Articles - May 2017


works to stabilize his government in the aftermath of the Arab spring
By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

H.E. FAYÇAL GOUIA [GOO-EE-YA] was named the Republic of Tunisia’s Ambassador to the United States in 2015 following an historic National Dialogue that brought peace to Tunisia and established a functioning democracy in his country.

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring in 2011. Ambassador Gouia has lived through tumultuous, uncertain times as his country struggled to find its footing in the aftermath of a revolution that overthrew an authoritarian government and opened the doors to a cacophony of political voices ranging from insistently Islamist parties to multiple secular parties to remnants of the earlier dictatorial regime that ruled Tunisia before the Arab Spring uprising.

What emerged from that initial uncertainty was an emotional desire for democracy but few instructions describing the necessary steps along the path from dictatorship to the hoped for result. Instability built on frustration and economic stagnation made it difficult to form and sustain governments. Out of the turmoil of assassinations and street protests emerged a National Dialogue Quartet of organizations that brought disparate political parties together, successfully put together a roadmap for political restructuring, scheduled new elections and established a technocratic government that organized free and transparent elections. Eventually, that “Quartet” would be awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for “establishing an alternative peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”

Tunisia has been described as the “model of a country that is capable of social resilience in the face of the scourge of terrorism and extremism.” But, observers quickly add, “The Tunisian experiment is still fragile.” It is threatened by domestic terrorism carried out by returning jihadis and continuing economic stagnation. And that is Ambassador Gouia’s brief in Washington: to lift-up and explain Tunisia’s success, to strengthen its fragility, to build relationships with the Trump administration and the Congress and to emphasize his country’s continuing needs for assistance.

What is quietly striking about Ambassador Gouia is that beneath the polished exterior of a skilled diplomat lurks the soul of a talented musician, a skilled singer in oriental music and the classical tradition of Tunisia’s Malouf style that has been called “an emblem of Tunisian identity.”

Malouf’s long tradition is itself a cultural mélange that represents the blend of cultures that shapes modern Tunisia. Its roots are in ninth century Baghdad and classical Arab tradition. The music then made its way across North Africa and into Islamic Andalusia returning to North Africa in the 13th century when Muslims fled Christian persecution in Spain. Along the way, Malouf picked up elements of North African Berber music, European strands, and bits of Ottoman tradition to supplant its classical roots.

The heart of Islamic and Malouf tradition in Tunisia was the city of Kairouan, the first great Islamic city and cultural center of North Africa and perhaps fourth in importance to Islamic tradition after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem and today a UNESCO World Heritage city. It is also the birthplace of Ambassador Gouia, and it is a place where learning and music have always been treasured. Fayçal Gouia inherited a love of both and observes that, if he had not become a diplomat, “I would have become a musician!”

That classical music training contributes enormously to Ambassador Gouia’s knowledge of his country and its people as well as his ability both to articulate Tunisia’s concerns and listen attentively to the concerns of other countries in the region. Throughout his career, Gouia has brought Tunisia’s voice to international conferences, to capitals across the world and now to Washington, D.C., where he seeks to harmonize Tunisia’s needs with the security concerns of the United States.

Educated in Kairouan and then in Tunis at the National School of Administration, where he received a Master’s degree. Ambassador Gouia began his diplomatic career as Head of the International Relations Department at the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs, but subsequently continued his professional training with a degree in public finance from a leading French University and further advanced administrative training in Tunis. He is a graduate of the National Defense University in the United States as well as the National Defense University of Tunis and completed advanced English language training at the Bourguiba Institute in Tunis.

Ambassador Gouia served as Head of the Budget Management Division in the Ministry of Finance before moving to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, first as Deputy Director for South Asia and later as Director for the Americas. In 1995, Gouia was assigned for the first time to the Tunisian Embassy in Washington, D.C., initially as Cultural and Press Counselor, then as Economic and Commercial Counselor and finally as Deputy Chief of Mission in 1999. He knows the United States well.

Returning to Tunis in 2001, Gouia headed the Americas Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He received his first ambassadorial appointment as Ambassador to Indonesia in 2006 where he was accredited to the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Brunei as well. After completing that assignment in 2010, Ambassador Gouia returned to Tunis and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he first became Director General for Africa and the African Union and in 2011 was appointed Director General for the Americas and Asia. He served as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 2014 before being named Ambassador to the United States in 2015.

Even as we met, Ambassador Gouia and his staff were busy preparing for the visit of the Tunisian Foreign Minister, Khemaies Jhinaoui, to Washington where he met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and leading members of Congress. Still, in the midst of the whirlwind of preparations for that high-level visit, the Ambassador was kind enough to make time to speak with “Diplomatic Connections.”

