The Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center hosted a small group of leading development and human rights experts and practitioners working on Tunisia for a roundtable discussion with US Ambassador to Tunisia Gordon Gray to discuss how best to help build civil society and democracy in the North African country at this pivotal stage in its transition.

Hariri Center director Michele Dunne moderated the discussion exploring the political, economic, legal, and security situation in the country as it heads toward the elections for the constituent assembly on October 23. Ambassador Gray noted that poverty and a lack of dialogue between government and citizenry promoted a sense of lost dignity that drove the revolution. The revolution itself was grassroots, lacked an ideological foundation, and focused on the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime. As the transition continues, Ambassador Gray noted several reasons for optimism, notably the ability of Tunisians to reach consensus around questions such as the timeframe for elections for the National Constituent Assembly, which will draft the constitution. In addition, the institutions of democracy—parliaments, political parties, independent judiciary, free media—are not foreign to Tunisians, although in the past they did not function democratically.

Ambassador Gray also noted challenges that will continue to complicate Tunisia’s transition. For many Tunisians, the primary concern is not so much politics but the economy, and specifically unemployment. Tunisia was experiencing economic growth before the revolution, but not at a rate that could sustain adequate job creation, and growth has slowed since then. The United States and the wider international community can play a role here, providing much needed investment and other forms of economic assistance.

In addition to economic stagnation, roundtable participants expressed concern over the levels of political awareness and civic education. In particular, the quality of voter education will need to be improved if future elections are to truly be successful and produce legitimate, representative institutions.

Gordon Gray has served as US ambassador in Tunis since September 2009. A career Foreign Service Officer, he has held a number of senior posts, including Senior Advisor to the US Ambassador to Iraq (2008-2009), Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (2005-2008), and Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Cairo.