With only Tunisia evolving peacefully toward democracy from the Arab Spring movement of 2011, a broader democratization in the Arab world depends on continued U.S. engagement in the Middle East, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi told a May 20 public forum at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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“Up to today, we’re the exception but we hope to be a model emulated by others” in establishing a democratic constitution and successive, broad-based governments, Essebsi said. “But that depends on the role that the United States wishes to play” in support, he said, speaking Arabic through an interpreter.

Four years after popular uprisings that toppled autocratic governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, “there is actually no such thing as an Arab Spring. There is a Tunisian spring,” Essebsi told a questioner. “To become a model, let us first succeed; we have not succeeded” in fully consolidating Tunisia’s transformation, he said.

Essebsi was elected last year as the head of Nidaa Tunis, a secular-oriented party, and took office from a government that had been dominated by Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party, Ennahda. In his first visit to the United States as president, Essebsi underscored threats to Tunisia’s democratization from violent Islamist movements such as ISIS, from the civil war in neighboring Libya, and from unemployment rates hovering between 15 and 20 percent.

Poverty as a Threat

Switching from his native Arabic to English, Essebsi  said: “We must fight for … human rights, but we have people who don’t eat, who [are] very poor, who don’t have work. I think it is primary to respond to that.” Essebsi , who is to meet President Barack Obama today, said he is asking for “a little more” help from the United States as his government works to strengthen its economy and security.

Essebsi and Obama published a joint essay in the Washington Post today, writing that “Tunisia shows that democracy is not only possible but also necessary in North Africa and the Middle East.”

Tunisia and its 11 million people have absorbed more than 1 million refugees from Libya’s civil war. That conflict has opened space for ISIS to build a presence in North Africa, Essebsi said. Tunisia’s own economic crisis is behind the migration of tens of thousands of young Tunisian men to join extremist Islamist movements such as ISIS, he said. “If they have been to [fight in] Iraq and Syria, it is because they don’t have … stable prospects in Tunisia.”

USIP in Tunisia

Speaking to an audience that included policymakers, diplomats and journalists, Essebsi thanked USIP for its work, which in Tunisia has included training and support for civil society leaders, lawyers, and others who serve as mediators and facilitators to non-violently manage and resolve conflicts in their communities. USIP recently launched a “justice and security dialogue” to build relationships between police and the communities they serve in Tunisia, aiming to help them jointly identify and solve security challenges.

Regardless of the degree of help Tunisia receives from the United States, “we will still be friends,” Essebsi said. Tunisia will remain committed to the pluralist political model it began building under its early leader, Habib Bourguiba, following independence from France in 1956, he added. Essebsi, 89, began his political career under Bourguiba, and also served in the party of Bourguiba’s successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown by the 2011 popular uprising.

Essebsi’s prepared remarks at USIP included these:

On Tunisia’s evolution toward democracy since 2011: “The most crucial factor” in Tunisia’s evolution has been “the consensual spirit that has always been a common denominator among the stakeholders” in the country. “Thanks to our consensual spirit, we have managed to overcome the  … political polarization, which has characterized the period preceding the drafting of the [2014] constitution, between the Islamists and the seculars.”

On Tunisia’s concentration of poverty, inland and in the south:  “The problems underlying the absence of employment opportunities, and the development disparities between the coastal regions and the inland ones, and that stand for the deep causes lying behind the ignition of the 2011 revolution, are still pending. … The social conditions are still very tough, unemployment rates high and the regional equilibrium non-existing. Indeed, there are more than 620,000 unemployed Tunisian young people, 250,000 of whom are university graduates, and who are all looking for a job to grant them and their families a decent life.”

On Tunisia’s appeal for help from the United States and its allies: “The support of our partners is important to safeguard the situation in the country, given that stability in the whole region is contingent on stability in Tunisia. To invest in Tunisia is to consecrate the precepts of democracy and enhance the values of stability and development in the region. We all hope that the G-7 summit, to be hosted by Germany next June, and to which I have been invited as a guest of honor, will be a crucial stopover in this regard.”

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