WASHINGTON—Tunisia will remain a moderate nation after its elections, despite concerns abroad about rising Islamist political influence, its prime minister said in an interview on Thursday here, where he is appealing to U.S. officials for financial support.
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Tunisian Prime Minister Beiji Caid Essebsi speaks during an event in Washington D.C. this week.
Tunisians head to the polls on Oct. 23 in the first free elections to emerge from the Arab spring democracy movement. More than 100 political parties are vying for the 217 seats in a constituent assembly that will rewrite the nation's constitution. Ennahda—a once-banned Islamist party—leads the pack.
Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi acknowledged a "big phobia" emerging outside the country about Ennahda gaining support. But he defended its place in the new democratic system, saying "no one speaks of such phobia when it comes to Likud in Israel, which is a religious party."
"We chose to be a democratic country, so we have to respect the democratic approach," he said. "The Tunisian experience will show to the world that Islam and democracy are not incompatible."
Mr. Essebsi is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on Friday as Tunisia aims to build a new government following the uprising that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January. The revolution sparked a movement across the Arab world, and Tunisia's first open election is being closely watched abroad as Egypt and Libya struggle to move in the same direction.
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"The ingredients for a successful transition to democracy are there," the 84-year-old transitional prime minister said. "If the Tunisian example succeeds, there's a good chance others will succeed."
Tunisia, a North African nation of 10 million people, has long stood out in the region for its relatively strong rights for women, a large middle class and government support for widespread education. It also opened its economy more than many of its neighbors, drawing significant foreign investment. But rampant corruption in the former government and an economy that failed to provide enough jobs for young graduates sparked unrest in December that set off the Arab spring movement.
Tunisia has embarked on a five-year, $125 billion rebuilding effort designed to attract new investment and create jobs.
The nation says it faces a gap of about a fifth of that amount and is appealing to the U.S., leading European countries, other Arab nations and international institutions such as the World Bank for financial support through loans and investment. A U.S. plan to encourage investment in Tunisia is stuck in Congress.
Mr. Essebsi noted that European nations offered considerable financial support to Eastern European nations that emerged from the former Soviet Union.
While that may be more difficult today amid the economic slowdown, "it's more about political will," he said.
While Tunisia subsidized education to the college level for decades, higher youth unemployment today is a symptom of a failure to give them proper skills in today's economy, he said.
As a result, Tunisia is asking the U.S.—as part of its aid—to consider a longer-term plan to grant scholarships for Tunisian students to study at American universities. The country hasn't sought a specific amount of money or number of scholarships, but rather "the biggest number possible," Mr. Essebsi said.
Mr. Essebsi, who met with U.S. lawmakers in recent days, held out hope Congress will come through with funding because Tunisia's success could set an example for the region, he said.
"If we look at revolutions over the course of history, many ended in chaos, turmoil and bloodshed," he said. "Others paved the way for democratic and accountable regimes. Tunisia will be in the second group."
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