- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Promoting Tunisia

The new ambassador from Tunisia faces a challenge in Washington, where he must promote a positive image of his North African nation that gets mixed reviews over its political climate and human rights record.

“What keeps me busy is one thing: To make clear the true image of Tunisia, which is not clear in this country,” Ambassador Mohamed Nejib Hachana told Embassy Row.

The State Department criticized Tunisia for a poor human rights record overall but also recognized that the country is a leader among Arab nations in guaranteeing the legal status of women and children. In its latest human rights report, the department cited political restrictions that promoted the continued rule of the Constitutional Democratic Rally Party and noted that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali received 95 percent of the vote in his re-election in October. He has been president since 1987.

At the same time, the State Department praised Tunisia for enshrining legal rights for women and providing compulsory education for children through age 15. Women comprise more than 50 percent of students in Tunisian universities.

Mr. Hachana urged Americans to give his country time to develop a democratic system that would be acceptable to Western critics.

“We agree on the principle of democracy, free speech and the role of human rights,” he said.

However, Tunisia is worried about moving too quickly toward a Western-style democracy.

“We know the experiences of some other countries that raced ahead. We have to go step by step, gradually but firmly,” Mr. Hachana said. “President Ben Ali is deadly serious about human rights and democracy.”

Tunisia was one of the first countries to recognize the young American nation, when it established diplomatic relations with the United States in the 1790s. Today, the Bush administration considers Tunisia a valuable ally in the war on Islamist terrorism and has praised Tunisia’s efforts to help persuade Libya to renounce terrorism and to abandon plans to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Hachana also said his country supports the U.S. efforts to defeat terrorists in Iraq and rebuild that nation.

“Iraq is a very serious problem, but there is progress,” he said. “I believe the situation will get better in the future.”

Mr. Hachana urged the Bush administration to maintain U.S. troop levels in Iraq until the country is stabilized.

“A U.S. withdrawal now would be a catastrophe for the region. You would open the region to extremists,” he said.

Tunisia has mostly avoided terrorist attacks because it is “vaccinated against two types of people: leftists and Islamic extremists,” Mr. Hachana said. However, he added, his country must remain vigilant because “extremists are waiting for any open window to jump through.”

‘Jordan’s 9/11’

Jordanian Ambassador Karim Kawar this week predicted that his country will not change its policies of moderation in the Arab world because of the terrorist bombings last week against hotels frequented by Westerners.

“This is Jordan’s 9/11, and it will only make us stronger and united in the face of terrorism. Jordan will continue to be the beacon of moderation in the region,” he said at a Jordanian Embassy reception for visiting Eisenhower fellows from the Middle East.

“Tonight’s gathering is testimony to this role and to the importance of cooperation and dialogue.”

Mr. Kawar, who himself came to the United States in 2000 on an Eisenhower Fellowship, welcomed the 18 new fellows from Egypt, Jordan, Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia who will tour the country to meet with leaders in the fields of education, arts, politics, medicine and business.

They have meetings scheduled with former President George Bush and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, a trustee with the fellowship. They will spend Thanksgiving on a farm in central Illinois and tour the Microsoft Corp. headquarters in Redmond, Wash.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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