Tunisia: success needs reinforcement

Summary: Tunisia is the good boy that teacher forgets, “the best democratic example, ever, in the MENA region”. Long may it last.

Tunisia, which sparked the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, risks becoming a forgotten story because of its relative success. A typical example is an EU report of a visit by the EU high representative Federica Mogherini to Tunisia on 4 May to meet Libyan factions, with only a courtesy mention of her meeting with the Tunisian Foreign Minister.

As President Béji Caid Essebsi began a visit to Washington on 20 May he and President Obama published a joint article in the Washington Post which was warn in tone and referred to US support; “Over the past year alone, the United States has worked to double its assistance to Tunisia, with $134 million proposed for next year.” ($134 million is small compared with military budgets and assistance elsewhere; it would buy about four or five F-15s.) The article went on to refer to consolidating Tunisian democracy, reducing poverty and unemployment, and US help for the Tunisian Armed Forces to build their capacity to fight terrorism. In the White House yesterday 21 May President Obama announced “my intention to designate Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally of the United States” but otherwise said little of substance. According to an Associated Press report “Status as a non-NATO ally qualifies a country for certain privileges supporting defense and security cooperation but does not provide any security commitment to that country. Others with the designation include Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Korea. The White House has been discussing expanding the designation to other Arab allies.”

Tunisia certainly needs support in the security sector, as the attack on the Bardo Museum in March which killed twenty-one people, most of them foreign tourists, demonstrated. But the balance between civil and military is a delicate one. As anarticle also on 21 May on the Atlantic Council website which mainly concentrates on security problems puts it “The Tunisian public, however, expects a balance between efficiency (countering terrorism, fighting smuggling, restoring security, etc.) and building new and responsible institutions (structural reforms and civilian oversight). The train-and-equip approach, presented as a key element in the current fight against militant extremism by a number of international assistance programs, simply does not capitalize on the spirit of democratic change in Tunisian society—freedom, economic development, justice—nor the opportunity for institutional reform.”

Tunisia-live “The first English-language media in Tunisia” on 20 May published a sharp attack on the 88-year old President Essebsi following the release of “a bizarre video showing the president and pals living the high life on a government jet” on his way to Washington. According to one opposition politician “There is no connection between Essebsi, the government and the feelings of the Tunisian people… Essebsi is trying to mimick Habib Bourghiba but he will never be anything close.” And according to a union leader “It says a lot that President Essebsi can’t find the time to meet with striking workers or to solve the problems faced by people here in everyday life here yet he has time to make this video… I’m afraid to say that Essebsi doesn’t understand the needs of ordinary Tunisians and I’m not sure that he ever will.”

Below is an open letter dated 20 May to President Obama signed by sixty “Tunisia and MENA region experts”, mainly but not exclusively US academics. There is a list of signatories at link.

Dear Mr. President,

Tunisia celebrated the Jasmine Revolution’s fourth anniversary with the election of President Beji Caid Essebsi, who will be visiting you tomorrow at the White House. This historic Tunisian election is by most accounts the first peaceful and fully democratic transfer of power in the Arab world. However, Tunisia’s political transition has only just begun, and it will take many years to consolidate. Significant challenges remain, especially in the areas of security and the economy.

Two months ago at the Investment and Entrepreneurship conference in Tunisia, you announced that the U.S. will remain a “great friend and partner” of Tunisia as it moves forward to develop “strong and democratic institutions” along its “long and difficult path, as it works to improve the lives of its people.” The U.S. is to be congratulated for moving to increase Economic Support Funds and military assistance to Tunisia from low pre-revolutionary levels to a $134.4 million request for FY 16, but U.S. assistance to Tunisia continues to languish near the bottom half of MENA countries. (Assistance to Tunisia, for example, remains many times below assistance levels to Morocco and Jordan.) Security threats and other uncertainties threaten to undermine Tunisia’s halting economic recovery. While the U.S.’s own security posture has positioned it well to assist Tunisia quickly with aspects of security and counterterrorism, economic inputs from the U.S. have been nothing less than disappointing.

Tunisia needs bold action from your administration and the U.S. Congress now. Tunisia needs direct economic stimulus. Tunisia needs at least $800 million annually of economic assistance (the administration has requested over $1 billion for Jordan, but the request for Tunisia is less than 14% of that, for a country nearly twice the size.) For FY 2015, there needs to be an urgent supplemental appropriation for Tunisia, for which there is gathering support in Congress. The U.S. should then co-organize an international donor conference in the fall of 2015 to address Tunisia’s short, medium and long-term needs, with the goal of an additional $5 billion annually for three years to address Tunisia’s impending budget shortfalls. This optimal, multilateral approach is much better than leaving Tunisia in the position of looking for quick fixes from single Arab Gulf countries as it approaches the looming budgetary crisis.

