Transitions in Focus: Tunisia

On Tuesday, October 9th, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East held a conference to discuss the nature of foreign involvement in ongoing conflicts in the region as well as the resilience of Jihadism in the post-2011 period. The conference coincided with the launching of a report, “The Arc of Crisis in the MENA Region: Fragmentation, Decentralization, and Islamist Opposition,” which explores a number of trends in governance that have emerged since the Arab Spring.

Atlantic Council President and CEO, Frederick Kempe, kicked off the conference with opening remarks, followed by the President of the Italian think tank the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Ambassador Giampiero Massolo, and the Ambassador of Italy to the US, His Excellency Armando Varricchio

Following the introductory remarks, the Rafik Hariri Center’s senior fellow Karim Mezran led a panel titled “A Great Powers Game,” featuring Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for Syria and the Middle East and North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace; Ambassador Rend al Rahim, co-founder of The Iraq Foundation, Nabeel Khoury, nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center, and Federica Saini Fasanotti, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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Panel I: The Struggle for Regional Hegemony: A Great Powers Game

The conference continued with a panel titled “The Resilience of Jihadism” featuring: Kim Cragin, senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies;  Hassan Hassan, senior research fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism; Frederick Kagan, Director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project; and Arturo Varvelli, co-head of the Middle East and North Africa Centre at ISPI. 

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Panel II: The Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the Resilience of Jihadism

Finally, the conference closed with a keynote address by Ambassador Joan Polaschik, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Near East Affairs at the US Department of State, followed by a moderated discussion with William Wechsler, Senior Advisory for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

The reoccurring theme in analyzing the results of Tunisia’s municipal elections is the endless glass half-full or half-empty debate. The country’s first municipal-level elections since the 2011 Arab Spring were carried out in a free, fair, and safe manner, but produced mixed results: some promising and some disappointing.
Tunisians will go to the polls to vote in the country’s first municipal elections on May 6. The vote is an important milestone in the country’s democratic transition and decentralization process; which aims to bridge the gap between the central government in Tunis and the Tunisian people.
Disappointment surrounding Tunisia’s democratic transition abounds in the country, and the volatile economy adds a degree of difficulty to politicians’ agendas. Economic development is always a long and arduous process, but the current strategy is clearly inadequate. Tunisians call on the government to do more to pull the economy out of stagnation by increasing public investment, providing jobs, and undertaking infrastructure projects. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU) insist the Tunisian government pull back government subsidies and increase taxes. Tunisia must balance the need to provide economic opportunity and governmental services against the demands of the IMF. The solution is not in pursuing economic reforms alone, but also political reforms that supplement and support a healthy economy. Increased transparency, accountability, and good governance are essential in improving the economy and satisfying the population’s desire for jobs, technology, and opportunities.
While women in the Middle East and North Africa still face critical challenges, it is worth noting recent progress on the occasion of international women’s day. Many countries across the Middle East have taken recent steps to codify certain rights for their female citizens. With the introduction of quotas for their legislative bodies, female representation in parliament in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia has jumped since 2011. Last year, lawmakers in Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon repealed provisions in their penal codes allowing rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. Even Saudi Arabia has taken a progressive step and issued a royal decree in September 2017 allowing women to drive.
Seven years after the autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali fled, Tunisia civil society today is best characterized by its sheer courage. It is not blind, blunt courage, but sharp and calculated. What started as a popular movement of individuals taking to the streets to kick out a dictator slowly self-organized into non-profit organizations and political parties. Around 11,400 civil society organizations (CSO’s) formed after the revolution in 2011. These organizations work on everything from governance and accountability in the public sector, such as Al Bawsala, to protecting minority rights, such as Mnemty. Luckily, and unlike the government, these organizations exist all over the country too. I-Watch, another CSO, works to combat corruption in all four corners of Tunisia, and has several offices throughout the country. As protests break out to address economic woes, it’s important to remember that the development and evolution of CSOs in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution continues to play a vital role in the democratization of the state, and represents a foundational pillar in Tunisian society.
Seven years after the 2011 Arab uprisings, Tunisia remains the only country to have emerged from the sweeping changes that took hold in the region as a fledgling democracy. Since then-President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali stepped down from power of January 14, 2011, Tunisia has accomplished a number of major successes, including holding free and fair national elections, fostering political compromise, implementing reforms to institute equal protection for men and women under the law, and making progress on freedoms of expression and belief. Economic challenges and political setbacks, however, could upset Tunisia’s advances.
Normally, the beaches of southern Tunisia are quiet in November. It is the start of the lean months, when few tourists arrive and the jobs which depend on them vanish. This year is different. Tunisia’s beaches have a new customer: Tunisians trying to go to Europe

Between October 1st and November 8th, more Tunisians took to the seas than in 2015 and 2016 combined, with Italy and Tunisia detaining 4,709. In total, more than 8,700 Tunisian migrants have been caught by Italy and Tunisia in 2017. There are suspicions this represents only a fraction of those who have left.
Qatar is one of Tunisia’s most important trade partners. It has invested, loaned, or assisted Tunisia with more than 1.5 billion USD since 2011, and has directed its media, think-tanks, and PR empire to acclaim the country’s transition to democracy. Thousands of Tunisians work in Qatar, and the current Gulf crisis has allowed a number of Tunisian businessmen to profit from the besieged peninsula by exporting industrial products, and even establishing factories there.