Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Youth Engagement Speech in Tunis Met With Skepticism, Mistrust by Tunisian Millennials

On Saturday, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech in Tunis on the critical role Tunisian youth must play in developing their new democracy. She highlighted youth empowerment through economic development, community engagement, education, and dialogue with policymakers as fundamental to the creation of a sound democracy in Tunisia.

Following the speech, Secretary Clinton held an attentive and impressive Q&A session with young Tunisians in the audience, and it was clear from the questions asked that the United States has a long way to go before it can rebuild trust in the region.

Hillary Clinton’s remarks, though, could be a decisive turning point in how the people of the MENA region come to respect the U.S. It is critical for the U.S. to proceed with caution and to rigorously adhere itself to the principles Clinton outlined in her speech: commitment to human rights; economic development; freedom; liberty; and self-sovereignty. 

We heard from a handful of students during Secretary’s Clinton’s Q&A, but I wanted to know what my friends in Tunisia thought of the Secretary’s remarks. I had a discussion with them after the speech, and it was evident from their replies that they felt the same as many of the students in the audience:

Fatma Jebri, 24 years old, Tunisian Hydrometeorology engineer, currently studying oceanography in Paris, France: “While listening to the speech of Ms. Clinton, I can see the intention of preserving rights and freedoms within a real democratic state in Tunisia, as well as the will of helping its people financially, economically, and politically by the cultural exchange, for instance.

The U.S. government used to support a dictatorial regime not only in Tunisia, but elsewhere as well, without listing which of these countries are [actually dictatorships].

I won’t take “we had to deal with governments” as an answer. Especially when now, I’m still seeing corruption in my own country. Many people are still in need, even if the Islamist party has “won” the election. I don’t even think that these elections were fair. There was a lot of mind manipulation, especially towards the poor and the ones who are very sensitive when it comes to religion.

And I can see that the U.S. is again supporting this regime. I can understand that they have to deal with governments once again. But, to me, it is a big strategical political game: Tunisia is just a small country in North Africa. None had heard of us months ago, now it seems that we are in the middle of big socio-political storm. Our government and our people are not used to that. The country is bleeding, we are lost.

It seems like the leaders of this world want Tunisia to be an example to follow or to warn with other countries of the region.

All we need is our peacefulness and money back so we can go on further and live like any respectable people would. The economic support won’t be enough, it’s an investment in education, morals, and rights that we need to focus on."

Mehdi Terkman, 29 years old, Bachelor of Law, living in Algiers, Algeria: “The United States does not support Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, and other nations because they love them or because of human rights, but just for their own interests, especially since the White House wants to improve its image with Muslims around the world after the massacres it has committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If America claims to support these people in the name of human rights, it must first repair what it has done in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, despite the fact that nothing and nobody can fix what has been done.

Another note to point out, since Russia’s presence in world politics is increasingly influencing the media, it feels like a tug of war between the United States and Russia in the Middle East, including the Syrian crisis. [This marks] a return of a masked "Cold War".

To win the confidence of the Arab people, any U.S. policy must be more fair and more equitable, more humane and less based on the material aspects. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic and impossible to accomplish, because it would require that the U.S. close the Guantanamo prison and give the Palestinian people their rights.

This is an impossible thing to realize. Because unfortunately even the first world power, the United States, is not completely autonomous, free, and sovereign in its decisions.”

Jacer Sassi, 26 years old, Process Engineer, living in Tunis, Tunisia: “I want my country to remais free and for us to chart our future with dignity, fame, and autonomy.

What intrigues me is that Qataris have poured [resources] into my country. We are open to all cultures and we want the great powers of the world to invest in Tunisia, to create jobs, and bring development, but NOT to pass a new form of colonization through [the pretense] of respect for human rights.

I'm not very optimistic about the Qatari’s investment. I'm sorry, but I do not think America will help Tunisia. The U.S. seeks to benefit from its settlement projects in the Middle East through the support of moderate Islamists governments. They are rising in all Arab countries in the absence of a free democratic environment.  Only the religious will win because voters will vote with their heart.”

Youssef Manai, 24 years old, candidate for Masters Degree in Geomatics, living in Tunis, Tunisia: “We Tunisians are familiar with the politics of America, it is always searching for the natural resources of other countries. It will take them even if it has to kill all of the country’s people. They always use excuses like “terrorism, human rights, and democracy,” but we know this is not so.

Here in Tunisia, we love the people of America, the modern people who are peaceful against war, those who are against killing our brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq. These wars are only for the benefit of America.

Today, Hillary Clinton is presenting this system that America has followed since a long time ago. In Tunisia, we had high hopes for Barack Obama, but unfortunately nothing has changed.  He is like the previous presidents, and we are skeptical [of Clinton's initiative]. Honestly, we don’t want to see Hillary Clinton because we know that every country she goes to she creates problems.  

Here in our new Tunisia, we want to build our own country without the help of America or Qatar.”

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons