Tunisia is an American 'soft power' success story — keep it that way

Tunisia is an American 'soft power' success story — keep it that way
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When President Dwight Eisenhower visited Tunisia on December 17, 1959, he asked Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba how the United States could be most helpful to his young country. Bourguiba, who was intent on building a modern nation that would set itself apart from the rest of the Arab world, responded not by asking Eisenhower for military aid, but by requesting food, education, and shelter for his people.

Policymakers in Washington should remember this exchange and what it set in motion as they try to reach a 2018 spending agreement with the White House.

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Bourguiba’s request was agreed to, and, by the end of the 1960s, one-sixth of Tunisia’s economic growth was spurred by development aid provided by the United States. Throughout that period, Tunisia adhered to alliances with the U.S. and other western powers, despite often finding itself at odds with the rest of the Arab world, including when Bourguiba argued for a phased resolution to the Palestinian problem and advocated for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in 1965.

Tunisia was separating itself from other Arab nations during this period in another significant respect.  Following independence from the French in 1956, the country allocated the largest component of its budget, at times reaching one-third, to education and youth development. Tunisia’s education system taught values consistent with American ideals of pluralism and openness. Bourguiba saw education as a means to fight what he termed les structures mentales of Tunisians who were opposed or indifferent to his programs of modernization — women’s rights and a reduced role of religion in society.

Tunisia’s bilingual, coeducational system cultivated critical thinking and reasoning skills. While the power of religion and exclusionary rhetoric reigned supreme throughout the wider region, it is the power of education that has defined Tunisia.           

The investment in education paid off when Tunisians revolted against and ousted autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and then succeeded in harnessing the momentum of the Arab Spring to make a peaceful transition to a functioning democracy. And the Tunisian experience remains an Arab anomaly.

It is an experience that, for more than half a century, has testified to the importance of education and other instruments of soft power as vehicles for progress. Yet the Trump administration has threatened this achievement with a proposal to slash financial aid for Tunisia from $177 million in 2016 to less than $55 million in 2018, as part of an overall budget request for the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that represents a 28 percent cut from the current year’s level.

Appropriations committees in both the House and Senate have rebuffed the White House budget proposal, allocating “no less” than $165 million in assistance to Tunisia. While this signals that Tunisia has strong allies in Washington, this appropriation is now pending agreement between lawmakers and the Trump Administration on 2018 spending bills.

Tunisia’s transition to democracy remains fragile, and the country continues to struggle with high unemployment, sluggish growth, rising debt, and enduring signs of corruption. Parliament recently passed a law offering amnesty to corrupt, former Ben Ali regime officials and raising the troubling possibility of their return to the political arena. Now is the time for the world, and the United States in particular, to buttress this emerging, vulnerable democracy and to help Tunisians consolidate the gains of their revolution and achieve stability for their country.

With such support, there is reason to believe that the rule of law and democratic institutions will prevail. Since the ouster of Ben Ali, the country has adopted a progressive, civil constitution, held fair parliamentary elections, and ushered in the country’s first-ever democratically elected president. For the first time in an Arab nation, an Islamist party, Ennahda, dropped its Islamist label and redefined itself, in May 2016, as a party of Muslim democrats — shifting its political focus to the country’s economy and banning party leaders from participating in religious and charitable organizations or preaching in mosques.

Tunisia’s Muslim women recently became the first in any Arab country to be able to marry outside of their religion; and, in August, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi shocked the Muslim world by advocating equal inheritance for women (according to Shari’a, women are entitled to only half the inheritance of men).

Years ago, Presidents Eisenhower and Bourguiba set Tunisia on the right path and understood the most productive terms for U.S. engagement. Policymakers in Washington and the White House should remember that history and be mindful of the one successful example of a peaceful, democratic society in the region. Cuts to U.S. aid would be a costly mistake.

Safwan Masri is a professor and executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia University and a senior research scholar at Columbia's School of International Public Affairs. He is the author of “Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly” (Columbia University Press, 2017).