For a victory amid crisis, offer consistent, smart help to Tunisia

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As the United States and the international community grapple with interlocking crises in the Middle East and nearby parts of Africa and Asia, we must reserve a special priority for helping Tunisia achieve a strategic victory. Its success could model for the region how to build stability and prosperity through inclusive governance and nonviolence.

{mosads}Five years on, Tunisia is the one country from the Arab Spring upheavals to persevere in the arduous climb from authoritarian to democratic governance. Conversations in Tunis in recent days with government officials and civil society leaders underline both the opportunity and the risks — for Tunisia and the world — of this still-unfinished transformation.

While Tunisia has escaped the chaos of Yemen, Syria and Libya, public distress is growing over corruption, massive unemployment and a failure, so far, of reforms to change the reality of people’s lives. Fully 83 percent of Tunisians said in a November poll by the International Republican Institute that the country is headed in the wrong direction — the deepest pessimism since the 2011 revolution. Tunisians’ distress is helping extremist groups radicalize youth in the country, which for years has been one of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) biggest sources of recruits.

Foreign-policy discussions in Washington have noted widely the importance, and the progress, of Tunisia’s struggle. The country overcame a 2013 crisis marked by political assassination and street protests by convening a formal “national dialogue” to build consensus, installing a progressive Constitution and holding democratic elections. A key to that success is that Tunisians led the process themselves, a contrast to less-successful, internationally led dialogue processes in Yemen and Libya.

Amid three major terrorist attacks on Tunisia in 14 months, the United States in 2016 has tripled its military and security aid to the country. The latest attack, by ISIS fighters who crossed the border from Libya, underscores that Tunisia’s friends must indeed help address its acute security problems. But it is essential to complement security aid with consistent, patient and smart help that supports Tunisian reformers — both in the government and civil society — who are working to build the political, social and economic inclusiveness that is the only basis for long-term stability.

The government that emerged from the 2014 elections has pursued important political and economic reforms in its first 17 months. “Past practices were a catastrophe,” a senior government official told me a few days ago. “We need to build on the revolution to create change. There is will to change, and since it exists, it will carve this institution into something better.”

But he said change will take years, given resistance within the system. The critical question is whether the government can move fast enough on the difficult challenge of enacting reforms, revitalizing the economy, addressing security concerns and curbing human rights abuses before frustration boils over.

Civil society leaders are struggling to maintain confidence in the new government. “The situation is now all about reform but the slow pace is frustrating,” noted one such leader. “We’re expecting much from politicians, but legislation is slow and we have hundreds of laws that need to be reformed.”

The stalled economy is one critical threat to progress. President Beji Caid Essebsi’s government has struggled to pass and implement the economic and anti-corruption reforms that are essential to restart growth and provide jobs. With 700,000 unemployed youth — a third or more with university degrees, according to government and international agencies — private-sector job creation is a key priority.

Tourism, a significant source of employment, remains deeply depressed as security threats linger. At the same time, Tunisia is challenged to reform state security institutions such as police and courts as a key step in realizing the democratic aspirations of its people. The U.S. Institute of Peace is helping Tunisia’s police with new training to turn a system that was a feared enforcement arm of the former authoritarian regime into one that serves the people and works cooperatively with local communities. In the face of terrorism and economic pressures, authorities will be tempted to fall back on hardline security responses, even as it is more important than ever to regain public confidence in the security forces.

Americans who know our own history — from the Revolution through the Civil War, women’s suffrage, labor and civil rights movements — understand that building democracy is the bruising toil not of years, but of generations. The Tunisians’ nonviolent overthrow of authoritarianism, their free elections and the new Constitution represent enormous achievements since 2011. Their road ahead is no less difficult, and the United States must be smart and consistent in supporting this journey for the long-term.

Lindborg is the president of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Tags Arab Spring Beji Caid Essebsi Tunisia

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