Amid central Tunisia’s dry farmlands, the city of Sidi Bouzid bustled one recent day under warm autumn sunshine. Street vendors and shoppers jostled under the roof of a new, open-air market, selling and buying produce or cheap clothes. Seven years after an impoverished street vendor in this city immolated himself and ignited the Arab Spring revolutions, his homeland has achieved a precarious stability. By many measures the Arab world’s only democracy, Tunisia remains hobbled by corruption, unemployment and violent extremism.
The street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, committed suicide in protest at a corrupt dictatorship. Within weeks of his death, mass protests overthrew the authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Similar upheavals spread through Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, all of which now remain at war or under new authoritarian rule.
The new street market in Sidi Bouzid—just a few blocks from where Bouazizi made his fatal protest, offers a glimmer of opportunity to unemployed Tunisians scrabbling for survival by selling cheap goods on the street. But nationwide, opportunity remains rare and public frustration remains high. The economy has stalled, World Bank figures show youth unemployment greater than 35 percent—and the latest street protests in Sidi Bouzid came only last weekend.
To advance America’s interest in a more stable Middle East and in countering terrorism, a vital step is to sustain support for Tunisia and its democracy, say many Middle East analysts. Tunisia for decades has been a prominent political and security partner for the United States and is one of a handful of countries designated a “major non-NATO ally.”
More than that, Tunisia is a model in its region. “Among Arab countries, Tunisia has a notable tradition of political moderation and compromise, and a growing civil society is strengthening it,” said former ambassador Bill Taylor, who previously coordinated U.S. assistance in much of the Middle East. Four Tunisian civil society organizations shared the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their work to defuse a potentially violent political crisis in the country.
Tunisia has made its progress in the face of tough odds. Terrorist attacks by ISIS affiliates shriveled the Tunisian tourism industry, a vital economic sector. The collapse of neighboring Libya has increased Tunisia’s vulnerability to extremists’ attacks.
Tunisia’s unique role as an Arab democracy means “it’s vital for the United States to engage as broadly as possible with their government officials, political leaders and civil society groups,” Taylor said. That’s the approach taken by the U.S. Institute of Peace, where Taylor serves as executive vice president.
That broad engagement to support Tunisian democracy is an important part of reducing radicalization and terrorism by ISIS and allied groups, which recruit disaffected Tunisians, especially youth.“To revive its economy and undercut the Islamic State’s appeal, Tunisia needs timely external support and internal steel to carry out decisive economic reforms, leading with a cleanup of corruption,” Taylor wrote in a 2015 essay with Kim Holmes of the Heritage Foundation. “A refocused and energized U.S. role should dramatically increase economic help and support (including pressure) for those reforms,” Holmes and Taylor wrote.
The key to stability in Tunisia, as in any country, is inclusion—working with all groups that show themselves ready to use the rules of a democracy.
Bipartisan Support: Is it Enough?
Since its revolution, Tunisia’s government has been dominated by the two main parties, the secular Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist Ennahda. Both parties underscore Tunisia’s need for consistent U.S. help. Tunisia historically has had strong bipartisan support in Washington, notably in Congress, where both Democratic and Republican legislators frequently have met with leaders of both main Tunisian parties.
Current U.S. budget proposals for 2018 would slash American assistance. In the latest Tunisian appeal to avoid such cuts, a prominent Ennahda official and former Tunisian cabinet minister, Abdelkarim Harouni, last month met with the bipartisan House Tunisia Caucus and State Department officials. Harouni also met Taylor and other USIP specialists on Tunisia.
“In our discussions with Tunisians on all sides, it’s important to stay focused on the essentials,” said Taylor. “Tunisia needs its friends to steadily press for continued compromise and moderation, and for stronger reforms to end the corruption” that helped fuel the Arab Spring, he said.
One key step, many analysts say, is for Tunisia to finally hold the nationwide municipal elections that it repeatedly has postponed. Without elected local governments, cities like Sidi Bouzid have been hampered in taking initiatives to improve governance and solve local problems. The government announced December 19 that those elections, which had been scheduled for this week, will be held in the spring.
Work from the Bottom Up
In addition to support from governments and international institutions, Taylor said, Tunisia can benefit from support at the grass roots, notably to help Tunisians defuse internal conflicts that can be exploited by extremists.
USIP pursues such ground-level work by training and supporting a network of Tunisian peace mediators. That group, called the Alliance of Tunisian Facilitators, includes lawyers, civil society leaders, journalists and other professionals. In recent years, these mediators helped reduce conflicts in the cities of Kasserine and Gafsa. And they mediated an agreement between rival student factions to prevent violence at the University of Manouba, near Tunis.
Like many countries emerging from dictatorships, Tunisia needs to modernize its policing systems to better fit the requirements of a democracy. USIP is helping Tunisia’s National Police and National Guard update their training programs to build police forces that can sustain the trust of the communities they serve.
The Institute also is in early stages of conducting “Justice and Security Dialogues,” in which it convenes officials, community leaders and citizens to improve security and reduce mistrust that can produce violent conflicts and promote radicalization and extremism.
“The key to stability in Tunisia, as in any country, is inclusion—working with all groups that show themselves ready to use the rules of a democracy,” said Taylor. “In Tunisia, that is a very broad spectrum, which is why its young democracy is succeeding in the face of such difficult odds.”