During the first day of his official visit to the United States on Tuesday, Acting Prime Minister of Tunisia Mehdi Jomaa talked about the challenges his government faces as it transitions to a democracy while promoting the country as a bright investment opportunity in a speech hosted by the Business School.
“Our main aim today is to lead the country to fair, equal, and well-organized elections ... but to do that we have to offer the right climate. ... We have to offer security,” Jomaa said. “This last year ... we succeeded really to fight them [extremists] ... but we know that like any country in the world ... we are still subject to this threat.”
Jomaa said that the moderate, pacifist nature of the Tunisian people inherently rejects extremists, who “don’t have a chance to grow in Tunisia.”
“Fortunately since a couple of months we found a peaceful way to close this political crisis. ... Think it’s more the nature of the Tunisian people. ... We are a really moderate people,” he said.
Jomaa also credited Tunisia’s youth, who, motivated by hopes of freedom and employment, used social media to impact the revolution.
Still, Jomaa said that the revolution took a toll on the country’s economy and left lingering social problems.
“We forget the economy, but the economy did not forget us,” he said
Jomaa said that a major cause of the revolution, which started in 2011 with the toppling of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was the disparity in growth between Tunisia’s coastal and inland areas. One of his government’s priorities now is to continue reforming and restructuring the government encouraging investment and development in Tunisia.
“Tunisia—it’s an open land for investors. ... Today there is fundamental reasons [to invest] ... with this vote of the constitution, with the new atmosphere and climate ... we can give the new visibility. ... We have a tradition for foreign investors,” Jomaa said. “I don’t like to speak of Tunisia as an Arab Spring country, but as a start-up democracy.”
The speech was organized by the Business School’s Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business and co-sponsored by Columbia’s Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, the Institute for African Studies, the Middle East Institute, and Tunisian post-revolutionary think tank TUNESS. Audience members included Tunisians living in New York, diplomats, faculty, and students. Notably, Jomaa spoke without a translator.
Tunisian citizen Ahmed Mrad, CC ’17, said that he appreciated Jomaa’s speech.
“He marketed the brand Tunisia really well. He spoke about all the positives aspects ... the transition, and the fact that we’re a really moderate people. We’re more diplomatic, we don’t want to fight and crush between each other. We want to seek dialogue,” Mrad said.
Douha Boulares, who works for TUNESS, also said that she was hopeful about Jomaa’s talk.
“I think he has been honest. ... I liked it because he was kind of objective. ... He was not ‘too’ nice,” Boulares said. “The population in Tunisia are expecting a lot but in reality, it’s going to take so much time. We are very hopeful that he’s going to lead the country to a democratical election.”
Amel Abid, BC ’17, from Borj Cedria, Tunisia, was more critical and expressed dissatisfaction with Jomaa’s responses.
“I feel like there’s still a lot of questions here. He was very vague in the way he answered questions,” Abid said. “I asked him about internal investments. ... Is the government keeping in mind that we have potential—internal potential—that might be very helpful compared to foreign investment?” she said.
Abid was more positive about the direction the country is headed in.
“I’m totally hopeful that we are on the right track right now,” she said.
As a part of his official visit, Jomaa will meet with President Barack Obama, CC ’83, on Friday.