By Sarah Feuer
On May 23, as U.S. President Donald Trump began his first Middle East tour, a less sensational but potentially more consequential development was unfolding in Tunisia. Following months of increasing social unrest, political deadlock, and murmurings of a second uprising in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the government of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed announced a “total war against corruption.” Chahed’s statement, which followed the arrest of three prominent businessmen and one customs officer, signaled the start of a much broader campaign against cases of graft that had been increasingly viewed within Tunisia as the leading threat to the country’s democratization. Since May 23, the state has arrested and seized the assets of around a dozen additional individuals implicated in graft, smuggling, and related crimes.
Tunisia has made remarkable progress since overthrowing its dictatorship six years ago. Still, rampant corruption since 2011 has made Tunisians weary of being labeled a success story of the Arab Spring. A poll conducted in April by the nonpartisan NGO, the International Republican Institute, found that although a plurality of Tunisians still believe that democracy is preferable to all other forms of government, two-thirds of the population do not yet consider Tunisia a full democracy. Indeed, the transition is far from complete, and the tiny country faces a number of challenges that warrant international attention.
After the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, lawmakers opted for reconciliation by granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners who had run afoul of the Ben Ali regime. The post-uprising government likewise resolved not to exclude members of Ben Ali’s ruling party from the emerging political system. This was a politically risky and psychologically fraught decision, but it spared the country from the kind of retributive violence seen in Libya and elsewhere.
As the remnants of the police state fell away, mosques became places of open worship, and Tunisians welcomed the ability to wear expressions of religious identity in public for the first time in decades. During the most perilous moments of the transition—including throughout 2013, when the dominant Islamist party, Ennahda, and its opponents in the national legislature clashed over how to handle the terrorist threat, find the right balance between religion and state, and choose between a presidential or parliamentary system—key civil society groups launched a national dialogue to help mediate. For nearly three months, the country’s leading labor and private sector unions, the Tunisian bar association, and the Tunisian League of Human Rights convened discussions between representatives of the leading parties to nudge them toward a compromise. Although the process came close to collapsing at several points, the dialogue ultimately helped the sparring parties reach a settlement: the Ennahda-dominated government agreed to step down from power, the parliamentary factions agreed on a new constitution, and a technocratic government was installed in January 2014 to lay the groundwork for national elections later that year. When those elections resulted in a resounding win for the anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes party—headed by current President Beji Caid Essebsi—Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda accepted the results and chose to govern in a coalition, citing the need for consensus during the country’s delicate transition.
But even these well-meaning and laudable decisions did not result in unambiguously positive outcomes. Releasing thousands of political prisoners, for example, ended up benefitting not only scores of Ben Ali’s non-violent opponents, but also several hardened jihadis who went on to incite violence at home and funnel an estimated 6,000 radicalized Tunisians to Iraq, Libya, and Syria to fight for the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS) and other terrorist entities. Likewise, the welcome relaxation of state control over Tunisia’s religious institutions opened up a space for Islamist extremists to preach their hateful ideologies.
Since 2011, Tunisia has had to deal with an attack against the U.S. embassy, two political assassinations, dozens of al Qaeda-linked assaults on military installations along the Algerian border, two mass-casualty terror attacks on tourists by ISIS-linked militants, and one attempted insurgency. As in the West, the country struggles to balance a commitment to religious freedom with the imperative to maintain security, but unlike Western nations, its democracy is only six years old. And as such, many of the institutions that could help with the task and that are outlined in the new constitution have yet to be established. Living conditions in the country’s interior have either stagnated or worsened since the Arab Spring. At various moments, including at present, strikes have brought the country’s considerable phosphate production, and its less considerable oil and gas industries, to a halt. Local elections, which are required by the new constitution, have been repeatedly postponed. And Chafik Sarsar, the widely respected head of the country’s independent election commission, recently resigned in protest, citing pressure and interference from the presidency.
Allowing former regime figures to go unpunished—except for some of the worst offenders in Ben Ali’s inner circle—also created unanticipated difficulties. In the months following the 2011 uprising, Tunisian courts were flooded with some 1,500 graft cases against roughly 5,000 government employees who had worked for Ben Ali and been allowed to retain their jobs after the uprising. The country’s penal code calls for three to six years’ prison time and the return of stolen funds for civil servants and third parties (such as businesspeople) found guilty of abusing their power. But in many of these cases, prosecutors either could not calculate precise damages or prove the harmful intent of those accused, many of whom had simply followed the orders of their superiors. The cases paralyzed the government since bureaucrats became fearful of signing documents and making decisions, lest they unwittingly become criminally liable. The economy also stalled as businesses remained reluctant to invest in a poorly regulated market.
