Tunisia needs more help

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa hosted a hearing on Tunisia’s Fragile Democratic Transition.  Opening statements were given by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairman of the subcommittee, Theodore Deutch, Ranking Member of the subcommittee, and Steve Chabot, member of the committee. Testimony was provided by Ambassador Mark Green, President of IRI, Leslie Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director at NDI, Aaron Zelin, Richard Borow Fellow, WINEP, and William Sweeney President and CEO, IFES.

Ros-Lehtinen stated that Tunisia is the only country that has made positive gains after the Arab Spring, but these gains are uncertain.  Despite its new constitution and elections, Tunisia has been the victim of two recent high-profile terror attacks.  The attacks remind us that tourism accounts for 15% of Tunisia’s GDP.  Even before the Sousse attack, economic problems in Europe were hurting Tunisia’s tourism.

President Essebsi has claimed that another attack would cause the collapse of Tunisia’s government.  The stability of Tunisia and its democratic transition is in the US’s interest.  The designation of Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally last week was an important step.  But Tunisia is home to the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, and returnees from these conflicts pose a threat.  The US needs to help Tunisia strengthen its institutions and invest in its future.

Deutch hailed the peaceful transfer of power after Tunisia’s 2014 parliamentary elections and the ability of its parties to form coalitions. However, Tunisia’s economy has struggled since the revolution.  Unemployment is at 15%, and among working-class youth is nearly triple that figure.  Tourism has struggled especially after recent attacks.  There are home-grown terror cells, external threats from Libya and Algeria, and the threat of returnees from Iraq and Syria.  Tunisia’s government must not sacrifice freedom in the name of security.  He praised the designation of Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally, as well as the MOU signed in May.

11753820_10153473641973011_327306531_nChabot echoed the statements of Ros-Lehtinen and Deutch concerning Tunisia’s potential to serve as a model and the terror threat.  He also expressed concern that Monday’s disappearance of 33 Tunisian citizens on the border with Libya indicates radicalization in that area.

Ambassador Green also affirmed that Tunisia is the brightest hope for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.  The 2014 elections showed that Tunisia’s stakeholders are committed to democracy in a polarized, unstable region.  The US administration must train and help reform Tunisia’s security services, which are a holdover from the Ben-Ali regime.

Unemployment weighs most heavily on young Tunisians.  Since 2014, IRI has supported decentralization.  Tunisia’s bureaucracy stifles entrepreneurship and foreign investment.  Tunisia’s government cannot put off economic reform despite pressing security concerns.

Low youth voter participation is another major concern.  Civil society groups are necessary to involve youth and connect them to the democratic transition.  The US needs to focus more of its aid on supporting democratic governance.  Tunisia will likely hold elections in 2016, so the time to foster genuine democratic competition is now.

Campbell several factors that differentiate Tunisia from other Arab countries:

  1. Tunisia took time to develop its constitution rather than rush to snap elections.
  2. The military stayed out of politics.
  3. Civil society was allowed to flourish.
  4. Tunisia’s political establishment avoided polarizing rhetoric and sought compromise.

Tunisia’s Islamists defied expectations and peacefully transferred power. The situation in Egypt, international pressure, and popular pressure made them respect the democratic process.  NDI helped create space for political debate and the parties’ investments in their internal structures have strengthened the democratic process.  Campbell cited the balance between freedom and security as a major challenge.

Tunisia does not appear as corrupt as some other countries but there is crony capitalism controlled by privileged families.  If you’re not from the right family or region, there is no way to get ahead.  It is important to foster a meritocracy.  Business leaders want access to capital and want to join international organizations, but there is a sense that crony capitalists are circling the wagons under the current government.

Zelin stated that there have been 11 known attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS since the last election, as well as 10 counter-insurgency operations by the Tunisian military.  The US has provided a lot of assistance.  Tunisia’s jihadi problem has been present for approximately 20 years, but is coming to the surface now because many exiled radicals returned to Tunisia in 2011.

From 2003-2011, many individuals falsely accused of being terrorists were imprisoned, only to be radicalized in prison.  If Tunisia’s current security bill is passed, we could see a repeat of this.  The Ministry of Interior is corrupt and many of the bad practices of the Ben-Ali regime are returning, including possible torture in prisons and arbitrary arrests.  These are possible sources of radicalization.  The police require retraining and capacity building so they can be seen as protectors, not a group that takes away rights.

The government has had difficulty transparently investigating terrorist attacks and communicating the results to the people.  President Essebsi’s comment that the government would collapse following another attack was irresponsible and amateurish.

Tunisia has reinforced its border with Libya and is considering a border fence.  However, there are individuals with weapons already inside Tunisia and others who come from Algeria.

Sweeny stated that only 16% of American aid to Tunisia goes toward strengthening democracy. More can be done.  Prior to the 2016 elections several things are necessary:

  1. A standard legal framework for local elections.
  2. Greater professionalism from the electoral commission and capacity-building in its regional offices.
  3. Implementation of lessons learned from 2014.
  4. Focus on unemployed youth, for whom dictatorship and democracy remain much the same.

Sweeny agreed with Campbell’s observations about crony capitalism, and stated that it will hinder foreign investment.  Foreign investment will also be constrained by a lack of confidence in Tunisia’s stability.


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