Ambassador Mohamed Lessir: Acting
former ambassador to London,
Ambassador Mohamed Lessir was the first newly-arrived
envoy to present his credentials to President Ahmet Necdet Sezer a full five years
ago. His country, Tunisia,
straddles Africa and the Middle East, yet lies only 140 kilometres across the
Mediterranean from Europe. Famous for its
oranges, olive oil and dates, it is today heavily engaged in the digital
revolution and the future of Africa…
1. Bilateral relations
Turkey and Tunisia
have always had good relations. Aside from the long Ottoman presence in Tunisia,
there are certain moments in our common history which cannot be forgotten. Almost
2,200 years ago, the great strategist and warrior, Hannibal of Carthage,
finally poisoned himself in Gebze, near Istanbul. We are grateful
to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
for ordering a modest mausoleum to be built for him. A second link was forged
between Turkey and Tunisia when Tunisia sent 12,000 soldiers to fight
against the Russians in the Crimean War. Some of the survivors later settled in
Kastamonu. When I visited Kastamonu,
I met many people who said they were of Tunisian origin.
Thirdly, there is the great nineteenth
century reformer Hayreddin Pasha, who imported many
reforms from the West to Tunisia,
and later continued his reforms as sadrazam in Istanbul.
Turkey and Tunisia have continued to see
eye-to-eye on social reforms. You can see in both countries how adamant we have
been in women’s liberation. It is the magic of the alphabet that we also sit by
side in the list of nations.
Politically relations are excellent. President
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
in March 2001, President Ahmet Necdet
Sezer reciprocated in May 2003, and in March 2005 Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdođan visited Tunisia. Foreign Minister Abdelbaki Hermassi was here in
February. In April we had a very, very successful film festival, which I
inaugurated together with Minister of State Kürţad Tüzmen. What we need now is the cement of economic
relations and trade. The signing of a Free Trade Agreement in November 2004
marks a milestone in our economic relations. Now the ball is in the court of
We have a deficit in our trade with Turkey. On the
other hand, there are about fifteen projects, joint ventures and direct
investments by Turkish companies in Tunisia. There is room for more. With
the aid of generous incentives, Tunisia
obtains close to US$1bn per year in foreign investment - a high figure for a
country of ten million people. There are 62 industrial zones, two free zones –
and 2,532 foreign companies. Tunisia
provides the stability which investors need. It’s an excellent base from which
to enter Africa.
Given our common heritage we should be
exchanging more tourists. There are already ten flights a week between the two
countries. About 50,000 Tunisians visit Turkey each year. Most go to Istanbul on shopping
trips. Many of them are traders who spend money and then pay Tunis Air and
Turkish Airlines for excess baggage. But in return only 12-13,000 Turks visit Tunisia.
The textiles industry is very important for
both countries. Tunisia,
for example, is the leading exporter of trousers to France. Chinese products are very
competitive. We are having contacts about this, but the answer won’t be to
bring back quotas. So we envisage some co-operation schemes to lower costs and
make us more competitive.
2. Africa’s agenda
People tend to see Africa
as a disease- and conflict-ridden continent with no prospects for peace and
security. At the moment there are troubles in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
the Ivory Coast
We are hoping that the African Union will do better in the future in terms of
establishing stability. But other continents have gone through much strife and
revolution as well. In time, I think, given a bit of stability, if African
countries can put their act together, they can enjoy good prospects. There are
numerous African countries which are stable and which you don’t hear about
because they are making progress. And of course Africa
is well endowed with natural resources to exploit.
Africans believe in elections and
transparent government. This is not dictated by foreign powers. There is a
scheme within the Union for monitoring human
rights, good governance and fair elections. There is also an African Commission
on Human Rights. And there are innumerable African NGOs dealing with
development, education, the treatment of children and women and many other
issues. Hope can spring afresh, and a new day can dawn.
The New Partnership for Africa’s
Development (NEPAD) is an initiative of the Union
to provide an integrated socio-economic development framework for Africa. It is also seeking to determine how the G-8 and
other countries could help the Continent to emerge through more democracy, more
transparency, the elimination of corruption and the promotion of health and
education. Why not consider a Marshall Plan for Africa,
since Africa is so important for the big
powers, so that Africa does not get marginalised
The eight African countries represented in
Ankara – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan and
Tunisia - have formed a small group to speak in the name of Africa. I am the
dean of the African ambassadors because I have been here the longest. We were
very much encouraged when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdođan’s government
declared 2005 the “Year of Afrýca”. Turkey has not
shown a great interest in Africa in the past,
but Mr Erdođan has travelled to Ethiopia and South Africa
and recently visited Tunisia
A visit to Kenya
and a couple of other visits are in the pipeline.
In May we organised a series of Africa Day
events in order to increase our visibility. We think Turkey and Africa
can do a lot of things together. Turkey has very powerful companies
in the field of infrastructure. We would like to form partnerships and take
advantage of that know-how. The technical cooperation agency TICA, heavily
present in Central Asia, is moving into Africa too. Tunisia has a similar agency. I
think there is work for everyone. We could work together to carry out
education, health and women’s programmes and to build bridges, roads and
Phase Two of the World Summit on the
Information Society is to be held in Tunis
on November 16-18, 2005.
President Zine El Abidine
Ben Ali is very interested in technology. At the International Telecommunication
Union summit in Minneapolis
in 1998, the President proposed a summit on the information society. The first
phase took place in December 2003 in Geneva.
Intensive preparations are now under way for the second phase.
The developing countries want to bridge the
digital divide from the beginning. You do not have to have had an agricultural
revolution or an industrial revolution to do well in this field. It doesn’t take
a lot of investment. It’s a question of education and science. Tunisia exports
a lot of produits de l’intelligence.
So do countries like Bangladesh,
not to speak of India.
The Third World
has been marginalised before, and in many countries there is disease, violence
and conflict, which poses a threat to World stability. A repetition is not in
the interests of the developed countries. Spreading the information society can
make the world a more peaceful place. I am not being romantic – merely logical.
We must not give arguments to those who would like to blow up the world and all
civilisation for the sake of an idea in the back of their heads.
In 1993, Tunisia set up a National
Solidarity Fund (NSF). It attracts large donations on December 7 every year,
and has reduced poverty to just 4%. There are now similar funds in many African
countries. Some years ago, we suggested a World Solidarity Fund, and the UN has
passed a resolution on the subject. At Geneva,
we proposed a “Digital Solidarity Fund” This has now been established and will
be discussed further at November’s summit.
Another important topic is the governance
of the Internet. People are aware that you can’t really control the Internet. Nevertheless,
it is being used by criminal organisations and pornography rings. This is recognised
as a problem in the developed countries as well as the Third
World and the Islamic world. Some rules – for want of a better
word –need to be laid down. But agreement will have to be reached not just with
governments but also with civil society, which is very concerned about the
freedom of the Internet.
I must emphasise that the summit is not intended
only for heads of state, government officials and international organisations.
NGOs, the media and the business community will also have a major presence. Parallel
activities include a major exhibition, workshops and a partnership area. We hope
that the summit will act as a magnet to attract big names to Tunisia and to Africa. We would like to see a high level of business participation
as well as a sizeable contribution from the developed world to do something to
bridge the gap. I think it’s going to be a very big event.
(DIPLOMAT - June 2005