Study sees Tunisia as ‘priority for Western engagement’

Sunday 19/06/2016
Cover of Atlantic Council report

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.