Tunisia at the Crossroads

On April 4th, Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, who took office in December, will visit Washington to meet with President Obama. He will seek greater US support to his country, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, as it strives to combat terrorism and salvage the economy.

With a stagnant economy, continued political uncertainty, and a terrorist problem, Tunisia encapsulates the problems that have emerged from the uprisings of three years ago. Whatever happens in Tunisia, however, will not stay in Tunisia; and so it behooves Washington and Tunis—as they launch their Strategic Dialogue this week—to seek the best possible outcome together.

A UN report, released in March, revealed that Tunisian authorities have seized “Libyan MANPADS and other short range surface to air missiles” smuggled across the border from Libya. As battle-hardened jihadists from across North Africa return from Syria, Tunisia and its neighbors alike face serious peril from terrorism. While the Tunisian government has shown greater resolve in recent months, the country simply does not have the capacity to handle the problem alone. It needs assistance from friends in order to upgrade its forces and effectively monitor jihadist activities on its border and beyond.

In February, US Secretary of State John Kerry described Tunisia as a country “that has an opportunity to show the path, to point the way,” for Arab Spring nations engulfed in turmoil. His words were justified. About 10 percent of Libyans have taken refuge in Tunisia. Whereas political violence continues in Egypt, Libya, and, of course, Syria, Tunisia’s vying factions were able to reach a compromise enabling ratification of a progressive constitution and the appointment of a technocratic government. Free and free elections should be held by the end of the year.

Nothing is certain, however. Prime Minister Jomaa continues to face daunting socioeconomic challenges. Tunisia’s youth still yearn for greater job opportunities and better living standards, three years since the fall of the Ben Ali regime. In recent weeks, the Jomaa was quite open with the Tunisian public on the extent of the country’s economic plight. Bloated government spending has led to mounting debt and a soaring national deficit. Sooner or later, Tunisian governments will have to introduce the kind of fundamental economic reform that can spur growth and employment. But cutting subsidies and freezing salaries will be difficult before elections.

Most Tunisians are aware that many post-revolutionary wounds were self-inflicted. Political polarization, identity wars, and score-settling campaigns took a terrible toll and did not leave much time for interim governments to fix the economy. Ideological hang-ups and government inexperience helped enable forces of terror and extremism. Today, politicians still have to work hard at reconciliation and inclusive democracy. They seem however to be exorcizing their destructive demons and changing their focus to the future.

Tunisia needs help. It has been nearly three years since the Group of Eight promised $20 billion in aid to the Arab Spring countries, including Tunisia, to foster democratic transition and economic reform. But they have not fulfilled their pledge. Achieving the type of “post–Berlin Wall” transformation to which the G8 alluded to at the 2011 Deauville summit would have required granting Arab Spring countries the same kind of support received by newly liberated East European nations. In recent weeks, Ukraine has received $27 billion in aid pledges from the international financial institutions, Europe, and the US. Tunisians may be forgiven for wondering whether only Europeans are eligible for the kind of transformational help their country needs.

Tunisia could become the driving engine for democracy and economic growth south of the Mediterranean. Successfully completing the transition would not only help Tunisia, but also mitigate corrosive instability and radicalization whose reverberations might be felt far and wide. Tunisians expect the international community to be more forthcoming with them in the current juncture. The United States should show the way.

Oussama Romdhani is an independent columnist and a former senior official in the Tunisian government.

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