Tunisia needs more than rhetoric

Friday 20/11/2015
A shop owner waits for tourists outside his shop at the village of Sidi Bou Said, some 20 km out­side of Tunis, in October.

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Tunis was the latest in a string of high-profile expressions of US support for Tunisia’s democratic experience, the most pronounced of which was Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s visit to the White House in May.

As expected, Kerry was effusive in his praise of Tunisia. “Tunisia is where the ‘Arab spring’ was born and it is where it distinctly con­tinues to bloom in ways that are defining the possibilities for other countries in the region,” Kerry said after meeting with Tunisian For­eign Minister Taieb Baccouche.

“Your nation,” Kerry continued, “remains a shining example to those who claim that democracy is not possible in this part of the world.”

Beautiful words, indeed. And unlike many formal public remarks by diplomats, what Kerry said is actually true: The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 with the promise of spreading democracy first to that nation and eventually to the entire Arab world. Twelve years later, only in Tunisia has a real democratic experiment been undertaken.

But it was not the result of US invasion. It was, in fact, purely home-grown. As the launching point of the “Arab spring”, Tuni­sians were not motivated by events in neighbouring countries. Tunisia was the alpha country.

Imagine, if you will, what the Middle East would look like if every country that experienced an upris­ing in 2011 had followed the Tuni­sian route, as difficult as that route was. I know the counter-argument: Tunisia enjoyed important national characteristics that facilitated its democratic progress — a fairly ho­mogenous society, a strong history of tolerance and secularism, liber­ated women and a well-educated populace. But Tunisia struggled and is still struggling, with some of the same phenomena that shat­tered other countries in the region.

Did Tunisia have certain inherent advantages? Yes. But did Tunisians also work hard to pursue the type of national dialogue and consensus that would allow them to benefit from their advantages? Abso­lutely. And does Tunisia still face challenges that could ultimately undermine its progress and drag it into the kind of chaos many of its neighbours are suffering? Without doubt.

So while the nice rhetoric from the West is well-deserved, words and Nobel prizes alone will not secure Tunisia from extremist vio­lence, nor energise its economy so that young Tunisians can envision a better world, nor help Tunisians address economic disparity and other social problems.

Despite its small size, Tunisia looms large over the Middle East and North Africa. If Tunisians suc­ceed in and sustain their democrat­ic experiment and combine it with real economic growth, this small North African state will become a template for a region in turmoil. The stakes are huge and the West has been slow to understand this.

To be fair, Kerry announced another loan guarantee for Tunisia and invigorated security assistance, as well as the creation of a new US-Tunisian Joint Economic Commis­sion. During Caid Essebsi’s visit to Washington, US President Barack Obama granted Tunisia the status of non-NATO ally and pledged to double Tunisia’s economic as­sistance to $134 million. Congress, however, has not approved that increase. Just as a comparison, the United States is estimated to be spending about $9 million per day — $2.7 billion over one year — in the war against ISIS.

This raises an important ques­tion: When will the United States and its European allies recognise that investing in countries such as Tunisia and help them build strong economies and societies is a far cheaper means of fighting extrem­ism than the cost of fighting end­less wars against terrorism?

This is not a call to simply throw massive sums of money across the Mediterranean. Wise economic support does not cost anywhere near the cost of war. Often, much can be achieved by enacting new policies and programmes: For example, wouldn’t this be an ideal time to begin negotiations over a US-Tunisia free trade agreement?

And what about funding pro­grammes hat strengthen ties between the two societies, such as exchanges of professionals?

A great deal can be done to foster an entrepreneurial climate in Tuni­sia and offer a helping hand to Tu­nisian youth through scholarships. A full-year scholarship at a public American university would cost around $50,000, which means a $10 million US government programme (slightly more than Americans spend every 24 hours fighting ISIS) could bring 200 Tunisians to the United States each year to pursue degrees in engineering, technology and business. These kinds of pro­grammes should be matched, at a minimum, by the European Union.

Kerry’s words were heartwarm­ing but Tunisians need more than warm hearts: They need security, economic and social stability, and genuine faith that they are facing a brighter and better future.