On December 28 Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio paid an unplanned visit to Tunisia. During the visit, Mr. Di Maio met with Tunisian FM Othman Jerandi, President Kais Saied, and Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhan.

FM Di Maio with Tunisia's President Kais Saied
FM Di Maio with President Kais Saied

The Minister’s visit was as quick as it was meaningful. As journalist Matteo Garavoglia explained in an article for Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, “this is the first Italian diplomatic trip to Tunisia since the 25 of July, when [President] Saied suspended the parliament, dissolved the government, and imposed a new institutional agenda to the country, that will result in early elections on 17 December 2022.”

The fear of many international observers is that President Saied’s decision will bring Tunisia back 10 years, erasing the democratic gains achieved with the Arab Spring in 2011 and returning the country to an authoritarian system, with power concentrated in the hands of a single person. On the other hand, Saied’s decision to set a clear timetable for a constitutional referendum and new parliamentary elections offers at least some reassurance on the faith of Tunisian democracy.

Meeting with the press at the end of his visit, Minister Di Maio said he had told President Saied that “Italy is watching with interest the setting in motion of a path for reforms and political and constitutional deadlines that we hope will culminate in new legislative elections.

FM Di Maio with Tunisian prime minister Najla Bouden Romdhan
FM Di Maio with prime minister Najla Bouden Romdhan

I then underscored the importance that the path set in motion continue towards the full restoration of the rule of law and democratic normality. At the same time, it is important that this happen through dialogue that is inclusive, transparent, and substantive, with all the political and social components of the country, ensuring full respect for fundamental rights and economic growth” concluded the Minister.

Many other issues were at the center of Di Maio’s meetings with Tunisian authorities. The Minister discussed cooperation over waste management and addressed the problem of the 7,900 tons of Italian waste that were brought illegally to the port of Sousse, in southern Tunisia, and then left there for two years, pending investigations by Italian and Tunisian police. Di Maio assured his counterparts that Italy will remove the containers from the Tunisian port.

The meetings also focused on immigration, a key aspect of relations between the two countries. As Matteo Garavoglia explains, “in 2021 alone 14,000 Tunisians arrived in [the Italian port of] Lampedusa.”

FM Di Maio with Tunisian FM Othman Jerandi
FM Di Maio with FM Othman Jerandi

Recently, the tragedies of two Tunisian immigrants who lost their lives in Italy sparked outrage in both countries: Wissem Abdel Latif, 26, died in the psychiatric ward of the San Camillo hospital in Rome on November 28, in unclear circumstances, while Ezzedine Anani, 44, took his own life while being detained in a CPR [the Pre-Removal Detention Centres where Italian police can detain undocumented migrants]. The two tragic deaths highlight the systematic violations of the rights of migrants in Italy and the inhumane conditions in which they are often detained.

Finally, the Minister discussed economic cooperation: Tunisia is not only, as the Minister himself said, a ‘strategic’ partner and a ‘traditionally friendly’ country, but also an economic partner of primary importance for Italy. Italy is Tunisia’s second largest trading partner, and more than 800 Italian companies operate in the country. The Minister expressed the hope that “this partnership can be further strengthened”.