When the Prime Minister of Tunisia, Mehdi Jomaa, visits Washington on Wednesday, it will be a welcome respite from the relentless bad news coming from the Arab world. Tunisia, where the Arab “spring” began in late 2010, is farther along the process of democratic transformation than the other countries where the demand for change was equally compelling — Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. The U.S. government is right to acknowledge the notable milestones achieved by Tunisia toward completion of this transition. Sustaining Tunisia’s successes will require continued commitment to inclusiveness among the political parties, and more financial and political support from the U.S., Europe and Tunisia’s neighbors.
Jomaa’s appointment has been the source of measured optimism in Tunisia, following the remarkable decision in January 2014 by the Al-Nahda Party to relinquish power in the face of public disapproval, and accept an interim technocratic government. The transfer of power to Jomaa palpably eased the polarization between the secular and Islamist camps, and put the country on the track towards power-sharing and reconciliation. It also brought to power a non-partisan government that can focus on meeting the twin challenges of terrorism and economic recession.
The Jomaa government faces an uphill battle in the pursuit of these objectives, but it can rely on the country’s proven tradition of political moderation, derived from the legacy of its first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba. Tunisia’s “founding father” set the country on a rapid track to modernization, with strong secular, education and gender equality orientations. Tunisia’s second president since independence, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, was toppled in January 2011 when unemployed young people took to the streets demanding “jobs, freedom and dignity”. Elections were held in October 2011 giving a plurality of seats to Islamists. Interim governments have not since been able to mitigate the lingering socio-economic difficulties of Tunisia. But after decades of autocratic rule, newly-gained rights allowed citizens freedom of expression and the practice of democratic customs.
Unfortunately, Salafist radicals took advantage of the new political climate by engaging in violence and terrorism. But their popular appeal has proven to be marginal. A recent University of Michigan survey showed than 93 percent of Tunisians condemned the September 2012 Salafist attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis.
Tunisia also benefits from its Mediterranean climate and location, ethnic and religious homogeneity, and its early recognition of the need to diversify its economy, given its modest endowments of oil and phosphates. France, Tunisia’s former colonial power, still constitutes the country’s first trade partner — its cultural influence and attractiveness as a destination for Tunisian immigrants have traditionally added to the strong bonds between the two countries. But the relationship has not proven sufficient to pull Tunisian out of its recession, especially considering Europe’s continued economic slowdown.
During its two years in power, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Al-Nahda, has not provided answers to the country’s economic woes, but it has proven to be attentive to the mood of the electorate. Islamist leaders overcame pressures from party hardliners to introduce explicit references to Islamic law and roll back the rights of women in the new constitution. They eventually stepped aside when newly empowered citizens became frustrated with their poor performance in government; and after the bloody events in Egypt last summer, they were convinced of the risks of clinging to power for too long.
“Nida Tounes,” Tunisia’s main secularist party, has played an important role in shaping the consensus that ended the deadlock. Down the road, it could also play an even greater role in the building of a stable and inclusive “two-pole” system.
Since assuming office, Jomaa has diagnosed the serious economic problems the country faces with realism. Under his watch, the government has shown greater determination in fighting terrorism instigated by “Ansar al Sharia” Jihadists. But it cannot tackle the two daunting tasks without domestic and outside support. To have any chance of success dealing with the lingering socio-economic difficulties, the Jomaa government must receive the help of the country’s strong trade union and business federation.
In recent days, prominent friends of Tunisia have urged the U.S. to deepen its engagement in Tunisia’s transition, recommending, for example, loosening travel warnings and security restrictions for U.S. diplomatic personnel in the country, increasing economic aid substantially beyond the current $30 million annual outlay, and supporting a free trade agreement and other measures to strengthen Tunisia’s private sector.
Given Tunisia’s size, the U.S. should also develop a more effective regional strategy that supports Tunisia’s economic and political stability in a larger context. This should be, in fact, one of the priorities of the U.S.-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue set to be launched during Jomaa’s visit. Encouraging a regional approach based on greater security coordination and economic cooperation would be an important stepping-stone to regional stability.
While Libya suffers now from a profound security vacuum, it could in the future be a major employer for Tunisia’s job-seekers and a potential partner for Tunisian enterprises. Joint ventures with Algeria and Morocco can also provide mutual benefits.
Indeed, Tunisia has long favored a more integrated region. While politics in the larger neighboring countries have prevented much progress, the U.S. can encourage this trend as a way to support Tunisia’s leadership and its strategic interests. It is also the smart way to expand interest and opportunities for the U.S. business community, and to create more effective markets for trade and innovation for both countries.
*Ellen Laipson is President and CEO of the Stimson Center. Oussama Romdhani is an independent analyst and former Tunisian government official.