Tunisia Walking a Tightrope

Whether one speaks to a taxi driver, a bureaucrat, an activist, or a politician, Tunisians agree: their country’s two primary challenges are security and the economy. During a research trip to Tunis in April, all of those interviewed unequivocally cited these interlinked concerns in response to questions about Tunisia’s obstacles. While their responses may come as no surprise, it is within the context of the current delicate political dynamics that the difficulty of the situation can be assessed and understood.

Developments in neighboring Libya, a conflict very much on everyone’s mind, exacerbates Tunisia’s sense of vulnerability and insecurity. Beyond the persistent clashes between security forces and jihadists along the border with Algeria, Tunisians fear the consequences of spillover effects from the ongoing political violence next door. The armed conflict in Libya has resulted in a leadership vacuum, rendering the border with Tunisia largely unmonitored and conducive to the near unhindered movement of people, arms, and goods. That the Bardo Museum assailants reportedly received training in Libya prior to carrying out their heinous attack brings the chaos in Libya closer to home. With Libya as the transit point for so many foreign fighters—roughly 3,000 originating from Tunisia—joining extremists in Iraq and Syria, the pressure increases on Tunisian authorities to bolster the economy and provide opportunity for the country’s young population, especially in the underdeveloped interior regions.

Tunisia’s economy has taken a severe hit in the aftermath of the revolution. Foreign direct investment has all but dried up and tourism—taking another hit after Bardo—has dwindled. While there are many development projects on the outskirts of Tunis and the hustle bustle at markets and restaurants conveys a sense of normalcy, noticeably few foreign tourists and executives could be seen around town. Given this situation in the capital, one can only imagine what conditions are like in the more neglected parts of the country.

Notably on the security front, Tunisians acknowledge that the interior ministry needs international training and equipment, especially to tackle the rise of unconventional threats. What they do not want, however, is a securitized relationship with the international community. That is, they view Tunisia’s stabilization as not an end in and of itself, but rather a means to pave the way for increased investment and create the space to strengthen the country’s democratic development. Civil society organizations echo this sentiment while also advocating for conditionality on foreign military assistance, such as progress in security sector reform, to ensure the authorities’ respect for rule of law.

With regard to the economy, we heard no calls for cash handouts. Rather, Tunisians, many of whom invest in education that makes for an informed middle class, want opportunities to channel their skills and expertise toward becoming productive, contributing members of society. This objective is linked in varying degrees with efforts to decentralize government authority, giving municipalities more input into local governance decisions and making public services more accessible through public-private partnerships.

None of these policy priorities—countering extremism, ensuring security, restoring and reforming the economy—is an easy feat. The government has to manage a more diversified range of stakeholders and demonstrate greater leadership to navigate competing interests, including that of the powerful unions. Sadly, most Tunisians interviewed doubted the ability of the current government—despite its legitimacy—to undertake these responsibilities effectively.

Tunisians expressed concerns about two possible trajectories their country could take. Some worry about a regression to authoritarianism. Elements linked to ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime could use the insecurity to curb political and human rights, which would arguably lead to more marginalization, frustration, and extremism. This shift harkens back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when Tunisian authorities used the civil war in Algeria as an excuse to clamp down on dissent. But many Tunisians also point to a robust civil society that would serve as a check on the authorities, preventing a backslide. While such organizations may not be fully developed, it was striking to see how freely Tunisians of all demographics expressed their views. This kind of openness will be difficult to bottle back up.

On the other end of the spectrum, Tunisians expressed concern that the state would be too weak to assert its authority and advance a rigorous policy agenda. Differences between the main political parties would lead to paralysis on specific policy issues. The authorities’ limited capacity, exacerbated by the distractions resulting from political maneuvering within the current fragile coalition, would hinder the government’s ability to advance reforms, deliver needed services to the citizens, and face the rising threat of criminality. In such a situation, political activists would remain free to lobby the government on issues of concern, but such engagement would not translate into any tangible progress in the aforementioned areas.

Considering the nuanced social and political dynamics at play in Tunisia, both of these possibilities deserve attention. Observers hailed the national unity government—formed by a coalition of four parties, including the secular Nidaa Tounes and Islamist Ennahda—as a constructive step toward consensus building and compromise. Indeed, the polarization that engulfed Tunisia in 2013 has softened. But the uncomfortable alliance between the two major parties makes for a weak partnership, as each navigates the other while trying to maintain cohesion among more moderate and hardline elements of their respective bases. A consequence of this inherently weak foundation is that, having formed a party based primarily on an anti-Islamist platform, Nidaa Tounes now shows signs of fracturing. With the anti-Islamist trend on the rise throughout the Middle East and the unfortunate conflation of Islamists with terrorists, Ennahda also walks a fine line between compromise to ensure inclusion in the political process and keeping a healthy distance from Nidaa so as not to upset its more conservative ranks. Yet such tiptoeing is sustainable for only so long.

Prioritizing party cohesion over security and economic challenges will only make those issues more severe and difficult to address. Consequently, hardline elements could push for authoritarian tactics in the interest of political expediency. On the other hand, if the current coalition becomes politically paralyzed and does not push back against parochial interests to drive forward a tough agenda, then the interests of ordinary Tunisian citizens will fall to the wayside. As political apathy increases, the weak state will lose public support, raising the risk that some marginalized elements may resort to criminal measures to acquire the deliverables that democracy, in a sense, failed to promote. In a destructive cycle, the state’s potentially weak or authoritarian actions could fuel further deterioration of security and the economy.

That is not to outline Tunisia’s impending doom. The country has surmounted tremendous challenges thus far, and many have hailed it as the success story of the Arab uprisings for legitimate reasons—including Tunisia’s own engaged political elite, youth, and civil society with whom we had the opportunity to meet. Yet these same Tunisians remain worried for the future, only a few months since the formation of the government. The revolution’s gains cannot be taken for granted, and though Tunisians have owned the transition process and certainly have the will to continue to do so, their country requires both technical and material assistance to help it address its multifaceted challenges. It is time to think beyond immediate security concerns and fit the security component into a strategic partnership for which Tunisians aspire, particularly with the United States. If the international community recognizes the country’s need for a robust, multi-pronged assistance strategy, Tunisia stands a far better chance to strengthen its fragile democracy.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on the politics and economics of North Africa.

Lara Talverdian is an Associate Director for Research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa.

Related Experts: Karim Mezran

Image: (Photo: Flickr/Fórum Social Mundial)