There’s Still Hope for the Legacy of Tunisia’s Arab Spring
It's time for Obama to follow the example of how the United States supported democrats around the world .
The Arab Spring has become more a term of disillusionment than of hope. Many judge it a failure because no state that saw democratic uprisings has begun a real transition to constitutional democracy, rule of law, and respect for basic civil and political rights except for Tunisia. This judgment is unfair and often it is the knee-jerk reaction of those who decry foreign assistance and conflate democracy support with militaristic regime change.
Lest we forget, the Arab Spring was about hundreds of thousands of people across the region risking all for freedom against violent dictators. We should celebrate their courage and acknowledge that such willpower shows more timid citizens that dictatorship is not normal or morally right. Such determination teaches the next generation that their parents are heroes and that acquiescence to tyranny is never the right way to live.
We have seen this scene play out before and in the not too distant past.
As the West’s triumph in the Cold War fades into history, we forget that one of its hallmarks was our support for democrats, especially during the Reagan years when John Paul II and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stood shoulder to shoulder with him helping to make sure that dissidents stayed alive and had the resources to combat tyranny and advocate for liberty. Dissidents who became freely elected leaders in their countries when communism fell as well as those democrats who eventually came to power in the dictatorships of Africa, Latin America, and Asia have told us how important it was for them to know that the West cared and was willing to help them. Our rhetoric, our diplomacy and our aid made a big difference. The task might be harder and success might take longer in other parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, but the cause is just as noble and the American interest just as clear.
And that brings us to the timely opportunity to make the most of the Arab Spring and the democratic gains being made in Tunisia.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, held a hearing recently about the fragile democracy of Tunisia and U.S. foreign aid policy. Coming on the heals of Tunisia being designated a non-NATO ally (which provides the country with access to NATO military training and loans for military equipment) and the horrific terrorist attacks last month, the hearing’s focus was on how the United States can aid Tunisia’s democratic transition. “Tunisia’s future is still far from certain, but it remains in the national security interests of the U.S. to see the North African country complete its transition toward democracy and to adequately address the threat it faces from violent and radical extremist,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Tunisia is not perfect. Although it has made much more progress with electoral democracy and respect for human rights than other Arab Spring countries (free elections have been held, women sit in parliament), it faces problems caused by revanchists and problems of the new government’s own making. Islamist terrorists besiege it from without with murderous consequences for Tunisian citizens and foreign tourists (an important source of income); and Islamist political factions and allies of the ousted dictator undermine the new democracy from within. Worse, the new political leadership is not immune from shooting itself in the foot: backsliding has occurred with the recent passage of an overly restrictive law on state security and “disrespecting the military” that militate against free speech and a free press.
But Tunisia is worth U.S. attention and resources because it provides the best hope to reignite the momentum of the Arab Spring. We should want to see a democratic uprising progress to the next step of democratic governance. Ambassador Mark Green, president of the International Republican Institute and one of the witnesses at the hearing, was spot on when he said that “Tunisia’s remarkable journey towards democracy over these last five years can serve both as an inspiration to those who hope to shape their own democratic path and a rejoinder to those who claim that democracy has little chance outside the Western world.”
I’m glad to say that the Obama administration is paying attention to this need — finally — even though its record on the Arab Spring (and the Persian one) is quite poor. But, alas, the administration does not have the right strategy. For six years the administration has cut democracy funding and returned foreign aid to the pre-George W. Bush years where economic development programs are disproportionately funded. The same is the case with the current Obama request for Tunisia.
The Senate and the House have still to work out the exact dollar amount, but most important in the calculation is how much of the aid to Tunisia will be appropriated for programs supporting elections, civil society, good governance and rule of law. All of these matter not only to the overall health of Tunisia’s democracy but also to its ability to build a strong and free economy (showing that the new way forward actually works for all Tunisians) and to remain respectful of civil liberties even as it fights the scourge of terrorism.
Tunisia can demonstrate that an Arab and Muslim majority country can have a government that is democratic, law-based, respects human rights, and treats its population as citizens. The Arab Spring was ignited in Tunisia when a fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire when he could no longer tolerate the corruption and humiliations of the oppressive regime. The regime’s actions against him were quite common for it, as they were across the region’s dictatorships. But Bouazizi’s response was uncommon, as were those of his fellow citizens fed up with the abnormality of one group of human beings treating their fellows like property.
We should all remember the importance of this and many other incidents that made up the Arab Spring and do what we can to make the most of the sacrifices of all those who rose up. We can do that by supporting with our diplomacy as well as our foreign aid all those in countries like Tunisia who were and are willing to press on toward ordered liberty — no matter how long it takes and how hard the road.
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