This predicament spawned the idea for an “economic reconciliation” bill, which would allow implicated individuals to repay at least some of their ill-gotten gains in exchange for a waiver of liability and exemption from the purview of a parallel transitional justice process targeting perpetrators of wrongdoing under the former regime. The hope was that this law would get a skittish bureaucracy working again and incentivize reluctant businesspeople to invest in the fragile economy. But civil society, and some political parties, vehemently opposed even the most basic outline of the plan because they saw it as amnesty for corrupt individuals. Poor government communication, and mounting evidence of corruption, has not helped matters. Mondher Ben Ayed, a successful (and ethical) businessman in Tunis who has advised several post-uprising politicians on economic policy and who was involved in the early discussions surrounding an economic reconciliation process, put it this way when I visited his office in mid-May, “If Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] did much of the initial damage [to the economy], corruption is now doing the rest.” He explained that the economy would need an injection of $1 billion a year to register growth and produce sufficient jobs.
Another unintended consequence concerns the focus on consensus. Political scientists who study democratization have long argued that transitions away from authoritarianism are more likely to succeed when they are marked by consensual negotiations between former regime elites and the new pro-democratic guard. But in Tunisia’s experience, the insistence on consensus has bred paralysis and in some instances undermined the very mechanisms designed to channel policy disagreements. The 2013 national dialogue, for example, certainly resolved a short-term political crisis, but it also absolved the democratically elected legislature from openly debating and voting its way through the impasse, which resulted in an unelected government assuming power in January 2014.
The focus on consensus has also led the current government to side-step democratic processes. Parliamentarians, wary of an angry public, refrain from deliberating on the merits of legislation in open plenaries and instead send proposed bills to the closed-door meetings of a “consensus committee,” where representatives from the parties decide on amendments without any oversight or transparency. In effect, fear of rocking the boat has kept the boat from moving forward.
There are no signs that this mentality will change anytime soon. In speeches commemorating the anniversary of the uprising, Essebsi routinely highlights consensus as a necessary ingredient for the transition. The head of Ennahda’s political bureau, Noureddine Arbaoui, who spent 17 years in one of Ben Ali’s prisons for his affiliation with the country’s Islamist movement, told me last month that, in the interest of stability, his party will continue advocating for consensus in the local elections (whenever they occur). “Tunisians are in general agreement that a democratic transition takes time,” Arbaoui said. “Six years is a relatively short period of time to pass from a dictatorship to a democracy. [Consensus] is probably necessary for ten to fifteen years.” Such a strategy may appeal to some in Arbaoui’s generation for whom the fear of returning to jail remains acute, or to those in the secularist camp who see “consensus” as a means of retaining political power. But it has begun to undermine the legitimacy of the political parties and is increasingly eroding the public’s trust in their nascent democracy.
The day after my meeting with Arbaoui at Ennahda’s headquarters, I had lunch with a group of staffers at Al-Bawsala (“The Compass”), Tunisia’s leading government watchdog. Our discussion that day centered on the question of consensus, and a few people sitting around the table gasped audibly when I relayed Arbaoui’s belief that the country would continue to prioritize consensus for another decade. That is because in a democracy, the losing parties of today should have a chance to win in the elections of tomorrow, but ten more years of “consensus” would hinder this healthy cycling of political power. Amira Yahyaoui, al-Bawsala’s founder, put it this way: “We in Tunisia need to experience what it’s like to have winners and losers.” It remains to be seen whether Chahed’s arrest of the corrupt businessmen and officials, which happened a few days after I spoke with Yahyaoui, will bring about a change.
Back in Washington, May 23 was marked by another development that went largely unremarked in the media frenzy surrounding Trump’s overseas trip: the U.S. State Department’s unveiling of its 2018 budget request. If approved, it would significantly reduce funding for U.S. foreign assistance programs in the Middle East and North Africa and redirect aid from relatively well-functioning countries to those in the most dire circumstances. Tunisia, which falls in the first group, would see its aid cut by 67 percent—from $165 million to $54 million.
The fact that Tunisia has not experienced a major security incident since early 2016 seems to have convinced some in the current administration that the country can do well enough on its own. But the evidence suggests that this assumption is wrong. U.S. assistance has played a significant role in bringing Tunisia through its darker moments and helped it sustain a complex transition. In 2013, Jacob Walles, then the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, reportedly played a key behind-the-scenes role to mediate the dispute between opposing political factions. U.S. training of Tunisian police the following year was directly credited for helping to defuse a volatile situation in early 2015 when riots erupted in the south. U.S. funding for a pilot internship program in the Tunisian parliament has not only assisted elected officials advance legislation, but has also been credited for introducing the concept of nonpartisan research in the service of public policy. Aid and capacity building assistance for Tunisia’s Ministries of Interior, Justice, and Defense have enabled these agencies to begin modernizing and streamlining their operations, which in turn has made it possible to prevent radicalized fighters from heading to Iraq and Syria.
For some, Tunisia may be too small to warrant much attention. But if the choice facing foreign policy makers is frequently between devoting scarce resources to acute problems that carry questionable returns or supporting ostensibly less critical environments that offer greater promise in the long run, Tunisia is more than worth the investment. At a moment when the rest of the region is in turmoil, Tunisia, however much it recoils at the label, is a bright spot in the Middle East. Remaining that way requires the international community’s support and its understanding that Tunisia’s democratic gains were neither easily achieved nor are they close to secure.