Tunisia Deserves Increased Western Engagement And Assistance

Tunisia has been a bright spot in the Arab world and, over the long term, its new secular democracy can offer a model for other countries in the region. A Tunisia with a growing economy where a large part of the population benefits, a successful new government where secular and religious parties work together, a security environment that is managed with “hard” and “soft” approaches, offers the Arab World the best way forward in terms of human rights and progress.

The US, European allies and the multilateral organizations that we lead can and should make big contributions to ensure that the new government “delivers on democracy.” The window to help Tunisia is right now because of the historic parliamentary victory of the secular forces in October and the even more important victory of the new secular Prime Minister Habib Essid of the Nidaa Tounes party.

Protests in Tunisia helped launch the Arab Spring, but now the new government must handle the practical challenges of economics and governance. Open domain image

Tunisia has some qualities that make it unique and many say that its uniqueness makes it difficult for others to follow Tunisia’s example-I disagree. Tunisia is relatively small with less than 15 million people. It has not had a history of being a leader in the Middle East region and it has a 3000 year history that it is very aware of, with deep ties to Europe, a notably educated population and excellent health metrics.

Except for the dictatorship “thing,” Tunisia demonstrated accomplishment on a number of development metrics including the education of women and even broad economic progress. The Doing Business indicators of the World Bank going back to 2008 cited progress in Tunisia under the Ben Ali regime, ranking Tunisia 73rd on ease of doing business and recognizing Tunisia as one of 33 “Top Reformer” countries that year. (I am a big supporter of the Doing Business Indicators but they do not tell us everything that is going on in a country and Tunisia’s success with the Doing Business Indicators is an example of this.)

Therefore, Tunisia is not a typical foreign aid partner given its relative wealth but it is going to need Western assistance with fighting corruption, getting the mechanics of democracy right, and handling a massive Libyan refugee crisis on its border. We should also use increased trade, and appropriate workforce training.

Corruption and frustrations about job opportunities are what are missing from the picture above. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia in 2010 when a vegetable seller committed suicide after being closed down by corrupt police, prompting thousands of frustrated, unemployed citizens to stage mass protests.

After former President Ben Ali fled, there has been a series of steps including a rewritten constitution that has been cited by President Obama and President Hollande as a model for Arab Democracy. A series of Islamist and technocratic governments have governed in the interim but this is the first new government under the new constitution. The incoming prime minister has a very clear understanding of the challenges he faces including youth unemployment, security, and consolidating democracy.

In the meantime, general instability in the region as well as the security challenges in the country– including an attack on the US embassy in September of 2012, several political assassinations, foreign radicalized preachers causing trouble, some 3000 Tunisians who have gone and joined ISIS (the most of any country) and over 1 million Libyan refugees now residing in Tunisia– have caused tourism to drop and the economy to go into further recession. As a result, the IMF has found ways to help with hard currency after agreeing in 2013 to a two-year credit deal worth $1.74 billion, and the fund continues to monitor Tunisia carefully.

The African Development Bank, not surprisingly given the great leadership of President Kaberuka, has seized the opportunity and has provided roughly $2.3 billion in loan and grant approvals to Tunisia between 2009-2013. The EBRD, formerly focused on Russia and Eastern Europe has also been involved. It was a good step that USAID–  the foreign aid arm of the US government– opened a large office in Tunisia as of late November in response to the election results.

Tunisia is going to need traditional foreign assistance to help with anti-corruption efforts, as dissatisfaction with corruption was one of the main drivers of the Arab Spring which subsequently led to the current Libyan refugee crisis. The US will need to think differently –given Tunisia’s educated population– about strengthening ties with the Tunisian diaspora, large scale mentorship programs for Tunisian entrepreneurs, workforce training appropriate for the digital age, as well as agricultural support for rural areas.

Given the above, Tunisia deserves more attention than its small size would call for. The US Congress ought to be holding hearings about US engagement in Tunisia when they reconvene. The Administration needs to consider launching US Tunisia free trade agreement talks. Any serious person considering running for US President should include Tunisia if making Europe or a Middle East Trip. If you are a governor running for President, you should consider leading a trade delegation to Tunisia because Tunisia needs investment and growth from the private sector more than anything. Tunisians have voted for change and they have the right leader who wants change to happen. This is their drama, but we can and should help them succeed because success in Tunisia will help pave the way for others in the region. If they fail, it will set back the long term project of Arab democracy.

Article Published in Forbes.com on January 5, 2015.

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