Almost five years ago, the Arab Spring swept through cities like Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, and Sana’a, threatening and even toppling dictators and oppressive governments across the Arab world. Since those exciting and hopeful days, we’ve seen Syria and Yemen descend into bloody civil wars and watched the authoritarian regimes of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fall, only to be replaced by instability and competing governments.
Despite the many disappointments in the wake of the Arab Spring, though, one nation has held onto the hope of the movement and today continues to advance the principles that inspired millions of Arabs to call for greater legitimacy and transparency in their governments.
This lone success story is Tunisia, the birthplace of the region’s fight for democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. As Congress decides in the coming weeks how to use our annual spending bill to encourage peace and stability around the world, we cannot overlook the importance of adequately supporting the extraordinary progress the Tunisian people have already made.
Since the Jasmine Revolution toppled former President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali and ended his decades of authoritarian rule, Tunisia has managed to avoid civil war and the forces of authoritarianism and instability that plague so many of its neighbors. Rather than succumbing to political and sectarian squabbling, the Tunisian people resolved their differences at the ballot box. In the summer of 2013, the Islamist-led post-revolutionary leadership worked together with opposition parties to promote a peaceful political process rooted in consensus, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.
These peaceful negotiations were led by the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition of civil society organizations that offered a viable alternative to violence, political assassinations, and civil unrest. The Quartet’s pluralistic process led to the adoption of a new, progressive constitution in early 2014, followed later that year by free and fair elections that formally ended a string of transitional governments in the capital of Tunis. In October 2015, the international community recognized the impressive work of the Quartet by awarding it the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, thanks to a budget agreement reached by the White House and bipartisan congressional leaders, the United States has an opportunity to support the promising but still tenuous Tunisian democracy by providing critical financial aid at a time when Tunis needs it most. In his fiscal year 2016 budget, the President requested $134 million in bilateral assistance for Tunisia. House leaders have fulfilled that request in their appropriations bill, but the Senate has failed to match that commitment, allocating only $87 million for Tunisia, not even two-thirds of the President’s request.
Just last month, a group of 114 foreign policy experts – including a bipartisan group of former Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) – urged both chambers of Congress to fully fund bilateral assistance for Tunisia and specifically noted that the funding shortfall proposed by Senate appropriators has drawn intense public scrutiny in Tunisia, where it has been perceived as a sign of waning U.S. commitment.
At a dangerous and unstable time for North Africa and the Middle East, we should not squander any chance to reinforce the foundations of a fledgling democracy that needs support to sustain itself and grow. U.S. aid allows Tunisia to continue to provide greater security for its people at a time when the institutions the Quartet worked so hard to build remain under threat. Despite their progress, the Tunisian people face serious challenges in solidifying their democracy. Their leaders must implement major, politically difficult economic reforms to combat high inflation and widespread unemployment, especially among youth. They must also begin to address security threats from violent extremist groups operating within their borders and in neighboring Libya.
I visited Tunisia in April, a few weeks after terrorists linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) killed 22 people at the Bardo Museum. This tragedy was followed in July by an ISIL-inspired attack on a beach in Sousse, which killed 38 people. These attacks not only threaten the tourism sector upon which the Tunisian economy depends but also pose a grave threat to the stability the Tunisian people deserve.
This violence shows clearly that the dangerous political and economic forces plaguing the rest of the region also threaten Tunisia’s democratic transition. If the violence and economic stagnation in Tunisia persist or worsen, and the government is unable to offer stability and economic opportunity to its citizens, its democracy may stagnate or collapse. Such a result would discredit the promise of democratic government not only in Tunisia, but throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It would also send the wrong message to the people of Tunisia who rose up in support of democracy, transparency, and accountability.
In the United States, we believe strongly in the roles of democratic institutions, in the importance of religious freedom and economic opportunity, and in the sanctity of human rights. That’s why it is in America’s interest to see that a pluralist democracy and a vibrant economy develop in Tunisia. Our leadership role in global affairs demands that our actions back up our words, so we must fully fund the President’s request for bilateral funding to assist and reinforce Tunisia’s transition to democracy, stability, and prosperity.
Tunisia has made extraordinary progress and proved true the old Tunisian proverb that “the multitude is stronger than the king.” America was founded on the same conviction. Now it is up to us to show that this principle still rings true.
Coons is Delaware’s junior senator, serving since(D-Del.) serves as a member of the Foreign Relations and Appropriations Committees. He traveled to Tunisia in April.