How the U.S. Can Help North Africa’s Democracy Champion

Tunisia has made it farther down the road to democracy than any other Arab Spring country. That means that it deserves hands-on support from the West -- sooner rather than later.


On April 4, Tunisia’s Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa will meet with President Obama during an official visit to Washington, and will kick off the first session of the Tunisian-American strategic dialogue. Tunisia has a population of just 10 million and little in the way of natural resources, yet it matters enormously. It is the only Arab Spring country that has so far managed to forge a new political future through a consensus-driven process. In this respect, Tunisia is a vital demonstration case for the rest of the Arab world. Its new landmark constitution, emphasizing freedom, equality, and rule of law, is a significant milestone.

Still, the road ahead for Tunisia is long and arduous. Good neighbors — including economic partners and political-military alliances — can and should help fragile democracies succeed through tough times. While both the United States and the European Union have supported Tunisia’s transition, their promises of assistance have outstripped what’s been delivered. Both need to do more at this important inflection point to ensure that Tunisia builds on the gains it has made. Here are a few recommendations for measures that Washington can take — in coordination with the European Union — to help Tunisia reach its goals:

1. Collaborate with European partners to facilitate high-return infrastructure investments that can help jump-start Tunisia’s economy and provide jobs.

More than three years after Tunisia set off the Arab Spring, national polls demonstrate that Tunisians continue to view the economy as the country’s biggest challenges. Tunisia today faces a tough macroeconomic picture: an unsustainable budget deficit, a bloated public sector, stagnating employment, and low growth rates. Though its economic future is brightening — with a new constitution, a legitimate government, and the second tranche of a $1.7 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund — Tunisia now needs to improve productivity levels to remain competitive. This requires regulatory and tax changes, and infrastructure improvements in roads, water, electricity, and information technology, especially in the impoverished interior areas of the country.

President Obama has requested a mere $30 million in economic assistance for Tunisia next year, most of which will go to the Tunisian-American Enterprise Fund to stimulate small and medium enterprise development — a laudable approach, but one that won’t have any appreciable economic impact for years to come. To help jump start the economy and job creation, the United States should evaluate "shovel ready" infrastructure investments that will boost competitiveness. It has already allocated several million dollars for IT investments, such as helping to improve high-speed internet access. Now, it should evaluate other high-return infrastructure investments such as much-needed water and waste treatment systems.

2. Deepen trade and investment relations and increase market access for Tunisian producers, including in agriculture.

The benefits for a transitioning country of tighter economic integration with a "good neighbor" go well beyond increased trade (as Mexico’s experience with NAFTA and Poland’s experience with EU ascension attest). The process can offer powerful incentives to promote rule of law, anti-corruption practices, transparency, and tax and regulatory code reform, as well as consolidating democracy. The potential for increased trade between the United States and Tunisia is significant, and the process of negotiating some sort of trade agreement could amplify many of the positive reforms already being discussed as a part of the EU’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Washington’s current antipathy to free trade agreements unfortunately makes one with Tunisia a non-starter. Instead, the United States should work to improve trade and investment possibilities by deepening the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) which sets the strategic framework for discussing these issues.

Included in those discussions should be the prospect of greater trade and investment in agribusiness. Farming remains a primary industry and source of employment in the interior, so improving agricultural productivity is imperative. The EU’s European Neighborhood Program for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD), which aims to improve agricultural productivity, is a good start. But the funding for this program has been limited, and it is set to wrap up this summer. Tunisia needs a more sustained, better-funded effort to help farmers move into higher value-added agricultural products and new markets. Opening the giant American market to new agricultural imports is always politically tricky. But given the urgent need to address high unemployment in Tunisia, particularly in rural areas, greater market access is worth pursuing.

The United States and European Union should use their economic leverage of investment and market access to help reformers create a more level playing field that can accelerate growth and job creation. As a recent World Bank report documented, the prior regime and its cronies manipulated Tunisia’s investment laws so that they could dominate the private sector. By 2010, ex-dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his clan had cornered more than 20 percent of all private sector profits. Although Ben Ali is gone, his skewed investment restrictions remain in place, enriching a new generation of entrenched elites. Through the TIFA process, the United States should push to reduce the market entry barriers that privileged Ben Ali and his cronies, reduced competition and hurt consumers.

3. Encourage Tunisia to pursue greater intra-regional trade.

North Africa generally, and the Maghreb countries in particular, have one of the lowest levels of intra-regional trade in the world, despite numerous attempts foster it. Political tensions have resulted in structural trade barriers deeply resistant to change. This is a huge missed opportunity. Tunisia should position itself as a relatively stable gateway not only to its oil-rich neighbors, but also to the high-growth markets of sub-Saharan Africa. The United States and Europe should promote that idea by bringing trade delegations to meet not only with leading North African businesses, but also with sub-Saharan executives in Tunisia.

4. Scale up efforts to reduce youth unemployment.

Increased trade and investment should better position Tunisia to address one of its most pressing issues: high levels of youth unemployment. With companies in Tunisia having trouble finding the skills and talent they need, there have been a myriad of programs since the revolution to address the supply side of Tunisia’s unemployment challenge. Through its Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the U.S. State Department has funded entrepreneurship and workforce readiness programs; the Washington-based North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO), meanwhile, has focused on improving the entrepreneurial ecosystem for youth through mentoring. While these and other initiatives show promise, none has yet achieved scale and most are under-resourced. They also struggle to reach youth in interior regions, where unemployment is highest. The United States can help by working to coordinating donors, foster partnerships, and increasing funding to achieve scale, and by supporting these efforts in the long term to ensure a sustained commitment. The United States should also invest in increased academic scholarships and exchange programs.