Diplomatic Connections: Ambassador Fayçal, you have had a long and distinguished diplomatic career in service to your country. What led you to an interest in international affairs and into a diplomatic career?

Ambassador Gouia: What led me to the diplomatic scene is my fascination with international relations and world events. The role of diplomats at the forefront of efforts to prevent any kind of misunderstanding or any kind of conflict intrigued and energized me. Diplomats are there to serve their countries. This is natural and normal, but diplomats are also charged to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts. It is part of my personality and temperament to conciliate and to bring people together.

Diplomatic Connections: Given its geographic location, Tunisia is simultaneously a North African country and an Arab country, a Muslim country, a Maghreb country, a Mediterranean country, and a Francophone country. How do all of these overlapping identities shape Tunisian culture and diplomacy?

Ambassador Gouia: We accept all of these heritages and integrate them into a unique mix that is Tunisian culture and civilization. In turn, we are also part of many regional organizations that touch on each of these facets of Tunisia’s identity. We are part of the Union of the Arab Maghreb, the African Union, and the League of Arab States. We are also part of the 5+5 Mediterranean Dialogue. [Formally known as the Western Mediterranean Forum, this group includes 5 states of the Maghreb Union and five states of the European Union: Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia; France, Italy, Malta, Spain and Portugal.]

Diplomatic Connections: In the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” (2011) that led to the overthrow of a Tunisian government, an event that spread across North Africa and challenged regimes from Morocco to Egypt and beyond, your country has been called a “beacon of hope” managing “a rocky path to democracy.” Can you help us understand both of those expressions? Let’s start with a “beacon of hope.”

Ambassador Gouia: Tunisia has been a beacon of hope because our country escaped from the control of a dictatorship that lasted for many decades. The good news was that Tunisians with their strong will, direct engagement and enduring commitment to live in a nation where democracy, liberties and freedom prevailed were able to succeed in overthrowing that dictatorship of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. We are a “beacon of hope” because Tunisians are educated, women are emancipated and because people have dreamed all their lives of living in a peaceful and free country. That’s what happened in 2011 when all Tunisians went into the streets and told the dictatorship that “the game is over.” Today we call this the “Revolution of Liberty and Dignity.”

Diplomatic Connections: And now help us understand the other part of this formulation, the “rocky path to democracy.” Progress since the revolution has been bumpy.

Ambassador Gouia: No path to democracy is easy. The transition is necessarily difficult. We don’t have the culture; we don’t have the traditions of living under a democratic system. People are not accustomed to living with a democratic way of life. Our institutions were not ready yet at that time in 2011 to deal with the new rules of the game required for being governed as a democracy. It was inevitable that the first years of a new political system would be bumpy.

Diplomatic Connections: Tunisia has not had the same level of upheaval, resistance, splintering and violence that other countries in North Africa have had. Why? What made your country able to absorb these revolutionary events?

Ambassador Gouia: There are many reasons for that. First, the existence of core institutions in Tunisia were critical. Second, we have had a dynamic and vibrant civil society. Third, the role of women in Tunisia was vital to the process of change. Fourth, Tunisia has been fortunate to have a well-educated population. It is important for any democratic transition to have a population that has an overall high level of literacy and education. One that understands the ideas of diversity, tolerance, debate and disagreement within the bounds of democratic governance.

Finally, we were blessed with very wise political leaders who understood the need to cooperate despite differences and worked hard to build a secular coalition government that could include but not be dominated by Islamist parties.

Diplomatic Connections: The United States and Tunisia have a long diplomatic history. The United States was the first country to recognize Tunisia’s independence from France and to establish diplomatic relations with Tunisia under President Bourguiba’s leadership, was it not?

Ambassador Gouia: This year we are celebrating 220 years of uninterrupted Tunisian-American relations. Tunisia was also among the very first countries to recognize the independence of the United States. The United States reciprocated in 1956 by recognizing Tunisia immediately after its declaration of independence. And the United States was among the very first superpowers to support Tunisia in the midst of its recent revolution on all levels and also to offer our nation assistance and support. I will never forget this achievement by the American people.

Diplomatic Connections: What are the key issues between Tunisia and the United States today?

Ambassador Gouia: Tunisia and the United States have many issues in common, especially the fight against terrorism. Both nations have been directly affected by terrorism. We all remember the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Unfortunately, in recent years Tunisia has been subject to terrorist attacks also.

Now, I would say that Tunisia is much safer. Working together with the United States we have made great progress in combatting terrorism. We are in a better situation in terms of security. Deepening this mutual commitment was one of the main objectives of the visit by our Foreign Minister.

Diplomatic Connections: Are there other issues of critical concern beyond fighting terrorism?

