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Vice president Ansari’s visit to Tunisia

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  • June 05, 2016

    Since the times of the Roman Empire, Tunisia has been considered as a gateway to North Africa. The country is a unique blend of French and Islamic cultures. It lies at periphery of Arab region, and regionally it has closer ties to France (its former colonial ruler) than to the Arab world. Tunisia’s is the ‘cradle of Arab Spring’, the string of popular uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011. The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia was the trigger for Arab uprisings. After removal of President Ben-Ali, a domino effect swept the region leading to uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Bahrain and other Gulf monarchies. More importantly, Tunisia is the only success story of the Arab Spring. Tunisian transition was a success since it was able to remove the older regime, conduct an election, pass a new constitution and bring in various political parties into a pluralistic ruling coalition between Islamist and secular forces.

    India’s diplomatic relations with Tunisia have been established since 1958. India’s geo-strategic interest in North Africa has traditionally extended till Egypt. The limitations of conducting policy in Francophone countries and the dominant role of France in Tunisia have constrained India’s manoeuvrability. The first ever bilateral visit at Foreign Minister Level took place in 2012 when the then External Affairs Minister visited post-revolution Tunisia. As India aspires to reach out to Africa, and in the wake of the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, New Delhi’s outreach assumes significance.

    Thus, Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to Tunisia is both timely and prudent. Tunisia is currently struggling with post-revolution transition. The economic growth has stagnated due to decline in tourism sector due to the recent terrorists’ attacks in Tunisia. The hydrocarbon sector remains underdeveloped for lack of investments. Problem of unemployment persists and the economic divide between the rich coastal regions and the poor interior regions continues. Adding to the economic woes is the precarious security situation of the region and the rising jihadist threat within Tunisia. Tunisia has proved a recruiting ground for Islamist militant groups in Iraq and Syria, providing more foreign fighters than any other Arab state. The Indian Vice President held wide ranging deliberations with the top leadership of Tunisia. At a time when virulent and extremists movements like ISIS are on rise in the region, New Delhi’s concentration on building relations with moderate and democratic regimes like Tunisia is a welcome development.

    Tunisia is looking to broaden its trade and investment partners away from crisis-ridden Europe to include Asian and Gulf countries. The Indian Vice President said New Delhi can become an important trade and investment partner. India is expected to promote investments into underdeveloped interior regions of Tunisia.

    These areas were discussed in talks between Vice President Ansari and Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid. India can play a facilitator for Tunisia to build credible institutions and help Tunisia strive towards decentralization. Mr. Ansari said India can aid in building democratic institutions at regional level and provide valuable insights of its own decentralization experience. India and Tunisia need to deepen their defence and security cooperation. The jihadists’ threat emanating from around could destabilize the region; hence border control, intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism can be important elements of Indo-Tunisian defence relations. Unlike other Arab regimes, where military has a prominent political role, Tunisian military is highly professional and apolitical. It’s technically a very competent army and has a clean image among the Tunisian public. Therefore, cooperating with the army in Tunisia will not raise any moral or ethical issues. Vice President Ansari observed that Tunisia can be India’s gateway to wider Francophone Africa and Mediterranean region.

    However, India will have to prudently aid Tunisia’s post-revolution nation-building by taking into account the demands of those that lighted the fire of revolution in Tunisia.

    The article was originally published in the All India Radio ‘AIR World Service’