H.E. Kais Darragi is the ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Republic of Tunisia, a popular tourist destination. After the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali administration was toppled in the Jasmine Revolution of 2010, the citizens have served a central role in making Tunisia into a democratic nation. Toshio Motoya spoke with Darragi about Tunisia’s post-revolutionary revival and world affairs after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today.
(D) I am very honored to be invited. This is the third time we have met. I think your way of living is wonderful – you are highly cultivated, including your historical knowledge, and have achieved great business success.
(M) Thank you very much. I am extremely curious and have enjoyed reading the newspaper since I was in elementary school, which made me interested in global affairs and economics. That is why I have traveled the world as an adult and published Apple Town for the past 26 years to share what I have learned from my observations, including interviews and social commentary essays.
(D) I am glad for this opportunity to be interviewed for your magazine.
(M) I visited Tunisia in December 2010 at the invitation of Dr. Noureddine Hached, the previous Tunisian ambassador to Japan, and met with several ministers there. Tunisia has a great deal of history and beautiful scenery, so I had a wonderful time. My impression was that it seemed more like a European country than an Arab one. Soon after I returned home, the authorities seized the merchandise of a young produce seller on the street in a provincial city in Tunisia. The young man set himself on fire in protest, which set off demonstrations and strikes across the country and led to the overthrow of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali administration. These sparks spread throughout the Arab countries in the blink of an eye during the “Arab Spring.” What is your view of this phenomenon?
(D) It is frequently said throughout the entire Arab world that democracy is lacking in some ways. This is because people tend to think of the Arab world as an exception in democracy because of a congenital cultural deficiency. However, I think that Arab culture and democracy can exist together – the issue is the society’s level of democratic maturity. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia because it was ripe for democracy based on its long history. A major revolution took place in the latter half of the 19th Century, around the same time as the Meiji Restoration in Japan, and the Arab world’s first constitution was enacted in 1861. Before that, Tunisia also decided to abolish slavery in 1846, which was ahead of the United States and many European countries. Furthermore, a modern education system was founded to extensively teach science and technology to citizens, resulting in the highest standard of education in the Arab world. We maintained this way of thinking after our independence from France in 1956, and have invested massive sums of money in education rather than prioritizing military spending. This led to a middle class and democratic advances. Tunisia has been called the “Crossroads of Civilizations” since the prosperous era of the Phoenician civilization, and it has had a character of being open to the outside world. We still have a liberal, free atmosphere.
(M) Japan also had a high level of education; temple and clan schools became prevalent starting in the Edo Period, leading to an extremely high literacy rate. I don’t think democracy is an implicitly good political system. It’s true that democracy was better than communism, but countries have their own histories and cultures and I feel like different governing methods are optimal for each. For instance, in desert areas with harsh climates, a tribal structure might be needed with strong leadership by a chief that protects his people. I am reluctant to unilaterally force Western European democracy on nations with that type of culture. After going to Tunisia, I also visited Libya in 2010. The Libyan ambassador to Japan had returned to his country and become the vice-minister of foreign affairs. I was supposed to meet with Muammar Gaddafi, but my stay was too short to make it happen. That was right in the middle of a rush to build modern buildings in Tripoli, the capital, which was being transformed into a modern city. Public order was good underneath Gaddafi’s rule, and I felt that Libya was a good country.
(D) I think that is a very good argument. As you say, democracy is not the ultimate political system. Another option is a social contract between the elite rulers and common people. Back then, a stable Libyan society had been built based on the social contract between Gaddafi and the citizens, and cities were being modernized with welfare programs and building construction. But Tunisia has few natural resources like Japan, so it was not striving for modernization in terms of buildings and other infrastructure. Rather than physical objects, we chose the path of modernization for society itself, which is why our aspirations for modernization were directed at education, social participation by women, invigorating the economy, and other measures. Libya was certainly a tribal society, but that was not the case for Tunisia.
(M) Libya had enormous oil reserves. It couldn’t export oil due to economic sanctions, but it prospered and modernized quickly once these sanctions were lifted. You said that Tunisia lacks resources, yet it has many tourist attractions like Japan and could become a tourism-focused nation.
(D) Countries with ample resources have to deal with the “resource curse” (laughs). They have an abundance of resources and physical things, but tend to lag behind in modernizing the people’s awareness, resulting in warped societies. Resources also invite foreign threats and hinder economic diversity. Libya has a great deal of historic heritage, but it relied on its resources and hasn’t worked to enliven its tourism industry. Libya also had money, but it didn’t invest enough in its educational system. Because of that investment deficit, many services were not provided such as health care. As a result, around 80% of Libyans come to Tunisia for health care.
(M) Is that so? Tunisia promptly resolved the chaos of the Arab Spring and was revived as a democratic country. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group of citizen organizations, made major contributions to this process and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. Do you think the Syrian Civil War will come to a resolution with the liberation of Aleppo by the Syrian government forces under President Bashar al-Assad?
