Tunisian president brings a message of hope from North Africa

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi arrives in Washington this week, bringing an uplifting story of his small country's achievements along the road to democracy. In its 2015 report, Freedom House gave Tunisia the ranking of "free," only the second Arab country to achieve that global standard (the other being Lebanon back in the 1970s). His visit will reassure those who see the "Arab Spring" as a generational project to change the political culture of the Arab world; Tunisia today is the only country that is engaged in the process peacefully.

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Caid Essebsi is the only elected president of an Arab Spring transition. Voters chose Caid Essebsi and his secularist party, Nida Tounes, over pro-Islamist candidates because they wanted stability and economic growth after the turbulence that followed the 2011 revolution.

One of the striking traits of Tunisia’s evolution is the willingness of the two major political tendencies: the modernist, highly secular tradition of Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, and the accommodating Islamist camp of Rachid Gannouchi's Nahda party. In some extended jockeying after the November elections, Caid Essebsi, perhaps reluctantly, invited Nahda to join the government, with some minor portfolios in the Cabinet, and has launched a reconciliation process to prevent the polarization and meanspirited winner-take-all mindset witnessed in other Arab states.

Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post wrote earlier this month that Tunisian leaders seem to accept that there should be no final winner or final loser during this careful transition to democracy. And political demographer Richard Cincotta also notes Tunisia's demographic profile, with a median age of 31 (most Arab countries are below 26), that puts odds in favor of remaining "free," comparable to past transitions in East Asia and Latin America.

But it's not easy; external factors such as chaos in next-door Libya and internal factors from entrenched interest groups and pockets of radicalism pose real challenges to Caid Essebsi's government.

The Tunisian government has to cope with the economic slowdown driven in part by big spending policies pursued since 2011 under social pressure, and security problems that hindered economic recovery.

Jihadists were able to use the country's free political environment and the fraying security system until 2013 to establish their terrorist networks and recruit candidates for jihad at home and abroad. They were helped by the state of anarchy in Libya, which quickly became a rear base for training and the hatching of terror plots. Last March, Libya-trained terrorists mowed down more than 20 foreign tourists visiting the world-famous Bardo museum. It was the first soft target terror attack inside Tunisia since al Qaeda's suicide attack on the Djerba's Synagogue in 2002. Since then, Tunisia's security forces have retaken the initiative in the fight. Soldiers are not anymore the unwitting victims of jihadist ambushes. Still, Tunisia needs the support of its international partners, including the U.S., in addressing cross-border terrorist threats.

Developments in Libya since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi have complicated matters for Tunisia, which currently hosts more than 1 million Libyans, nearly 10 percent of the total population. Tunisia has been deprived of the revenue from worker remittances and the formal and informal economic trade with its southern neighbor. Informal trade with Libya alone amounted to as much as half of all bilateral trade, and Tunisian exports to Libya between 2008 and 2013 represented on average more than 35 percent of Tunisian gross domestic product (GDP).

Despite the limits of its coast guard and navy fleets, Tunisia is helping stem the tide of illegal immigration. This, at least in part, explains why the Libyan shores have replaced Tunisia's as the main departure point for would-be-migrants to Europe.

A senior European banker said once that the Arab countries picked the wrong time to rebel. He was referring to the fact that the Arab Spring occurred just when Europe faced its own economic slowdown. The EU and U.S. have not been able to devote significant funding to support the fragile transition in Tunisia, despite strong pledges of political and moral support. The billions of dollars pledged in 2011 to Tunisia during the G-7 summit in Deauville, France, have proved to be hollow promises.

At each milestone during the transition — the successful elections in November 2014 or the terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015 — donor countries have renewed their pledges to support this rare success story; President Obama's invitation to his Tunisian counterpart was such a gesture of reassurance.

The West has a stake in Tunisia's success, not just to prevent any instability from reaching Europe's shores (Italy is less than 100 miles from Tunisia) but also as a positive endorsement of its democratic transition. The prospect of granting Tunisia non-NATO major partner status would be a psychological boost and could help Tunisia in its struggle against extremism. Washington and Tunis could also start the negotiation of a bilateral free trade agreement. Other measures of support are needed; donor countries in the G-7, meeting next month, could dedicate more funding for economic growth strategies that would support structural reforms and short-term job creation.

Romdhani is the chief editor of The Arab Weekly newspaper and a former minister of communications in Tunisia. Laipson is president and CEO of the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington.

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