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Tunisians hold flags during a demonstration in solidarity with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed in his fight against corruption, May 26, 2017 (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

A New U.S. Strategy to Bolster Tunisia’s Struggling Democracy

Eric B. Brown & Samuel Tadros

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Executive Summary

The country that set off the Arab Spring of 2011 is now widely hailed as its only success story. However, the factors that have aided the formation of the post-2011 Tunisian Republic cannot be counted on to sustain it. The country’s ongoing transition is, in fact, deeply contested by forces both inside and outside the nation. Despite significant aid from the U.S. and other Western countries, Tunisia remains beset with tremendous security, governance, and economic challenges. Moreover, Tunisia’s enemies like Islamic State and others are seeking to further splinter the republic along numerous societal fault lines to advance their own interests.

The U.S. has a long-range strategic interest in seeing Tunisia emerge as a self-sustaining democracy that can contribute to solving the larger crisis of governance and republicanism in the Arabic-speaking world. No program of aid is likely to succeed if the U.S. does not ground it in a diplomatic and political strategy for standing up the Tunisian Republic against its enemies.

A rethink of how the U.S. aids Tunisian democracy is needed. Instead of doubling down on existing capacity-building programs, more emphasis needs to be placed on the ideological and political contest between the post-2011 republic and its discontents. This requires local knowledge and careful analysis of opportunities. Building governing capacity is necessary, but the locus of the political contest now is the struggle inside and between the main religious and secularist factions which is hindering the formation of a new national compact.

Key Recommendations for U.S. Policymakers:

CIVIL/RELIGIOUS

In addition to party-training assistance, U.S. democracy aid should be repurposed to stimulate a real competition of ideas on state reform at Tunisia’s various think tanks and academic centers and among, and within, the political parties.

One focus should be on working directly with parliament. The U.S. should aim to reduce the distrust between parties, and to give enlightened leaders on all sides the support they need to work for the good of the Tunisian Republic, rather than for factional interests and for foreign powers.

Focus more resources on cultivating essential personal links with emerging leaders in government, business, and civil society. At the government level, this would consist of issue-based joint conferences and workshops and legislative staff exchanges to promote good governance. Opportunities for nongovernmental cooperation include establishing partnerships between each country’s labor unions, industries, trade groups, religious networks, and media.

Outreach to Ennahda and support for its ongoing transformation from an Islamist movement into a Muslim Democratic party must be a key long-range U.S. priority. The U.S. must therefore use the opportunities it now has to cultivate the up-and-coming generation, to strengthen the democratic and pluralist tendencies in Ennahda, and try to institutionalize them.

Likewise, the U.S. must not neglect Tunisia’s diverse secular actors, especially those which share our basic republican principles. The U.S. should work directly with Nidaa Tounes to encourage internal democratic processes and honor its achievements and efforts to establish a civil democracy. The continuation of this and the evolution of secularist politics is as crucial to Tunisian democracy as the evolution of Ennahda.

In addition to assisting Tunisian personnel for a ground game to proactively contest radical ideology, the U.S. should support Tunisians by connecting religious reformers with their counterparts elsewhere in the region, especially in Morocco.

While the immediate focus should be on the practical, reform of civic education is also desperately needed. The benefits of modern education need to be extended to all Tunisians, including those in the southern provinces. In part, this calls for capacity-building, and this can be done through direct assistance to the educational sector, but more crucially, through organizing and empowering reformers to do this themselves.

The U.S. should work with various parties in key areas on repairing the relationship between religion and political authority. Tunisia will need an alternative to the broken laicist tradition of the Bourguibist era, one that allows religious actors some latitude in the political sphere while requiring their moderation. This is critical for fostering reconciliation and for ensuring that religious groups remain committed to the civic state.

In addition to reforming police education, a political strategy needs to be implemented to penalize police abuse and corruption and improve the public’s confidence in the police and demonstrate that reform is happening.

The U.S. should seek to expand current collaborative worker-training programs, administered through USAID, and help forge greater public-private cooperation while empowering private organizations to carry educational reform forward.

Reform should promote English language education both through the official educational system and through outside sources such as AMIDEAST. Such programs are necessary to attract greater multi-national investment, just as they are critical for opening Tunisia to international academic exchange, politics and commerce.

ECONOMIC

Support Tunisian initiatives to fight anti-corruption and create a new economic culture. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has called for a “total war against corruption.” The U.S. should provide technical, analytical and political support to the Tunisian government and NGO anti-corruption efforts. This could take the form of a coordinated campaign with government, media, and partners from other sectors who recognize that corruption is a national security issue that undermines the republican government.

All direct U.S. economic aid programs, whether the aim is to foster micro-finance or entrepreneurship, should be designed and evaluated in light of the political goal of reducing the harmful propensity for “machine politics.”

Critical to the country’s economic vitality is developing an entrepreneurial culture which encourages young Tunisians to create their own business opportunities.

Conclude a full bilateral trade agreement.

Build on programs begun under President Obama, including an entrepreneurship fund that provides start-up capital to young Tunisian entrepreneurs. The Tunisian American Enterprise Fund (TAEF), administered by USAID, plans to invest $100 million in diverse industries and across geographic regions within Tunisia over a ten-year period ending in 2027.

Establishing an independent and transparent philanthropic sector through legal reform is a vital first step. The U.S. economic strategy needs to combine with and reinforce new opportunities for fostering reform of Tunisia’s political economy. In conjunction with civil society and independent media organizations, it is important to establish a public, fact-based source of information about what foreign funds are coming into the country and to what parties they are going.

With over one million Tunisians living abroad, the U.S. needs to develop an outreach program to empower these communities to help their native land.

MILITARY

The Tunisian military’s enhanced reputation should be utilized as a vehicle for national integration by opening up opportunities to Tunisians from the country’s neglected southern areas.

The U.S. could also offer more opportunities for Tunisian officers to study at U.S. military schools, but more importantly, a formal and comprehensive effort to reform officer training inside Tunisia is needed. For this, officer education needs to emphasize not just complex military operations in urban environments and the interior regions, but also rule of law and tactical economics.

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