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Volume 559: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2013

We continue to watch events in Tunisia closely. We condemn the assassination of Opposition leader Chokri Belaid. We have watched the peaceful transference of the premiership from Prime Minister Jebali to Prime Minister designate Laarayedh, which has been accompanied by strong statements by those in Tunisia about their adherence to democracy and building democratic institutions.

What is the Minister’s assessment of the likelihood of the presidential elections proceeding as planned?

Matters relating to dates and timings of the constitution and everything else remain unclear. We have seen nothing at this stage to suggest that any date should be affected, but a new Government have not yet been formed. The Prime Minister designate has until the end of this week to create a Government. There may be an extension after that, but hopes are high that that Government will be confirmed. It will then be easier to see what dates will follow for the other parts of the democratic process of rebuilding.

I do not want to accuse the Minister of being complacent, because I tend to agree with him on Tunisia, but there is no constitution and no set date for the elections. Before the leader of the Opposition was assassinated, he said that anybody criticising the Government would be taken out, in effect, and there is video evidence of direct links between the ruling party and al-Qaeda. Should the Minister not reassess his policy?

I am not quite sure what reassessment the hon. Gentleman is asking for. As I have said, we are monitoring events as closely as we can. We are engaged with a variety of projects for democracy building in Tunisia, yet the constitutional processes being undergone are for Tunisians themselves. I spoke to our deputy head of mission just this morning. The streets are calm; people are expecting a Government to be formed at the end of the week. They are well aware of the difficulties of forming the Government and of the pressures between the political parties, but as he said, there are grounds for some optimism. These are obviously difficult days for Tunisia, but the fact that the process has been handled democratically and peacefully to date is much to be welcomed, and we will continue to encourage it.

I am sure the Minister can agree that Tunisia has made remarkable progress in its transition to democracy. For quite some time it has led the way in the region, but the inevitable wobble has now happened. Can he say what role the Deauville partnership has in helping the political, social and economic transition to democracy?

I very much appreciate what my hon. Friend says. There has been good progress, but we must all be clear that each state is different. These events in the Arab world will take time and there will inevitably be progress, both forwards and backwards. Tunisia is facing its own difficulties, but facing up to them well. The Prime Minister has made it clear that, as part of our responsibilities for the G8, the Deauville partnership will be reinvigorated to ensure that economic support is available to countries in transition. We believe that the G8 process this year will be able to deliver economic benefits to countries in transition such as Tunisia, which will be of enormous help to them.

Does my hon. Friend agree that building a stable democracy takes a long time? After all, it has taken us 800 years and it is far from perfect. Should not those of us who support the democratic changes in north Africa and the middle east therefore exercise both patience and perseverance?

My hon. Friend puts it very well. There is a great risk of trying to see all political developments through the prism of 24-hour news or a rolling news programme. These things will not be settled quickly. I suspect that we will not know the outcome of the Arab spring even by the time most of us have finished our period in Parliament. My hon. Friend is right: this will need patience. Equally, the commitment of those such as the United Kingdom to democracy-building institutions—which we are involved in through the Arab partnership and other partners—is a vital part of the process, if it is to be a success.

When President Marzouki came to Britain last autumn, he stressed the vital importance of establishing a broad-based constitution. In view of the difficult atmosphere following the death of Chokri Belaid, what specific actions are the UK Government taking to support the development of democracy, perhaps through Arab Partnership projects? This is an absolutely crucial time for Tunisia.

It certainly is. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to our engagement, through Arab Partnership, in various democracy-building processes. We are expecting a number of projects to be developed during the course of this year, at a cost of some £2.5 million, and we will be looking to develop projects on election monitoring, on the support of political parties and on democracy building. We are constantly looking, with the Tunisians, at what they will find most effective. Last year, one of the most effective projects was to help them to move their state broadcasting company into a public broadcasting company. Such efforts to open up democracy to more people are a vital part of the process that we hope will lead to the establishment of a new constitution in the time scale already set out by the Tunisians.

21. There are 60 British companies currently operating in Tunisia, compared with 1,800 French ones. What steps is my hon. Friend’s Department undertaking with UK Trade & Investment to ensure greater British economic engagement with Tunisia? (145895)

We continue to encourage more UKTI missions to Tunisia. Through the G8 process, there will be a major investment conference later this year for all those countries involved in transition, at which UK companies will be able to look at the opportunities that are available to them in Tunisia. We want UK companies to be prepared to take more risk. We are sometimes told by nations abroad that they see more of other countries’ companies than our own, but we do not believe that that is necessarily the case. We want to encourage British companies to become involved, and Tunisia presents a series of fine opportunities.