Saddled with gaping fiscal deficits, Tunisia remains in stalemate with the International Monetary Fund over a $1.9 billion bailout. Saied — who came to power at the ballot box in 2019, but has since moved to consolidate power — is refusing to budge on his resistance to reductions in government subsidies in exchange for a financial lifeline.
Meanwhile, dissidents and political opponents including Rached Ghannouchi, the country’s main opposition leader, have been jailed on what critics describe as trumped-up charges. Yet the West has tread relatively lightly with Saied — both to encourage a local crackdown on irregular migration, as well as out of fear that he may tilt toward Russia and China if pressed too hard.
On my recent reporting trip to Tunisia, Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar addressed these issues and more. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The racist roots of the rise in migration to Europe this year
TWV: What is the state of Tunisian democracy today given that it has been called into question after Saied dissolved parliament and consolidated power?
Nabil Ammar: Tunisia is not outside democracy today. Tunisians more than ever want democracy, but they want an authentic one, a democracy, a democratic system where they will decide its shape and ways of functioning. What we had before were [political] blockades. The previous constitution was not functioning. The parliament was not functioning. People were upset. A political class was not delivering what people were expecting. If any other democracy had the results that we had, there would have been a revolution.
European governments are deeply concerned about migration flows from Tunisia this year. Why are the numbers so high?
The bad situation in the economies of the countries [of origin of the migrants]. The medium- and long-term solution is to fix the real problems in their own countries. Whatever you do in terms of police in the sea will not be enough. Because if they do not have hope, work, stability, etc., they will try whatever they can to quit [their countries] and of course Tunisia is in the center of this road [to Europe.] This is a global question. It is above the capacity of one country to tackle.
My understanding is that many of the migrants who are leaving now have been present in Tunisia for some time, for months or years.
Maybe a part of them when they arrive choose to stay here for a bit, but they choose to stay only until they can go further north [to Europe].
In February, Saied decried what he described as a criminal plot to change the ethnic makeup of Tunisia by replacing Arabs with migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. Critics have called this racist.
He didn’t write this study. … He didn’t say he agrees with what the conclusions are. He only cited … this theory [to say it] has been written. It doesn’t mean that you are the author of this or you are supporting this. … And how is it possible to describe this country as racist, particularly compared to others that can really claim this title? It is completely unfair.
Migrants flee Tunisia amid arrests and racist attacks on sub-Saharan Africans
In the weeks after the president’s comments, NGOs and others have said that migrants faced arrests, were kicked out of their jobs and experienced other aggression. Are you saying that didn’t happen?
First, those NGOs have their agendas. We should ask, where are they getting their money … [but] it has happened that some individuals took profit from the situation for very different reasons. You can be upset, and you want to be violent. But what I can say that each time we had these type of problems, we took measures.
You mean you tried to assist people who were assaulted?
Yes. For example, if we received a call that someone had been attacked, I personally called the minister of interior and said we have problems somewhere. Then they go and solve the problem. And it has been solved. In some cases, I called the parents of those people in their own countries to say it’s okay, they are fine. I mean [the attacks on migrants] are acts of riots. We have riots in Tunisia. You can have them. It’s about some individual acts. It was not organized. And the authorities took all the [right] measures to face this situation.
Are you optimistic that Tunisia can still reach a deal with the IMF? Is the current impasse still over IMF demands for Tunisia to curb government subsidies?
Discussions with the IMF are not closed. … The red line is the stability of the country. You cannot touch the subsides like that. In the current context it is very, very risky. … There is a history in other countries that when the measures were too tough, there were social explosions. We don’t need that in Tunisia. And I understand that the main partners, when it comes to the IMF, are understanding that. And they are now maybe exploring the idea that, okay, we have understood your red lines. Let us try to work inside the red lines. This is my impression.
Which countries are holding the IMF back from reaching a deal with Tunisia?
I would say that there are those who maybe understand us better because of geography, because of history. [Like the] Italians. But maybe the more you go to the north, the less people understand what is really happening in [our] country. They would mix it with politics, and with democracy or lack of democracy or whatever.
Can you understand their concerns when the head of the opposition party and other political figures have been jailed, and limits are imposed on freedom of speech?
[Ghannouchi] should not be above the law because he is a politician … [and] why don’t you put this kind of pressure on other countries that I will not name? Why don’t you talk about states that are killing people? That is not happening here. That has never happened here. Why should we experience this type of pressure?
Some observers worry that if an IMF deal is not reached, and there are not improved relations between your country and the West, Tunisia could tilt toward Russia and China.
We have not said that. Maybe others have said that. They have not consulted us before saying that. We are saying that we have good relations with many different partners. There is no conflict in having strategic relations with the West and the U.S. and having good relations … [with] China, Russia or Brazil, the BRICS. But there is no decision that we should move from this type of partner to the others. We have never said that. It is not on the table.