(D) The other Arab countries are not yet optimistic. The circumstances are still difficult in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and I think a breakthrough solution has yet to be found.
(M) I think the worst of the Syrian Civil War is over. But as the Islamic State (IS) weakens, I fear that terrorism will spread across the world. At first the IS controlled the oil and had ample funds to draw volunteer soldiers from across the world, but now it seems there are fewer of these soldiers and the IS has switched its policy to terrorist acts in various countries. I think this disorder will continue for some time and then be contained. Perhaps the new, democratic Tunisia will serve as a model to the Arab countries experiencing such turmoil.
(D) We were able to build this new Tunisia because we placed maximum priority on social stability. This stability comes from a consensus of the people; stability with a social consensus is firmer than that achieved with military power by a dictatorship. I also think the IS is shrinking in Syria, but I am worried about the vacuum of power resulting as it quiets down. The IS originally rose from the power vacuum in Iraq after Saddam Hussein. It leveraged this ideological vacuum rather than police force or military strength.
(M) I think a great deal of the responsibility for the rise of the IS belongs to American President Barack Obama. He opposed the Syrian government’s usage of weapons of mass destruction and left the issue of air strikes vague, which declared to the world that the U.S. had a weak attitude.
(D) That may be true in regards to Syria, but George W. Bush may have made a mistake by overthrowing the Hussein government without considering what would happen afterwards. He should have made proper arrangements for the government and armed forces after Hussein to fill in this void of authority and ideologies. Even if Tunisia builds a political system that serves as a model for other Arab countries, there’s nothing that can be done when these power and ideological vacuums exist. Tunisia does not have any intention to export its model, but will just silently safeguard the systems we have created and build on our precious heritage from the past.
(M) Including the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, the U.S. has constantly taken part in conflicts due to its desire for wartime procurement and to sell weapons. That is the American tradition, but Donald J. Trump’s inauguration has opened the way to a new world. Independent nations protect themselves. Today we cannot describe Japan as a truly independent nation, but I think Trump’s presidency might be an opportunity for Japan to be transformed into a country capable of independent self-defense as a way to avoid the creation of vacuums in East Asia and prevent war. To that end, Japan should amend its constitution to increase defense spending from 1% to 2% of the GDP and permit offensive weapons that provide deterrence rather than just defensive weapons. Past American presidents may have been against Japan expanding its armaments in this way, but I think Trump will allow it. It will be important to build a good Japanese-American relationship during the eight years under Trump and remaining five under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
(D) Trump is still repeating statements of the same tone he made during his campaign, but I have no idea to what degree he will actually reflect them in his policy.
(M) I think his cabinet picks indicate that he will implement sound political measures. The American presidential election clearly showed that the media is excessively leftist, which is also true in Japan. I can’t blame Trump for getting angry.
(D) Yes, but I can also say that the U.S. is most interested in national security and certainly stresses the importance of its alliance with Japan from that standpoint.
(M) I think the Japan-U.S. Security Arrangements should be more mutual. I agree with Trump for pointing out the unfairness of this alliance; if Japan is attacked the U.S. will fight, but the opposite is not true. That is why Japan should increase its defense budget to 2% of the GDP. Only five North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries meet the target of military spending totaling 2% of their GDP. In fact, the Trump-like sentiment of putting one’s own country first has spread to Europe as well, and I am concerned that NATO and the European Union (EU) might collapse. For instance, if France left NATO and the EU, strong initiative would probably be impossible with Germany alone, which lacks nuclear weapons. This might be the end of the European community. The backlash is also growing against Germany, which has enjoyed economic prosperity by devaluing currency in its currency basket for export advantages and using cheap immigrant labor. I think NATO and the EU should first restructure and reinforce their systems.
(D) I think your analysis of the European situation is quite perceptive. Countries are constantly struggling with the question of whether to be isolated or internationally oriented. The world is extremely complex, and I believe balance is essential. The U.S. needs strong alliances with Japan and Europe, but we have no clue what kinds of policies the Trump government will set forth until it does so. Growing uncertainty is already impacting the global economy, including financial markets.
(M) I can’t predict what he will talk about in his inauguration speech.
(D) There are many different arguments, but I expect great things from Japan, which is highly adaptable and skilled in many fields including economics. I am confident that Japan will come up with the best prescription for the future security of the world. Japan is capable of showing the world how it is working to guide the Japanese-American relationship in a good direction.
(M) I agree. Abe is making the first move to build a good Japanese-American relationship; he met with Trump before other world leaders and also visited Pearl Harbor. The biggest issue for Japan is its constitution. If we do not amend it during the Trump administration, I doubt we can do so for the next 100 years.
(D) I see.
