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Four years after Arab Spring, Tunisian leader celebrates democracy

By
JC Finley
Tunisia Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa speaks during an interview at the Tunisian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Tunisia Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa speaks during an interview at the Tunisian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- Four years after its Jasmine Revolution sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisia's new democratic government is a beacon of stability in a North African region seized by terrorism and unrest.

"Today we have a parliament, we have a president and we are forming a government," outgoing Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa said in an interview Tuesday with UPI. "I came here to work for that moment. And we succeeded in the transition. We succeeded in the elections."

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Jomaa assumed the role of interim prime minister in 2014 as part of that transition. Charged with forming an interim government, Jomaa played an instrumental role, ensuring smooth parliamentary and presidential elections and economic reforms.

His successor, Habib Essid, named Monday, will work with the nation's first freely elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, to shepherd the fledgling democracy from political transition to economic revival, while continuing to hold off terrorist threats from neighboring Libya.

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After the presidential election, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pointed to Tunisia as a model for the region.

"Tunisia has provided a shining example to the region and the world of what can be achieved through dedication to democracy, consensus, and an inclusive political process," he said.

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Jomaa was in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which have supported the goals of the revolution, and review Tunisia's economic performance over the past year. One success, he pointed out, is a "drastic" reduction in Tunisia's deficit. The short-lived interim government also made some progress in banking reforms, but "we need three or four more years."

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Beyond the economy, Tunisia's two new leaders face some criticism for having ties to previous regimes. Essebsi, the newly elected president, served as interior minister in the 1960s, and Jomaa's successor, Essid, served in the ousted government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Jomaa downplayed concern about Essid, saying he "was not a big figure in that regime," adding: "If you want to succeed, you don't want to exclude."

"I don't think that we have the risk [of regressing]... but we have to pay attention because it's a young democracy... If I see any risk, I will say it."

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Part of the basis for the new government has to be a close collaboration with the United States and others countries in combating terrorism, Jomaa said. "We have the same enemy."

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He blames neighboring Libya for introducing terrorists into Tunisia, capitalizing on Tunisia's weakened borders and discredited security services after the 2011 revolution. Since then, a large number of Tunisians have reportedly joined the Islamic State.

The government moved to curb the rise of extremism by working to restore trust in the security services as protectors, not a force of repression, by securing the borders and dismantling terror networks.

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"We are controlling all the people who are returning from Syria and Iraq, which are not numerous today ... But the most important thing: We stopped the flow to these fronts."

In Libya, however, the security situation continues to deteriorate.

"The only exit from this crisis is dialogue," Jomaa said, ruling out a Tunisian military intervention but expressing support for a United Nations operation.

As for Jomaa's next chapter, he said it won't be with the government.

"I was asked to stay in the next government. I declined it. Why? Because I believe in democracy, really. what is the meaning of this new system? It is really to change the governments. ...

"When I close this file, I will go back to normal life... But all the options are still open for the future."



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