Tunisia needs US support for democracy to succeed


Tunisia remains an important example of what can be achieved when our democracy community stands with local citizens seeking to build a democratic future. Authoritarian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s ousting in 2011 set the country on a fragile course that has been challenged by acts of terrorism and economic malaise. But even as neighboring countries have slipped into chaos, a willingness by Tunisia’s political and civic leaders to reach consensus through peaceful dialogue has produced key milestones, including the Arab world’s most progressive constitution and credible democratic elections for parliament and president in 2014.

{mosads}The murder of 38 tourists at a resort hotel in the coastal city of Sousse on June 26 is a reminder of the considerable challenges Tunisia still faces as it transitions from authoritarian to democratic rule. But this act of terror does not reverse the achievements of thousands of candidates, tens of thousands of poll workers and citizen observers, or the millions of Tunisian citizens that supported their country’s democratic electoral process.

From the start of the transition, the Tunisian desire for democratic change was matched by U.S. democracy assistance that positioned the International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to work hand-in-hand with the array of new political parties and citizen groups emerging and to support new democratic institutions that came about as a result of Ben Ali’s downfall. Important transition issues from constitutional reform to independent media, women’s rights to transitional justice, were addressed through programs supported by the United States while training in democratic election techniques was provided to men and women candidates throughout the country. Assistance supported the electoral administration in Tunisia to successfully hold three credible, democratic elections in a row last fall, while helping more than 8,000 Tunisian citizen observers increase electoral transparency and conduct a statistically valid parallel vote count.

The Obama administration and Congress are to be commended for supporting these efforts and for working in a bipartisan manner to significantly increase Tunisia’s economic and security assistance. To successfully address the country’s considerable challenges, however, requires a recognition that Tunisia is still in a state of political transition that can be quickly reversed. Difficult problems such as unemployment and other drivers that led to the 2011 revolution are still unresolved and fuel the appeal of extremist groups, especially among young Tunisians. Solutions to these problems lie in the delivery of good governance, redress of underdevelopment in certain regions, greater accountability and inclusivity, and increased access to opportunity.

The declaration of a 30-day state of emergency by Tunisian President Béji Caïd Essebsi in response to the Sousse attack is understandable given the serious threats posed by extremist violence. However, a temporary state of emergency must not be allowed to slide the country backward toward the authoritarian behavior that characterized the old regime. As Tunisia struggles to find the right balance between civil liberties and security in a new anti-terrorism law, the best guard against the risk of rollback is expanded support for democracy and governance that empowers citizens to hold their government accountable and equips decision-makers and institutions with the skills and means to make policy decisions consistent with democratic norms.

Building a democratic culture does not start, nor end, with an election cycle. Renewed support to strengthen democratic behavior within Tunisia’s major political parties and to begin equipping electoral institutions and political stakeholders with know-how for local elections should occur without further delay. Additionally, supporting the Tunisian-led process of decentralization is a key to the delivery of good governance and addressing regional tensions in Tunisia’s south and interior. Greater attention to inclusivity is likewise needed, especially with respect to empowering Tunisian youth to have a greater stake in their country’s future. These efforts are important, not only for the sake of Tunisia’s political transition, but as a safeguard against the appeal of extremism.

It is tempting to see the most recent assault on Tunisia’s young democracy as a sign that it too may yet go the way of other countries of the region, and indeed Tunisia’s transition remains fragile and there will be future crises ahead. But in facing down the threats posed, we should remember the strong condemnation by both secular and Islamist Tunisians of the Charlie Hebdo attacks that occurred in France last January, the consistently peaceful resolution of political conflicts throughout the transition thus far, and the many reports suggesting Tunisian hotel staff formed a human chain to prevent even more carnage from occurring on the beach in Sousse on June 26.

Tunisia has proven resilient in its dedication to democracy, pluralism and tolerance in spite of its tumultuous neighborhood. The United States must stand as a full partner with Tunisia at this difficult moment, as we have much to benefit from a relationship based on shared interests and shared values in a region where such allies are scarce.

Green and Sweeney are the presidents of the International Republican Institute and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, respectively. Campbell is a senior associate and regional director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the National Democratic Institute. Their organizations are the core partners of the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening.

Tags Arab Spring Beji Caid Essebsi Democracy democracy building Sousse Tunisia Tunisian revolution Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali
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