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Political Stability: North Africa

Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015

2. What steps his Department is taking to support political stability in Tunisia, Libya and the surrounding region. (902303)

The UK is actively supporting UN efforts, led by the Secretary-General’s new special representative, Martin Kobler, to reach a lasting political agreement in Libya. We are helping Tunisia and other north African countries to build legitimate, inclusive institutions and develop their economies, as well as strengthening their counter-terrorism capabilities. I will visit Tunisia soon to discuss the effectiveness of UK political and security co-operation with that country, and I plan to meet UN Special Representative Kobler later this week.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree it is in our interests for countries at risk of extremist infiltration, including those in north Africa, to receive advice, assistance and support in monitoring their borders, thereby helping to control them?

Yes, I agree. Since the Sousse attacks in Tunisia, we recognise that we need to focus a bit more attention on those countries that are, let us say, one step away from the chaos that is going on in Libya—countries that are making a success of things, but which still have some vulnerabilities and are being targeted by the extremists. We need to help them to build resilience against extremism.

The Foreign Secretary will know that Tunisia’s economy has been badly hit by the collapse of its tourist industry. What steps is he taking to encourage other countries, particularly those in the Gulf states, to assist the Tunisians in maintaining both economic and political stability?

First, we need to work with the Tunisians to improve security so that the tourist trade can resume as soon as is practical. The EU is looking at the relaxation of olive oil quotas to allow Tunisia greater access to the European market for olive oil, a product it has aplenty, if it is able to export it. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), visited Tunisia a couple of weeks ago and discussed with the Tunisians a 49-point plan to support their economy. We are, with the French, seeking to act as cheerleaders for support within the European Union for the Tunisian economy.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we should take this opportunity to encourage institutions such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and a range of other organisations and institutions in our western allies—the United States, France and Germany, to name but three—to ensure political stability and democracy is brought to Tunisia, Libya, and, hopefully, other north African countries?

Yes, I agree. Of course, Tunisia is ahead of the game, as it were. It is one of the success stories of the 2011 Arab spring, with a functioning constitution and democratic elections. All of that is challenged, however, by the desire of the extremists to target such success stories. We must stand with them.

I am sure the Foreign Secretary will join us in expressing outrage at the terrorist atrocity in Mali in which 22 people, citizens of Mali, China, Russia, Belgium, Burkina, Israel, Lebanon, the US and Senegal, were slaughtered. Given that we now see al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Daesh-affiliated organisations operating across the Sahel and the Maghreb, including in Tunisia and Libya, will the Government say more about their regional approach to working with countries across the Sahara and the Sahel to tackle terrorism?

We are working with a wide range of countries, including, crucially, Nigeria. This is, of course, a pincer movement from Nigeria in the south and the Sahel in the north. We are working with a full range of countries. I would say, however, that if we are to stop the spread of terrorism, we have to tackle it at its heart, and its heart is in Raqqa, Syria.

The security situation in Sinai is a threat to Egypt and other countries in north Africa, as well as to the coalition against ISIL, as we saw with the recent terrorist attack. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the security situation in the Sinai region and its impact on political stability?

The security situation in Sinai is very serious. The Egyptian army is engaged in combat with terrorist groups across Sinai. The Foreign Office travel advice recommends against all travel to Sinai, except the area around Sharm el-Sheik. Sharm el-Sheik is itself still considered safe for travel, although travel through the airport is advised against. We seek to work with the Egyptian authorities to deal with the terrorist challenge it is facing in Sinai.

Does the Foreign Secretary believe that further air strikes alone will move us towards political stability in the wider region? Perhaps he will take this opportunity to address the efficacy of military intervention in Syria and how it will contribute to a wider initiative to end civil war and secure reconstruction. Does he have a plan for securing the peace that includes measures to close down all sources of finance and new recruits to the terrorist cult Daesh, including a Government inquiry into its financing? Why are the Government attempting to make a case for war while failing to address the clear and present need for a long-term, comprehensive peace plan?

The short answer, as we have acknowledged many times, is that, no, airstrikes alone will not destroy Daesh—as the hon. Lady implores me to describe it from the Dispatch Box—but they have to be part of the overall solution. On her other specific inquiries, if she will wait until Thursday, she can look forward to hearing from the Prime Minister how this fits into our broader strategy.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his response, and I wait in anticipation for Thursday’s statement. I am also grateful for his using “Daesh”; I wish that other Members would follow suit. As we understand it, in Syria today, the USA is bombing Daesh and does not support the Assad Government; Russia, which supports the Assad Government, says it is bombing Daesh but is also targeting rebels; Turkey is bombing Daesh but is also targeting Kurdish forces in the north; while the Australians, Canadians, Saudi Arabians and others are supporting the USA. If military action forces Daesh to give up territory in Syria and Iraq in the coming weeks and months, which force does he expect to take its place on the ground?

Again, the short answer is that the hon. Lady has correctly identified that the situation is extremely complex. As the Prime Minister has said, we have to resolve these two things in parallel: we have to get a political solution to the civil war in Syria so that we can get everybody dealing with the challenge posed by Daesh, instead of fighting each other, and that is what our comprehensive strategy will seek to achieve.