PARIS (Reuters) - Tunisia said on Wednesday that it needs more help from its European partners in its transition to democracy because if it fails no other country in the Arab region will succeed.
During a visit to Paris to boost economic ties and seek help to bolster security to fight Islamist militants, foreign minister Mongi Hamdi said his country had done “exemplary” work to move towards elections by the end of the year, but more support was needed.
“We, Tunisians, have done our job, exemplary work,” Hamdi said at a news conference with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius. “Now we’re waiting for our partners to come and help us accomplish our mission for a democratic transition.”
After a crisis last year brought on by the killing of two opposition leaders, Tunisian factions finally adopted a new constitution in January and the ruling Islamists stepped aside for a caretaker administration to govern until elections.
While the North African country has advanced towards democracy since the 2011 revolution that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, other countries such as Libya and Egypt have seen unrest since overthrowing their long-ruling autocratic rulers.
“Tunisia is not less important than other countries in Europe such as Greece or Ukraine, so it’s in the interest of everybody that Tunisia succeeds in this transition,” Hamdi said. “We must ensure that Tunisia is a success story because if it doesn’t then no other Arab country will succeed.”
France, the former colonial power and one of the country’s main economic partners, has come under fire since 2011 from Tunisians for appearing indifferent throughout the transition process. But French officials say Paris has remained low key to avoid accusations of interfering in Tunis’ internal affairs.
French President Francois Hollande travelled to Tunisia in January for the constitutional ceremony, a move diplomats said amounted to a show of confidence from Paris.
“If there is one country that can get out of the crisis it’s Tunisia, so we are supporting not only with our hearts, but our minds,” Fabius said.
He said would spend his summer holidays in Tunisia to set an example for thousands of French tourists that have shied away from the north African country since the 2011 revolution.
Tourism accounts for 8 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product and its tourism minister told Reuters on Wednesday that renewed political stability would enable record tourism this year.
“It’s in our interest that we manage to have transitions in the Arab world that succeed,” Fabius said.
French diplomats said Paris would press ahead with pledges to provide 500 million euros ($645 million) in loans and grants to support Tunisia and write off 60 million euros of Tunisian debt to be converted into investment projects.
The two sides also agreed to speed up the release of millions of dollars worth of assets frozen in France since Ben Ali departed, something that has repeatedly been held up.
However, Mongi and Fabius both acknowledged serious challenges threatening the transition, notably that of Islamist militancy and rising insecurity in neighboring Libya.
“Tunisia is extremely worried by what’s going on in Libya,” said a French diplomatic source. “Libya has goodwill, but brigades, not the government, are controlling the border.”
Fabius said the two sides were in advanced talks to provide replacement parts for helicopters that would be used to fight militants in the mountainous Jebel Chaambi region in southern Tunisia.
Tunisian militants have used the turmoil in neighboring Libya to get weapons and training.
The rise of ultra-conservative Salafi movements who promote the establishment of an Islamic state has alarmed many in Tunisia, one of the most secular nations in the Arab world.
Tunisian forces have tried to crack down on the banned Islamist militant movement Ansar al-Sharia, which Washington lists as a foreign terrorist group.
Hamdi said equipment such as helicopters and night vision goggles were crucial: “We had not expected this type of terrorism would be imported into Tunisia.”
Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Alexandria Sage and Susan Fenton