Ambassador Gouia: There are important bilateral issues dealing with security, trade and development. Tunisia is a major non-NATO ally of the United States, and we have a Strategic Dialogue that will meet sometime this year in Tunisia. We also have upcoming meetings of the Joint Economic Commission and the Joint Military Commission later this spring.

Diplomatic Connections: What is the status of plans for a Free Trade Agreement [FTA] between Tunisia and the United States?

Ambassador Gouia: We are currently discussing a trade and investment framework agreement known as TIFA. It will provide necessary legislation and the legal framework to improve, increase and develop the economic relations between Tunisia and the United States. We all expect the negotiations for a free trade agreement, an FTA, between the two countries to bear fruit in the near future.

Diplomatic Connections: There are many different groups that emerged amid the disorder that followed the end of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and there has been a great deal of internecine conflict among them. Several of those groups, or their adherents, have crossed the border from Libya into Tunisia seeking to both recruit and foment violence within Tunisia. Does Libya represent a “failed state?” Is it destined to be constantly undermined by terrorist groups?

Ambassador Gouia: The Libyan problem arose from miscalculation. The international community did not think ahead about how Libya would be stabilized in the aftermath of the fall of Gaddafi’s government. Subsequent to overthrowing a regime like the Gaddafi regime, the first issue that must be tackled is to reassemble an army as well as the institutions that will stabilize the country and ensure the security of Libya and Libyans. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

Talking about Libya as a “failed state” may somewhat exaggerate the situation. To be sure, events in Libya have been tumultuous, uncertain and approaching anarchy in some parts of the country. But there have been and continue to be serious efforts to reestablish order, lay the foundations of legitimate rule and erect a working system of government there.

Diplomatic Connections: What steps are being taken to try to stabilize the situation in Libya and establish a legitimate government there?

Ambassador Gouia: The President of Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebsi, has put forth a 5-Point Libya Initiative that has been endorsed by our neighbors Egypt and Algeria and is moving ahead. It proposes a comprehensive reconciliation process under the auspices of the United Nations; recognizes Libyan sovereignty and territorial integrity; rejects any military solution or outside interference; insists on the continuity of Libyan state institutions; and, envisions a tripartite summit between the sponsors in Algiers. Our hope is that this initiative will gather Libyans around the table to discuss the problems their country is going through along with facilitating an end to the crisis. The goal is to make Libya stable, prosperous, developed and secure again.

Diplomatic Connections: How do you go about attracting international investment to help build Tunisia, to build its economy, especially in ways that will spread resources and opportunities across the country?

Ambassador Gouia: We have undertaken a series of economic reforms. The major reform is related to investment law. What we are creating is very interactive and extremely progressive. Second, security is key to attracting and keeping foreign investment in Tunisia. Third, we have a very well educated and highly qualified labor force. Tunisian labor is also much less expensive than would be the case in many other parts of the world, and the Tunisian government will encourage and support needed training programs for workers.

Diplomatic Connections: How is your country dealing with the problems of unemployment and underemployment?

Ambassador Gouia: Our primary aim is to provide our young people with jobs. There is what has been called a misalignment between the level of educational achievement and the availability of job opportunities for young people in our country. You can look at these young people as a burden, or you can look at them as an enormous opportunity and an incredible resource for our country that will fuel economic revival.

Diplomatic Connections: May we ask you to reflect back on your diplomatic experience. What would be your advice to those young people who aspire to be diplomats?

Ambassador Gouia: Diplomacy is a very noble mission. Anyone who considers being a diplomat first needs to have wide horizons and extensive cultural awareness. Being rooted in your own national tradition is a must, but it’s imperative to also strive to understand that other nations are rooted in their own cultural traditions as well.

Aspiring diplomats must learn not only the history of international relations but also acquire the skills of diplomacy that have been developed over centuries. It is important to have knowledge of the connections between major actors in the world and the evolving workings of our global economy.

I advise young diplomats to learn by doing and to hone their listening skills. They should prepare for higher responsibility by fully investing themselves and learning as much as they can in the initial staff positions they maintain. That is how you learn both the responsibilities and the procedures, formal and informal, of diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections: If you could leave only one lesson with these young diplomats, what would it be?

Ambassador Gouia: Representation, I would insist upon, as it is very important, especially when you serve abroad outside the borders of your territory, because you “represent” your country. In a very real sense, for the people you meet and with whom you interact, you are your country.

When people look at a diplomat from Tunisia or any other nation, you are the mirror. You become the image of your citizenry.

That is a great challenge, an enormous obligation and a remarkable opportunity. It is a heavy responsibility because people will not only judge you but they will judge your nation through your personality, through your words, and through your actions.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you Mr. Ambassador. That representation of your country is something that you do extraordinarily well, sir. You are an exemplary role model for the young diplomats who work under your direction.

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