Situation in Tunisia
Delivered in Plenary - 17th January 2011
The upheaval in Tunisia is undoubtedly a reflection of people’s frustration at the country’s political stagnation and its relative economic stagnation. The flagrant corruption and wealth of the ruling family elite contrasted sharply with the high levels of poverty and unemployment among ordinary people.
Former President Ben Ali paid the supreme price for failing to meet the expectations and aspirations of his people, but I do not agree with some assessments, particularly in the Green Group, that his government was one of the most repressive in the Arab world. Tunisia has been an example, in some ways, of a modern, secular and progressive Arab country. For example, polygamy and veils were banned and foreign direct investment and tourism were encouraged.
Tunisia has managed to resist the efforts of violent Jihadis to undermine the integrity of its secular society. It is therefore essential that Tunisia’s political leaders – the new leaders that will now emerge – protect that legacy, because Salafist extremists will undoubtedly try to take advantage of the chaos and turmoil that will advance their dangerous agenda, which obviously also threatens European political objectives, including foreign policy objectives.
Tunisia’s new political leadership also needs to understand that poor governance and gross inequality offer a fertile breeding ground for violent radicalism. I am encouraged that the interim leadership has promised substantial reforms because embarking on such a path will greatly strengthen Tunisia’s relationship with the European Union. In the meantime, my group calls for maximum restraint by the security forces and for the arrest and trial of the ancien regime ’s presidential guard leadership responsible for the shooting, in the last few days, of innocent bystanders, in a futile attempt to destabilise the country. I congratulate the army on its professionalism in protecting the Republic’s institutions.
We in the EU must give the new Tunisian government of unity every assistance and also afford every assistance to EU citizens, including British citizens, who are stranded, having been in Tunisia on a holiday.