By Scott Mastic
Tunisia has received extensive press coverage in recent years — for both positive and negative reasons. As the birthplace of the Arab Spring and one of the few countries in the region to make meaningful democratic progress, Tunisia is in many ways a beacon of hope in a troubled region. Yet at the same time, the country has also made the news for the large number of Tunisians who have joined ISIS in Syria and Libya.
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s visit to Washington this week provides an opportunity to highlight the strategic importance of a secure and democratic Tunisia to American interests. Since the 2011 revolution, Tunisia has taken enormous strides: developing a multiparty parliamentary system, conducting free and fair elections, and adopting a constitution that guarantees freedom of thought and expression.
However, this progress remains easily reversible, and vulnerable to low levels of public confidence in the ability of the government to deliver a better future. If these trends continue, the stability of this strategically-important country will be at risk.
A recent survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) underscores the severity of the situation. 83 percent of Tunisians believe that their country is headed in the wrong direction. The reason? For the most part, it comes down to bread-and-butter issues. Nearly 90 percent described the current economic situation in the country as bad, while an increasing number of Tunisians reported having difficulty meeting basic needs.
When asked what the government’s top priority should be, Tunisians overwhelmingly chose the economy, and advocated fighting corruption as an important way to improve the economy. These findings are in line with the results of focus group research that IRI conducted in the city of Beja recently, which examined local drivers of violent extremism.
The focus groups demonstrated that unemployment, poor local governance and perceived rampant corruption deprive citizens of their sense of agency and self-worth and increase vulnerabilities to recruitment by violent extremists. This sense of economic frustration is unsurprising. The country endured sluggish economic growth over the past six years, and the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar has eroded purchasing power.
Moreover, Tunisia’s long-neglected interior — where the 2011 revolution began — remains poor. In recent months, Tunisians in disadvantaged regions like Tataouine have taken to the streets to protest high unemployment and government neglect.
Thus far, Tunisia’s young democracy has proven to be remarkably robust in the face of these challenges. Yet with instability on their doorstep and discontent at home, the country is at real risk of backsliding. Our research indicates that the broader the gap between citizen expectations and reality becomes, the more susceptible segments of the population will become to recruitment by extremists. If the government is unable to fulfill popular demands and show signs that the country is making progress, the government could be destabilized by undemocratic actors seeking to take advantage of power vacuums, in the same way that ISIS has essentially colonized Libya from within.
In a region reeling from chaos and political dysfunction, the U.S. can ill afford to let an emerging ally go the way of Libya. For all its challenges, Tunisia has demonstrated a durability not seen in other states impacted by the Arab Spring, and has demonstrated a clear desire for a bilateral partnership with the United States in a region where such allies are few and far between. Additionally, the country’s positive position in relation to its North African neighbors makes Tunisia uniquely placed to help solve the crisis in Libya, serving as a key interlocutor in tripartite peace talks with Algeria and Egypt.
On the economic front, Tunisia’s high proportion of French-speakers and skilled workforce makes it a gateway for U.S. companies to francophone Africa. This not only benefits U.S. businesses — economic progress in Tunisia is vital to stemming the flow of terrorists, drugs, guns and humans leaving North Africa for Europe and beyond.
And as Tunisian prime minister, Chahed has taken steps to address the pressing public demands for a crackdown on corruption by arresting several prominent businessmen. This ongoing anti-corruption campaign demonstrates that the Tunisian government is attempting to do the right thing in addressing its need for economic growth.
Since 2011, America’s modest investment in Tunisia’s democratic transition has yielded an outsized return. With less than $19 million in U.S. government funding, democracy development organizations like IRI have helped build up Tunisia’s political parties, supported Tunisian leaders in drafting the most democratic Arab constitution in history and helped to ensure that Tunisia’s first democratic elections were free and fair.
In fiscal year 2017, the U.S. is projected to spend approximately $27 million on democracy and governance assistance to Tunisia and approximately $50 million on economic assistance. Together, this represents less than 0.2 percent of the 2017 U.S. foreign aid budget or 0.00045 percent of the entire federal budget.
If stability is to return to North Africa, it is crucial that the U.S. continue to pursue a robust alliance with Tunisia. A successful transition to democracy will enhance regional stability; but the failure to deliver on good governance and economic development in Tunisia risks producing yet another failing state. By prioritizing the partnership with Tunisia, the United States will advance an “America first” foreign policy in the region.
Scott Mastic is regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at theInternational Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on advancing democracy.Top