BRUSSELS (EJP) --- EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton heralded the ‘privilege’ of Europe’s role in bringing about a democratic transition in Tunisia, as she committed European resources to help ‘consolidate deep democracy, freedom and human rights”, at a meeting with Tunisian President Hamadi Jebali in Brussels on Tuesday.
In his second visit to Brussels this year since his election following last year’s popular uprisings which ousted long-time authoritarian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Islamist President also met with EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who repeated his rhetoric at last week’s UN General Assembly address in New York, by calling on the head of government to ensure that the achievements of the Arab Spring “become irreversible”.
Affirming that the Tunisian leader had assured him of his administration’s wish to cement the democratic transition, he added that this desire would form the basis of continued cooperation with the EU, echoing Ashton’s emphasis that a strong economy was inextricably linked to further progress in this respect, by announcing increased financial cooperation with the North African state.
Van Rompuy briefly alluded to last month’s violent protests across the Arab world in response to Islamophobic film The Innocence of Muslims, which saw simultaneous attacks launched on US Embassies in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, by insisting that “recent events increased the need to work together, at all levels, to calm tensions and to foster mutual understanding”.
Emulating the words of numerous leaders at the UN General Assembly, he added that “tolerance, respect and dialogue remain the only tools to promote understanding between our societies”. Last week he spoke at length of the importance of tolerance in providing “the ability to withstand criticism, to offer dialogue, to refrain from violence”, adding that “respect for the faith and beliefs of others is a key value for living together”.
In his unprecedented speech to delegates of the 193-member UN General Assembly last week, Van Rompuy insisted that when it comes to facilitating democratic transition in the Arab world, Europe is “in it for the long run”.
Calling on each country to fulfil its duty to “do justice to the aspirations of its people”, he stressed the EU’s commitment to furthering political progression across the region, adding “we still believe in the message of the Arab Spring”.
Using the platform to speak of Europe’s geographical and social proximity to the subject nations of the popular uprisings across the Arab World, he said the EU had become “acutely aware that the changes – and the risks and opportunities that lay ahead – would directly affect us, as neighbours”.
Speaking of the “long path of transition” still to be navigated, he cautioned the international community to temper its expectations, insisting that “achieving lasting change takes time”.
“New democratic institutions don’t run smoothly by magic. Turning economies around or creating jobs for millions of young men and women doesn’t happen at the wave of a wand. Deep tensions don't suddenly dissolve once a dictator has gone,” he added.
Keen to focus on the power of popular action and its unprecedented outcome, he said that despite the difficulties incurred en route to democracy, “the movement is irreversible. Once the voices of the people have been set free – an unforgettable experience for all those who were never heard before – these voices cannot be silenced”.
Meanwhile, elsewhere during his visit, Jebali was forced to fend off questioning from Foreign affairs committee MEPs as to Tunisia’s official response to the violent demonstrations, which invoked collective condemnation from the international community. Insisting “lessons have been learnt”, Jebali insisted that the attacks on the embassy and an American school in Tunisia did not reflect majority public opinion and that “Tunisian people were untied in rejecting this behaviour”.
Likewise slamming the attacks, he added that they broke out in contrast to his government’s efforts to create “an open and modern society which believes in dialogue and not in violent oppression”.
Describing the continuing process of democratisation in the country “a historic process”, in light of delayed work on its new constitution, which had been due for completion by the end of October, he said that whilst “the main pillars of the former regime desperately need to be to reformed, it’s not a good idea to replace the whole system, (rather) to enshrine the independence of the judiciary and the democratic nature of the security services”.
He also sought to alleviate concerns about the perceived Islamicisation of Arab states in light of last year’s popular uprisings, which has also seen an Islamist President elected in Egypt, a fellow former secular state. Committing to pursuing democracy as an antidote to theocracy, he said this government sought to “serve citizens and ensure the equality of all regardless of their origin or religion, including gender equality”.
Van Rompuy previously cautioned against complacency within the newborn egalitarian societies born from the contributions of men and women alike and of all religions and social backgrounds.
“There may be temptations, once power is gained, to refuse to grant to some the rights that until recently were withheld from all. But a democracy can only flourish when it gives all its people -- whatever their gender, religion, language or ethnic identity -- an equal say and equal rights, guaranteed in law and in practice,” he said.