FPI Bulletin: Supporting Tunisia’s Democratic Transition

May 20, 2015

On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian produce vender named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest harassment by local officials. His act of defiance inspired a revolution against the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, followed by uprisings against authoritarian regimes across North Africa and the Middle East. Although the “Arab Spring” has largely ended in tragedy, Tunisia stands apart as a burgeoning democracy. This week, Tunisian President Béji Caïd Essebsi will visit Washington in an effort to consolidate his people’s gains and seek greater American support for the democratic experiment in Tunis.

Since its revolution, Tunisia has passed critical milestones. Tunis adopted a new constitution in January 2014 that enshrined critical rights such as democratic elections, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech and assembly, and equality for women.  In November and December of that year, it held national elections that that saw the peaceful transfer of power between political parties.

What makes Tunisia’s transition all the more remarkable is that this transition occurred while Ennahda, the country’s major Islamist party, held a plurality of seats in the legislature between 2011-2014.  Ennahda shared power with two non-Islamist parties and made extensive compromises during the constitution’s drafting. Vance Serchuk of the Center for a New American Security observes, “At the root of Ennahda’s conduct was the conviction of its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, that democracy means no single party — regardless of how popular — has the right to dominate society and that it is necessary to find common ground with your political adversaries.” 

President Essebsi displayed similar magnanimity after his secular party, Nidaa Tounes, won parliamentary and presidential elections last year. He partnered with Ennahda to form a unity government once again.

Despite this great progress, Tunisia remains beset by challenges, ranging from its sclerotic economy to the growing threat of ISIS and other extremist groups.    

Mr. Essebsi’s first priority is to produce strong economic growth and remedy the country’s high unemployment rate—estimated to be at 15% overall, and 35% for youth. To do this, his government must unravel the socialist restrictions on the economy left over from the Ben Ali-era. Mohsen Marzouk, a senior advisor to President Essebi, told the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl that a series of fourteen economic reform bills are due to be considered by the legislature. Taking on these painful reforms will require close cooperation between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, but as Marzouk said, “The coalition has no reason to exist if it is not going to push the whole society through the modernization process.”

At the same time, Tunisia faces a growing threat from violent Islamist extremists following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in neighboring Libya and the rise of ISIS in North Africa. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned Congress in February 2015 that “Extremists and terrorists from al-Qaida-affiliated and allied groups are using Libya’s permissive security environment as a safe haven to plot attacks, including against Western interests in Libya and the region.” This threat was clearly demonstrated by the March 18 attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, which was conducted by militants who trained in Libya. 

ISIS has recruited heavily in Tunisia.  Some 3,000 Tunisians have joined ISIS, comprising the largest source of foreign fighters for the Islamic State. As Rory McCarthy, former Mideast correspondent for The Guardian, reports, small groups of Salafi extremists emerged in Tunisia a decade ago, and harnessed the “widespread frustration and resentment among a disenfranchised urban youth” in the wake of Ben Ali’s downfall to become a potent threat to the country’s future.

Tunisia is in a race to integrate young men into its society before they are radicalized.  For instance, the internal and external threat of Islamist extremism has severely constrained both foreign direct investment and tourism, which constituted 15% of the country’s GDP in 2013. This situation not only threatens the country’s economic fortunes, but also leaves thousands of opportunity-less Tunisians vulnerable to the message of radical extremists.  Moving forward, Larry Diamond from the Hoover Institution recommends that Tunisia adopt “a counter-radicalization strategy that combats the allure of violent jihadist groups and gives these alienated young Tunisians a feeling of hope, dignity, and inclusion.” 

To that end, reforming the Ben Ali-era security apparatus will be just as vital as reforming the socialist economy. Although some elements of the ancien regime were done away with in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, McCarthy adds that “deep-rooted reform is still lacking, especially in the opaque interior ministry. Likewise, the judiciary remains largely unchanged from the Ben Ali era.” What’s more, recent proposed legislation has been criticized by Tunisians and international human rights groups as threatening “to revive aspects of the police state many thought they had buried for good.” In addition, the U.S. State Department notes that Tunisia’s security forces are “inexperienced in tackling terrorist threats and lack appropriate equipment and training.” America can help train and equip Tunisia’s security forces, but, as Diamond recommends, it should also ensure that its support of “the needed enhancements of policing and intelligence not come at the expense of civil liberties and due process.”

However, Tunisians do not want a relationship with the United States that focuses only on security issues, and have high hopes for Mr. Essebsi’s White House meeting. Indeed, Marzouk pointedly told Diehl that “we want to see the leader of the free world say it will do whatever it can to make our transition succeed.”

The United States, unfortunately, has done little to help Tunisia’s democratic transition succeed.  Although the United States provided as much as $189 million in assistance to Tunisia in FY 2012, President Obama requested only $66 million in foreign assistance in the FY 2015 budget to aid Tunisia.  Of that $66 million, $33.5 million is devoted to helping Tunisia reform its security sector, and a mere $2.9 million is targeted toward the democracy, human rights, and governance fund.  As Jackson Diehl notes, these funds are dwarfed by the $50 billion in immediate benefits that Iran is likely to receive as part of the nuclear agreement that it is negotiating with the United States and its international partners.  Although Tunisia is not expecting a Marshall Plan, he writes, “its attempt to lay out a path for Arab pluralism ought to be a U.S. strategic priority.”

This week’s meeting provides President Obama with an opportunity to redouble U.S. efforts. One important step in this effort, note Karim Mezran and Lara Talverdian of the Atlantic Council, would be a free trade agreement between Tunisia and the United States. Although U.S. policymakers believe that such an agreement should follow economic reform in Tunis, Mr. Obama could do much good by announcing his support in principle and ramping-up his efforts to secure Trade Promotion Authority from Congress.

Even as the Middle East and North Africa remain wracked by war, extremism, and dictatorship, Tunisia serves as a beacon of hope to its neighbors. Tunisia’s success is also of critical importance to U.S. national security, because it provides a model for resolving the conflicts that have proven so dangerous to the United States. President Obama should seize this opportunity to advance democracy in Tunisia and work to ensure the country’s example remains as powerful in the years ahead as it was in the first days of the Arab Spring.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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