsibilities. The finance minister is a woman, the most important position. So, in that respect, it’s working well. Second, we have two big challenges cope with. First is terrorism, which we are fighting. And we are fighting it effectively. And second is corruption. Maybe we are winning the fight against terrorism. And we are just now starting the battle against corruption.
SECRETARY KERRY: I had a meeting with the President the other day and after I felt old. Last May’s meeting of the Joint Economic Commission...
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: Yes.
SECRETARY KERRY: The American and Tunisian governments have developed a strategy with the private sector in order to stimulate growth in several sectors. What is the government doing now in consultation with the private sector to create an environment more favorable for businesses?
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: First, in developing countries, generally, it's the state that intervenes in economic development. We, now, the first thing we did, after these agreements that we made, we passed a law supporting cooperation between the private and public sector. This law was passed. And we believe the private sector must take an important place, in any case, more and more important than before. Not to say that the government sector is going to shrink, but the two will be cooperating in order to move forward.
We are sure now, recognizing the difficulties we must address, that this cooperation is necessary. This is why in the current government; we have the support of the general workers union and the employers. The two supported the government in this to realize this objective.
SECRETARY KERRY: And you are confident that this will continue?
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: You know, confidence must be built. Followed closely. I think that Tunisia has sufficiently shown proof that we do not have time to waste that we must go hand in hand to move forward.
SECRETARY KERRY: When I visited last year, I saw that Tunisia is a country of great beauty, and also a stable and open country. But it is made up of 11 million people, like you’ve said. So it's a small market of 11 million inhabitants. What advantages does the Tunisian economy have to become a strategic and valuable platform for larger markets?
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: First, Tunisia's geostrategic location. It is at the point the furthest north of Africa, but just minutes from Europe. This is why our trade with Europe is at 85 percent. But it is clear that Tunisia is an African country down deep. Africa, the word Africa, it came from Tunisia. We are very proud to be African. And we work to improve our relations with Africa, just as we have done with the Arab countries, the Gulf countries, and especially with Europe. So, it's true we have advantages. We lack nothing. But for a very long time we’ve had poor governance structures. That is why now we are trying to put in place new governance structures. First, a democratic country. More and more democratic. But it's not easy.
SECRETARY KERRY: No, it's not easy.
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: You recall I told you someone gave me advice. He said: I have good and bad news. So I told him to start with the good. The good news is that you are a democratic country. And the bad news is that you are a democratic country. Because indeed, being democratic is not easy to govern. So we try to reconcile this, recognizing the support we have from friends. Including the United States. Because we face terrorism, and we cannot face it alone. I have always recognized that the United States has supported us. Other countries, like Germany, like France, like England, also support us, but not on the same level.
I think now in the difficult position that we are in, because of our neighbors. Because we have neighbors… we share a 500 kilometer border with Libya… a country which is one of our most important trading partners. To reduce these dangers, God willing, to create an investment climate... Tunisian investment, because of course Tunisians must invest, but up to now they have been afraid. Also, we must attract foreign investment and we think now we are creating a favorable climate for that.
SECRETARY KERRY: It is said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all of the other forms.
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: Churchill. In any case, we have no choice. We are at a moment in history, where we must govern more and more democratically.
SECRETARY KERRY: We hope. God willing. What are the key Tunisian sectors and what are the new emerging sectors?
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: You know that Tunisia has possibilities but it does not always work well. It has been five years since we had the revolution and sectors have been stalled. For example, Tunisia is one of the leading producers of phosphate in the world. For five years, it hasn’t worked. Now with the new government, this production has restarted. And it restarted exactly as though it had never stopped. But it takes time. Because this production was not happening, Tunisia was obliged to seek credit, which obviously is not always a good thing. Because when you borrow, you have to pay it back. In order to pay it back, it is necessary to produce. So, we have restarted the cycle. In the gas sector, in the oil sector, it had slowed down because obviously there are unions. Now that the unions have guaranteed they will support the government, things have started again. So in several sectors we are getting going again. And second you know that in Tunisia for a long time we have had universal education and we have always invested in, what we call in Tunisia, the "gray matter." This means training for individuals. We have perhaps not invested as much in security or military, and we were wrong. And so now that we are trying to balance by investing more in the things that had once been put aside, things are going much better.
SECRETARY KERRY: You were just talking about investment. Can you talk about your international conference which is happening from the 29-30 of November?
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: Yes, the 29-30 November we will have an international conference with several friendly countries and investment funds are invited. And I hope on this occasion… first I think the Tunisians can count on themselves. But still, I hope that friendly countries will find this is a good occasion to come and support us. I hope it will be a success.
SECRETARY KERRY: And how can private sector investors, like those here with us this afternoon, how can they play a role?
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: First, their role is essential. Without their participation, Tunisia will not develop under normal conditions. So, if we count on ourselves, our development will take 10 years, but if we have support, it will take 4-5 years. So, we are conscious that we must create the conditions. We have had many meetings with American investors at the initiative of the Secretary of Commerce both in Tunis and Washington. I think a little later we will have another meeting to explain to American investors that they are welcome in Tunisia. And that they have reasons to come. Given Tunisia's position in this part of the world, perhaps they will come. Because it is not just the Tunisian market, which admittedly is small, but also the possibilities across Africa, Europe, and the Arab world that investors will perhaps find more interesting about Tunisia.
SECRETARY KERRY: Mr. President that's all the time we have this afternoon. Is there something I did not ask that you wish to share?
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: No, well we should say, though, that Tunisia is lucky to have friends all over the world. And first among them, we have the United States of America as friends. These friends were present when we needed the support. As you know, we have very good cooperation on combatting terrorism, and it is working. We also have good military cooperation, and commercial cooperation, economic cooperation. And we have support. Yesterday I had lunch with President Obama who assured me of everything you have said, Secretary Kerry. I am able to confirm this.
SECRETARY KERRY: You heard him. It's very simple. Mr. President, I thank you. I congratulate you. You have done something extraordinary. You are on the path very important and I wish you all the best.
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: I hope that Tunisia will succeed in this democratic transition, and that she will be an example not just for us, but for others.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yes.
PRESIDENT ESSEBSI: Also, just to let everyone here know: There is also a religion problem. A problem with Islam. Many countries think that Islam is anti-democratic. We have proven in Tunisia, though, that the true Islam and democracy are completely compatible. That is what we are applying in our country.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you everyone for being there. I will see you all in Tunisia.