5. Provide sustained commitment to professionalizing civil society so that it can effectively hold government accountable.

To support Tunisia through its transition, it is critical that the United States and the European Union increase support for civil society, which have proven essential in successful transitions. International support for civil society organizations (CSOs) and independent media during transitions is generally a low-cost, high-return investment.

The good news is that post-revolution Tunisia has adopted a liberal environment for CSOs and established a legal framework that has welcomed international support and encouraged the rapid growth of the sector. The bad news is "CSO burnout": Tunisian civil society leaders report being overwhelmed by well-intentioned international groups that tie up their time with endless meetings, interviews and conferences. International donors complain about a thin talent pool and civil society’s lack of absorptive capacity. But the whirlwind of post-revolution CSO competitive frenzy is dying down as funders move onto the next new thing. What is needed now is sustained commitment to building the capacity of civil society so that it can effectively hold government accountable. This includes continued investment in training and mentoring, support for CSO infrastructure development, and longer term funding.

6. Support the development of professional and independent Tunisian media.

While there is considerable suspicion in Tunisia about foreign control of media, technical support to help nurture independent media is welcomed and necessary. Tunisian journalists are consistent in saying they do not want any more expensive conferences conducted in French and English in fancy hotels. Instead, the United States and the European Union should jointly fund a mentorship program that embeds Arabic-speaking journalists as editors in fledgling media outlets — newspapers, television news, and community radio, including in the interior of the country — to train a new generation of reporters in investigative journalism and media ethics. This training needs to be in Arabic since the majority of media consumption is in Arabic. The mentorship program should also include business mentors who can help independent media establish viable business models.

In addition, the United States and European Union should provide technical support for the promulgation of constructive media regulation in Tunisia. Over the next several years, Tunisia’s new parliament will be writing legislation that fleshes out protections of (and limits to) the multiple freedoms guaranteed in the constitution. Given the sensitivity surrounding freedom of expression in the writing of the new constitution, bringing all sides together to understand the impact of legislation in this area would be money well spent. Last year, the government established the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), Tunisia’s first independent media regulatory commission. Washington should bring HAICA regulators to visit with counterparts in the United States and Europe.

7. Support wholesale judicial reform.

Tunisia desperately needs to reform its judicial system to build independence and professionalism in order for democracy to take hold. Tunisia’s judiciary under Ben Ali was stacked with cronies and was notoriously corrupt and inefficient. The new government’s ability to deliver consistent rule of law through modern and transparent courts will be an essential step in distancing itself from the corruption of the previous regime.

Various international organizations, including the American Bar Association and UNDP, have been working to strengthen skills and promote the professionalism of the sector. But the United States can still do more, including helping to upgrade computer systems to improve efficiency and reduce corruption, and training lawyers and judges, especially in the interior of the country. The timing is good: The election of a representative government later this year ushers in a new opportunity for productive engagement on judicial reform.

8. Strengthen the security relationship and increase support of military reform.

Tunisia’s security sector is in dire need of reform and upgrade. Polls show that the country’s deteriorating security situation is the prime motivation for street protests. The brazen attack on the American Embassy in September 2012, followed by two shocking political assassinations in 2013, underscored the breakdown of security. (In the photo above, a demonstrator wears a makeshift hat depicting Chokri Belaid, an opposition figure who was murdered in February 2013.) These incidents not only tarnished Tunisia’s international reputation, but have also slowed security sector reform, since the government remained dependent on the remnants of the "deep state" at the feared Interior Ministry to investigate the attacks.

Military reform should be a natural area for American engagement. The United States already has close relations with the Tunisian military, which, in stark contrast to its Egyptian counterpart, has remained above the political fray with its reputation largely intact. Many Tunisian military personnel have trained in the United States, and U.S. equipment makes up roughly 70 percent of the Tunisian military’s inventory. In February, the U.S. Navy ship USS Elrod stopped in Tunisia to conduct joint exercises to combat drug and weapons smuggling — a show of support that was welcomed by many Tunisians.

Although U.S. military assistance to Tunisia has doubled since the revolution, it is still less than $35 million, a paltry sum given the strategic importance of Tunisia and the scope of security challenges it faces. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its offshoot Ansar al-Sharia have publicly stated their determination to gain control in Tunisia — an unlikely scenario but one that could result in a destabilizing wave of violence. Already, low-level fighting against jihadis along the Algerian and Libya borders has resulted in casualties. Smuggling remains a pressing issue. The military badly needs to modernize its equipment, improve intelligence, and bolster training for counter-terrorism operations. Washington should increase financial support for equipment modernization and training, and deepen the intelligence relationship.

Tunisia is simply too important to fail. While Tunisians themselves are ultimately responsible for the success of their transition to democracy, Tunisia’s friends have good reasons to support it through the inevitably painful process of economic and political restructuring that is still to come. The benefit of a stable and prosperous Tunisia amid an otherwise unstable North Africa would be priceless.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola