Herve Asquin, AFP
Last updated: 4 July, 2013

Hollande in Tunisia amid turmoil in Egypt

French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that everything must be done to restore the democratic process in Egypt, on a visit to Tunisia, where he encouraged the Islamist-ruled country and birthplace of the Arab Spring during its chaotic transition.

“We must do everything so that (the democratic process) can remain the basis of pluralism” in Egypt, Hollande told reporters at a joint news conference with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki.

“It is a failure when a democratically elected president is deposed,” he said referring to the Egyptian army’s ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday after massive nationwide protests.

Tunisia is ruled by the Islamist party Ennahda which is close to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and has faced several major challenges to its own political stability in recent months.

Marzouki, who heads a secular centre-left party allied to Ennahda, ruled out the risk of Egyptian-style military intervention in Tunisia, while acknowledging an “ideological divide” between the ruling Islamists and the secular opposition.

“That said, we must understand this signal (from Egypt), pay attention, realise that there are serious economic and social demands” to respond to, said Marzouki.

Despite a wave of violence linked to radical Islamists, and political tensions notably over the draft constitution, Tunisia is considered the Arab Spring country most likely to succeed in making its democratic transition.

With its historical ties and investments, France has a direct interest in seeing it do so.

Hollande, whose two-day trip is the first by a French president since the January 2011 revolution that ousted veteran strongman and former French ally Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, expressed words of encouragement for Islamist-ruled Tunisia.

“What is clear is that for you there is also an obligation to succeed because you are an example, a reference for many other Arabs,” the French president said, while describing the political transition in Tunisia as “controlled.”

After his talks with Marzouki, Hollande was due to meet Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, who belongs to Ennahda, and will address the National Assembly on Friday.

The French president is accompanied by around 10 ministers, with his interior minister Manuel Valls notably absent after he upset Ennahda when he spoke of “Islamic fascism” following the February assassination of Tunisian opposition figure Chokri Belaid.

Hollande is nevertheless expected to underline the importance Paris attaches to “respect for individual liberties”, his entourage says, “without interfering in any way in the activity of the Tunisian judiciary”.

Ahead of the visit several watchdogs urged Hollande to push for a “democratic system that fully respects human rights”.

They cited a series of court rulings they have criticised as harsh, such as a two-year jail term for Tunisian rapper Weld El 15 which was reduced on appeal this week to a six-month suspended sentence.

Three European activists from protest group Femen were also jailed for four months for baring their breasts in Tunis, but they too walked free last week when their sentences were suspended on appeal.

Their Tunisian colleague Amina Sboui, however, remains in custody awaiting possible prosecution after she painted the word “Femen” on a cemetery wall in the city of Kairouan.

Hollande is accompanied by 40 French business leaders as well as the French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche, who won the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize this year, and Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights.

Hollande is also expected to announce that France will maintain aid to Tunisia, which currently amounts to around 500 million euros.