Tunisia’s Promise and Strategic Potential

After a year of heightened tensions, growing divisions, and two high-profile assassinations, Tunisians launched a national dialogue that culminated in the adoption of a progressive constitution in January 2014. This milestone, achieved by Tunisians themselves against all odds, was heralded by the international community and ignited a surge in attention to the small North African country. Caretaker-Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa’s recent trip to Washington marked several important steps forward with regard to the bilateral relationship between the two countries, but it also served as an opportunity for him to highlight key challenges Tunisia still faces. Sustained support, building on the recent wave of success and subsequent high-level diplomatic gestures, remains a critical component for Tunisia’s democratic trajectory and potential positive impact in the region.

Citizens will head to the polls in coming months in a landscape characterized by growing insecurity and a faltering economy, the rebound from which will test the patience of an economically struggling population. Making diligent use of his Washington platform, PM Jomaa warned as much and in the same breath as he thanked the United States for its support, strongly advocated for more assistance. Tunisian authorities today are inexperienced in addressing terrorism in a democratic context and hope to work with their international and regional partners in tackling the problem, which has reached the small, traditionally peaceful country. The prime minister also frankly admitted that Tunisia’s leaders cannot confidently say they are providing jobs and a better way of life for their citizens—key demands behind the 2011 revolution. He called Tunisia a “democracy start-up”: invest now and there will be great dividends. PM Jomaa’s visit was a call for more robust assistance to what until now has been a more sporadic and inconsistent US aid policy. Tunisians have demonstrated their commitment to the transition and capacity for political compromise. Providing assistance (diplomatic, financial, material, or otherwise) would demonstrate that the United States is ready and willing to engage and support those countries that are willing to help themselves.

After lending only private and arguably not-so-strategic attention to Tunisia since the assaults on the US Embassy and an American school in September 2012, it now appears that the United States, eager to grasp at a potential Arab democracy success story, has refocused its attention on Tunisia’s achievements and appears ready to reward the country on its merit and to engage more publicly. Last week, after President Barack Obama and PM Jomaa met at the White House, the US Administration announced a new $500 million loan guarantee to mitigate challenges to investment in Tunisia. The visit also marked the launch of the US-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue as a means to elevate and institutionalize exchanges between the two countries. The State Department announced a follow-up meeting to take place in Tunis in 2015, suggesting exactly the type of sustained engagement that Tunisia needs. This forum, however, should only mark the beginning of a robust relationship that carries significant strategic advantages.

A prosperous, democratic Tunisia could wield influence and impact that outsize its more humble geographic characteristics and could have a positive impact in the shared interests of the region and the world. A successful transition in Tunisia would serve as a significant example that Arab transition politics does not have to be a zero-sum game and that consensus is achievable. Moreover, as democratic principles take hold at the ballot box and in vibrant public debate that produce accountable, representative leadership and (over time) deliver better services and opportunities to the people, the Tunisia case could show that political compromise is a sign of strength. This development would be particularly helpful in a region where countries face seemingly insurmountable challenges to fulfilling the promise of their own revolutions.

The Tunisian experience of course occurred in its own unique social and political context, but it could positively influence other transitioning countries. In an effort to draw upon lessons learned, Tarek Mitri, head of the UN Special Mission in Libya, formally requested Tunisia’s assistance in promoting a national dialogue in Libya—a testament to how much the international community hopes to make a shining example of Tunisia. While the idea of neighboring Arab countries helping one another is certainly laudable, world leaders should not forget that the respective countries’ national dialogues occur in different environments. Tunisia’s state institutions have remained intact, popular labor unions have wielded tremendous influence, and the large, educated middle class has channeled its grievances through civil society activist groups, even under dictatorship. In Libya, state institutions operate with limited capacity and legitimacy, and a security vacuum hampers progress. Nevertheless, Libya’s National Dialogue Preparatory Commission has made great headway in its public outreach and awareness campaign. If the Tunisians provide mediating or moral support throughout this process, Libyans could be reminded of the end goal and the success that they might achieve if they rally the political will to push back against centrifugal forces.

A robust Tunisia would also be better positioned to tackle transnational challenges. With authorities’ bandwidth stretched thin due to the rocky political transitions sweeping North Africa, illegal activity in the region has seen a boost, marked by a growing drugs and weapons trade. Criminal elements capitalize on porous borders and weak law enforcement to smuggle arms from Libya’s revolutionary war and fueling conflict elsewhere, according to a UN report. Illegal migrants use routes through North Africa and the Mediterranean to reach European shores. With the region in such turmoil and security deteriorating in neighboring Libya, the international community could use a strong linchpin to substantively curb the negative trends, particularly in light of extremist threats. Beyond standard counterterrorism efforts, Tunisia can address economic grievances and reduce the border regions’ dependency on trafficking of goods to earn a living, adopting a development approach to address the root causes of insecurity. Only a prosperous Tunisia can work more effectively with its partners, including Libya and Algeria, with which it has discussed improved border security cooperation. In the long run, an economically secure Tunisia with more resources and attention means that the international community will have a reliable partner with which to meet various threats.

With much at stake, Tunisia faces challenges that will inevitably test its democratic experience. The US administration’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget requests for Tunisia is lacking, despite the many ramifications that a Tunisian success story could have symbolically (in the short-term) and substantively (in the medium- and long-term). Nevertheless, the loan guarantees and the strategic dialogue initiative are promising signs that the United States, however restrained and cautious in its approach over the last couple of years, now feels more comfortable and confident in stepping forward to meet Tunisia’s needs after it demonstrated its commitment to the democratic process and earned its invitation to Washington. US engagement should build on this and not grow reticent with setbacks that will inevitably occur throughout this delicate period in Tunisia’s history. A transition is not without pitfalls, but if they can be overcome, a democratic Tunisia could have far-reaching strategic implications.

Lara Talverdian is the assistant director for research with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East where she researches the political transitions in North Africa.

Image: Mehdi Jomaa and Barack Obama, April 4, 2014. (Photo: Official Tunisian Prime Ministry Facebook page)