(M) I believe Japan should devote more efforts to information warfare. Today many Japanese people believe in a masochistic view, implanted by the American occupation army after World War II, which says Japan was an aggressor nation. Japan was actually a pacifist country for many years. The war between Japan and the U.S. was started when President Franklin D. Roosevelt provoked Japan to give the U.S. a reason to participate in the war in Europe via the Tripartite Pact. The U.S. started this war, not Japan. This history is described in the memoirs of Herbert Hoover, the president before Roosevelt. It would not be an exaggeration to say that world history is a history of information strategy warfare. All people who learn the truth become conservative. A great deal of false information was spread during the American presidential election because people only cared if a statement was influential, not if it was true. This state of so-called “post-truth politics” is an extremely unprincipled one. If things continue in this way, we will not be able to maintain freedom of speech like we have today. I think legal regulations might be required to ensure the media only prints verified information. I have heard that Germany is cracking down on fake news in the media, including online.
(D) Facebook is developing tools for checking what is true, since someone always points out any incorrect information. Democracy was just started in Tunisia and many people say they are discontent with the media for spreading incorrect information. Yet Tunisia must first consolidate freedom of speech after its democratization, which means a more important role for Facebook and other types of media. The relationship between history and the present is also a vital issue. People today focus on the economy before their eyes and tend to neglect the past. I think we must teach the significance of learning history and becoming awakened.
(M) That’s true in Japan as well. Today the era of bloody conflict has ended and confrontations are shifting to the realms of history and cyber warfare. In January, the fact that my books are placed in APA Hotel rooms became an issue in China, and I was criticized by the Chinese government. Yet I didn’t remove the books. If they want to oppose my statements that are substantiated, they should refute what I say with contrary proof. In a free nation, it would be unimaginable for the government to do things like tell travel agencies not to book rooms at a given hotel chain. But thanks to this issue, APA Hotel has received e-mails and other messages of support from many customers. I think this uproar might propel a trend of growing conservatism in Japan, just like when Toshio Tamogami was dismissed from his post.
(D) I am not a historian, but I think your books are well written. Having a solid awareness of the truth is the important thing. Careful investigations are underway in Tunisia today, such as who was persecuted by whom during the Ben Ali era. We will reach amicable settlements on matters that require reconciliation. In this way, we are attempting to build good, future-oriented relationships with the citizens.
(M) It sounds like Tunisia stood up during the chaotic era and is now making steps towards being a truly democratic nation.
(D) The next issue we are facing is the economy. Economic reforms are being carried out and an economic policy plan was drafted in November 2016 to introduce new laws. Political trial and error is underway, but I think we have come up with pretty good resolutions so far.
(M) That’s wonderful. However, it seems like many people across the world cannot distinguish Tunisia from other countries, which impedes tourism because they believe the entire Arab society is dangerous. It sounds like you should constantly promote Tunisia’s high degree of safety.
(D) I agree entirely. It is easier to view the Islamic world as a single unit, and even among businesspeople few are interested in the differences between these countries. That is why differentiating Tunisia will be of premium importance. I would like to invite you to Tunisia again so you can see the new country for yourself.
(M) I would love to! Incidentally, what is Hached doing these days?
(D) He was involved in the political world for some time, but today he is writing a book to share his experiences as an ambassador with many people.
(M) Is that so? He has a lot of energy! At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(D) Since coming to Japan, I have personally observed Japan’s astounding development in the modern era. In particular, I highly appraise the skillful blend of Japan’s long history and modern qualities. Compared to the world, Japan is unique for this co-existence of traditional values and modern civilization, and I hope that young people will cherish this harmony.
(M) Japan has many good qualities, but Japanese people are masochistic in all sorts of ways. The media reports excessively on issues that don’t threaten human health, including the nuclear accident in Fukushima and water quality surveys at the site of the new Tsukiji Market in Toyosu. To what degree has the media harmed Japan’s national interests? The truth is of premium importance, yet Japanese people just silently accept criticisms without refuting them at all.
(D) It’s also important to take part in discussions, which is what Tunisians do (laughs).
(M) Japanese people must learn from you! Thank you for joining me today.
H.E. Kais Darragi
Kais Darragi, Ambassador of Tunisia in Tokyo since October 19, 2015, is a holder of a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Tunis and a Certificate in Diplomatic Studies from The University of Oxford, United Kingdom. He joined the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1990 and served in London from 1994 to 2000 and in Tokyo from 2004 to 2010 before his appointment in Washington, D.C. from September 2012 to September 2015 as deputy chief of mission. He has been chargé d’affaires, a.i. at the Embassies of the Republic of Tunisia in Tokyo and in Washington on several occasions. Darragi has served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tunis as head of division for European affairs and as deputy director for North America. Darragi has published a few articles and research papers including a series of articles in the Tunisian La Presse in November 2011 on Tunisian diplomacy and new avenues of thought towards an agenda of reform. From 2000 to 2004, Darragi taught at the Institut Supérieur des Sciences Humaines de Tunis, Al-Manar University as a part–time lecturer on Middle Eastern studies.