Study sees Tunisia as ‘priority for Western engagement’
WASHINGTON - A study by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East calls on the United States and European Union to “develop a joint transatlantic strategy that recognises Tunisia as a priority for Western engagement with the Arab world” because “democratic Tunisia is critical to advancing the West’s goal of a more stable and moderate Middle East”.
The report stressed urgency, warning if there is no action soon, Tunisia may succumb to the many challenges it faces.
The report, A Transatlantic Strategy for a Democratic Tunisia, said that “five years after the revolution, democratic reform in Tunisia is shaky and the public mood is darkening”.
The challenges for Tunisia are, according to the report, in three key areas: economic development, security and democratic development. In each area, the report identifies “clear steps” the United States and European Union can take to improve the situation.
The first step is to “increase support by pledging a joint package in aid, investment and trade benefits worth at least $2 billion a year for the next five years”, a substantial increase in assistance the West currently provides Tunisia.
The second step is measuring the direct effects of all initiatives on “youth unemployment and regional economic disparities”. The report proposes a “high-profile conference on economic development” convened in one of Tunisia’s impoverished governorates.
It also calls for linking “significant budget support to the implementation of reforms” and working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral financial institutions to strengthen Tunisia’s social safety net. Importantly, the report calls for increasing EU and US market access for Tunisian goods and services.
The final step urges greater consolidation and coordination of economic assistance among Western donors.
Paige Alexander, assistant administrator of the US Agency for International Development, said the focus should be on economic growth and economic disparity. She emphasised the importance of implementing broad-based economic reform. “Tunisia made impressive strides in the last five years,” she said, “but it has a long way to go”.
Alexander noted the $500 million loan guarantee the United States signed with Tunisia on June 3rd, the third such guarantee since 2011, and said the US government had provided Tunisia with more than $1 billion of support since the revolution.
Nicholas Westcott, managing director for the Middle East and North Africa at the European External Action Service, said the European Union has provided Tunisia with more than $3.3 billion in economic and political support since 2011.
IMF economist Andrea Gamba said the fund was working with the Tunisian government on implementing structural reforms in the financial sector and civil service.
Amy Hawthorne, of the Project on Middle East Democracy, called on the United States and the European Union to make Tunisia a high priority.
She said that in addition to economic support, Tunisia needs assistance to address security and in dealing with counterterrorism “without building a police state”. The overarching goal, Hawthorne said, should be to help Tunisia develop as a democracy. “If we lose sight of that we lose,” she said.
Karim Mezran of the Hariri Centre advised people to “look at the political dynamics in Tunisia.” He said the fragmentation of the political parties that is taking place, such as the split in Nidaa Tounes, “weakens the parliament, the government and it weakens the possibility of reform”.
Tunisian Ambassador to the United States Fayçal Gouia proposed a committee be established so the United States and the European Union can better “coordinate and cooperate with Tunisia”.
He said the Tunisian business community has asked the Americans to start negotiations over a free trade agreement (FTA) with Tunisia. He said an FTA would “give a positive signal to the international community that Tunisia is a reliable partner for business and investment”.
Hawthorne said an FTA “would send a strong signal of confidence in the Tunisian economy” but noted that the Obama administration has not prioritised bilateral free trade agreements. “This is a real missed opportunity,” she said.