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More help needed to boost Tunisian democracy: Envoy

By Kristen Shane      

‘If you invest in Tunisia now, you also invest in democracy:” Ambassador Riadh Essid.

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More than two years after a revolution that ousted the Tunisian president of 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s diplomatic representatives are still dealing with the fallout of the broken regime.

In Riadh Essid’s case, the new Tunisian ambassador to Canada is pressing Canada to speed up the process to ferret out assets the old guard has hiding in Canada. He’s also assuring the Canadian government that Tunisia can handle bringing a member of the former president’s family to justice.

Mr. Essid arrived in Canada—his first posting in a cold country—on Dec. 19 to face a long winter. Seeing the snow at first felt like he was on vacation, he said. 

But he got to work quickly. Tunisia is eager to retrieve stolen assets from Canada, which involves work with police, judicial experts, and the Department of Justice.

The Assets of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act received royal assent in March 2011, effectively freezing assets in Canadian financial institutions held by senior former regime officials as well as their family members and associates. 

It was a good step forward, said Mr. Essid, but more is needed. 

“For us, the most important thing is to recuperate our money as soon as possible,” he said in an April 8 interview. “When you finance the economy, you also finance democracy.”

He has no precise figure of how much is squirreled away in Canadian accounts, as they may be associated with unknown third parties.

A Foreign Affairs spokesperson last June told Embassy that more than $2.5 million in assets had been frozen for Egypt and Tunisia. Jean-Bruno Villeneuve at the time said Canada is working with both countries, but needs more information from them.

The ousted Tunisian president’s brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi, and his family fled to Montreal aboard a private jet in January 2011. The government has revoked Mr. Trabelsi’s Canadian residency, but the CBC reported that Mr. Trabelsi has since sought political asylum in Canada. 

That process is still taking place, said Mr. Essid, and while his embassy has to let Canadian authorities do their work, his staff’s job has been to explain that, in their view, there will be no retaliation if the Trabelsis return to Tunisia—he says Tunisia has an independent judiciary. Tunisia has submitted an extradition request to Canada, said Mr. Essid. 


From dictatorship to democracy

With Tunisia turning the page on governance, commentators have questioned whether the gains made through the revolution are in jeopardy. A Tunisian liberal politician critical of the government was assassinated in February, setting off anti-government riots. Western media have termed the current Tunisian ruling party as “moderate Islamist.” The government, meanwhile, has defended itself from critics who accuse it of being one with the hard-line Salafists. 

Mr. Essid said the transition from dictatorship to democracy is not easy.

“It takes time to change mentality, and also to prepare the Tunisian people. But we do have a very strong willingness to succeed.”

Canada put money toward supporting voter registration in Tunisia in 2011, but Mr. Essid said it could do more. 

“Canada is helping, but it’s not helping a lot,” he said. 

He said it could boost support for democracy. 

To learn from Canada’s democratic experience, his embassy is pushing for more parliamentary delegation exchanges, ministerial meetings, in addition to private-sector investment in Tunisia. 

“Because if you invest in Tunisia now, you also invest in democracy,” he said. “Tunisia is like a laboratory now. It has to succeed.”

Foreign Minister John Baird visited Tunisia in December and Mr. Essid said he is hoping his minister will visit Canada before the end of June.

Mr. Essid is ready to do some travelling himself. He’s cross-posted to Cuba, where he will visit to present his credentials. Handy for him, then that besides French, Arabic, Italian, and English, he speaks Spanish. 

Before becoming a diplomat in 1985 he taught French and also obtained a master of translation. 

While working in the foreign service, he was posted to Indonesia, South Africa, and was head of mission for five years in Cameroon. Immediately prior to coming to Canada, he was the diplomatic counsellor to the post-revolution president Moncef Marzouki.

He brings with him his spouse, Chiraz Saidane, and two adult children, a 19-year-old daughter attending the University of Ottawa and a 22-year-old son at the University of Quebec in Gatineau. 



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