In addition, Tunisia needs international assistance to deal with the new wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees coming from Libya, and the previous hundreds of thousands of Libyans whose personal savings and access to capital is quickly running out. Tunisia also needs maritime support to deal with the migration crisis off its eastern coast; Tunisia is only 60 kilometers from Lampedusa and is perfectly positioned to play a much larger role in assisting the entire Mediterranean region in this regard. Tunisia also needs to develop a re-insertion fund to support and attract former fighters returning disillusioned from conflicts in Syria and Libya. The last thing these returning fighters need is social opprobrium and economic exclusion, pushing them back into the hands of terrorist recruiters offering paychecks and support for their families.

Young people across the MENA region increasingly view lack of robust international support for Tunisia and a faltering Tunisian economy that cannot provide sufficient jobs for young people as evidence that that there is no democracy dividend. As Transparency International reports attest, petty and bureaucratic corruption in Tunisia is on the rise amidst economic degradation. To mitigate against these trends and dispel this disillusionment increased economic support funds should be targeted at combatting corruption at all levels and strengthening the very democratic institutions that you mentioned in your March remarks. Now, Tunisia is borrowing money simply to pay existing government salaries, hardly a context in which Tunisian can engage in the institutional overhauls necessary to overcome pre-revolutionary habits and corrupt capital flows.

To summarize, the U.S. should:

  • Increase ESF to at least $800 million annually for three years, beginning in FY 2015. A May 15 letter from ten U.S. Senators supports a significant but unspecified increase in ESF funds for 2016, and calls on this assistance to be “reliable and consistent” over several years as a part of the nascent U.S.-Tunisia strategic partnership.
  • Increase the U.S. contribution to the Tunisian American Enterprise Fund from $60 million to $100 million.
  • Increase economic assistance focused on traditional infrastructure like roads, bridges, and other public works to create jobs and directly stimulate economic activity. More importantly, this would send a message to disfavored and insecure interior areas that the miserable conditions there that prompted the revolution will begin to be addressed.
  • Increase economic assistance focused on anti-corruption measures and building strong democratic institutions.
  • Co-organize an international donor conference with the goal of raising $5 billion annually for three years to support Tunisia’s political and economic transition.
  • Provide assistance to Tunisia to provide for African and Middle Eastern conflict refugees, Libyans falling into hard times, and economic migrants from across the African and Asian continents desperate to survive and provide for their families.
  • Accelerate the progress towards a Free Trade Agreement before, during and after the June Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) meeting. The White House can help with the political aspect of this, and USTR should be urged to raise the FTA negotiations with Tunisia to the highest priority level.
  • Find programmatic means and expert assistance to support every aspect of Tunisia’s proposed 14-point economic plan, both in implementation and in assistance to mitigate the social costs of any necessary reforms such as subsidy reform.
  • Include in any assistance package increased funds for security and justice sector reform. The perceived lack of democracy dividend in Tunisia (both among Tunisians and neighboring populations) needs to be reversed with significant increases to IMET, FMF, and ESF funds targeted to these areas. Transitional justice and security reforms have to be a primary focus.

Increased turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa only raises the stakes of Tunisia’s success or failure. U.S. policy must reorient away from primarily fighting terrorists allied with armies from less than democratic states and express this new emphasis through bold and dramatic action on Tunisia. This will demonstrate to everyone a renewed U.S. commitment to democracy and democratic dividends. Tunisia’s political, economic, and security needs amount to less than a tenth of a percent of current military expenditures in the region. A unequivocal message to six million young Tunisians, over one and a half million displaced Libyans, and migrants and other populations from across the region will come across loud and clear-a message that the U.S. supports Tunisia and Tunisia-like outcomes, more than just military action, and realizes the increased trade and entrepreneurship-while critical for Tunisia and important for the U.S.-cannot rise to the level of adequately addressing Tunisia’s coming budget crisis and stagnant post-revolutionary economic recovery.

The best antidote to the rise of extremism in the region is not further arming of local factions. It is seeking and encouraging democratic outcomes. This is not always easy in the fog of war and terrorism, but right now Tunisia offers the best democratic example, ever, in the MENA region. We have to show that we care more than all else about elected and accountable governments serving their populations and increasing stability and peace. It is time to invest seriously in the Arab world’s only true democracy. Henry Kissinger recently said that the U.S. needs greater “moral clarity” in its foreign policy globally and to the Middle East region in particular. What better moral clarity could there be than backing Tunisia in its moment of need, the country that is the best hope for the MENA region?

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