Tunisia, the West and the ‘Arab spring’

Sunday 05/11/2017
Own engines. Military equipment offered to Tunisia by the United States. (Reuters)

Although Tunisia is still seen favourably in Washington, the United States is unlikely to be its saviour. No matter how much Washington reflects on Tunisia as a successful democratic transition, the mood in the US capital will not lead to large amounts of aid to magically fix the country’s security and economic woes. Only by looking to itself can Tunisia complete its democratic transition.

For some in Washington, and the West more broadly, Tunisia is a reminder of an “Arab spring” that could have been. For others, it is the only vindication of America’s over-optimistic expectations from the uprisings that have rocked the Mid­dle East and North Africa since 2010. In no way, however, does Tunisia’s experience justify the eagerness to make rash generalisations about an implausible Arab democracy domino effect.

Even Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has tried to dispel that no­tion. “There is no ‘Arab spring,’ just the beginning of a ‘Tunisian spring’,” he said.

Tunisia’s case, in the minds of most Westerners, is a reminder, by contrast, of the wars, violence and devastation that have befallen many parts of the region after 2011.

So, naturally, the question that still comes to mind in America and Europe is: Why Tunisia and not other Arab countries?

The short answer is that, since independence if not since the 19th century, Tunisia underwent a dif­ferent evolution than most other Arab countries. By 2010, its society had outgrown its political system and it was only the reluctance of the then-rulers to introduce real reform that invited revolution. In other Arab countries, no such conditions prevailed and foreign intervention and violence could not make up for their absence. They could only make things worse. And they did.

As it forges on today, Tunisia is not out of the woods. It has yet to find a way to restart its stalled economy, provide opportunity to its discon­tented youth and shield the country from terrorism.

Washington’s experts and officials are aware of the many challenges Tunisia faces.

But Americans, like Europeans, are too consumed by their own domestic concerns to consider any major economic support initiative. The West does not do Marshall plans anymore.

It is true that virtually all US politi­cians and experts want Tunisia to succeed but you will have to look hard to find anyone who is enthusi­astic enough for its success to advo­cate footing the bill for the country’s socio-economic challenges.

It is hard to generate enthusiasm for a country whose peaceful demo­cratic transition is likely to remain a regional anomaly — one small island of relative success amid a sea of chaos.

One can still detect traces of US President George W. Bush’s “Free­dom Agenda” and its successor narratives in Western discourse but, increasingly, in the current contexts of strife and turmoil, policymakers in Europe and the United States are settling for a more realistic Middle East endgame in which the goals are simply ensuring peace and security.

Although Tunisia’s transition may be at the core of the debate about US involvement in the Arab world, the nature of the debate has changed. There seems to be an undeclared yearning for strongmen, which cuts across segments of the political classes in the West, as well as parts of the Arab region itself.

The West’s Libya policy is the best illustration of this trend. The priority for the United States and European powers seems to be to find someone or something that can limit the risks of illegal immigration and jihadist spillovers.

Many Libyans, also, want some­one or something that can make their lives liveable. Right now, the citizens of Libya — and probably also Syria, Iraq and Yemen — are survival­ists, not democrats.

Western democracy advocates are disappointed that a successful democratic transition has not proven to be the antidote to extremism and terrorism. Hence the inability to understand how a promising Nobel Peace Prize-winning democratic model can also be an exporter of jihadists.

The reality, however, is dawning upon all.

As America and the rest of the West have all but overcome their wishful thinking that the Tunisian experience could somehow be du­plicated across the region, Tunisians are slowly weaning themselves from the notion that the West will eventu­ally come through with the level and type of assistance that saves the day.

Tunisia cannot wait for the United States and Europe to bail it out, nor should it. The risk that Tunisia would be seen as just a feather in the previous US administration’s cap, a risk politically involved Tunisians are aware of, could affect its percep­tion by the Trump administration. Although Tunisia has a long road ahead, the country can reach safe harbour by relying on the power of its own engines, certain caveats notwithstanding.

It behoves Tunisia’s political class to focus its energies on winning the battle of the socio-economic transition, rather than short-sighted political infighting and that’s a win­nable battle.

Sustainable recovery in Tunisia cannot take place, however, without a permanent settlement of the Lib­yan crisis and that is where a more serious and focused US contribution to the international effort aimed at reaching a final settlement in Libya would go a long way towards aiding Tunisia.

The United States is providing support for the UN initiative led by Lebanese mediator Ghassan Salame. Washington is also likely to act if the Islamic State (ISIS) rears its head in a big way in Libya once again. A recent Middle East Institute survey indicated that 82% of Americans questioned said they support US en­gagement in the fight to defeat ISIS.

Even if the United States did get more involved in Libya because of ISIS, it is unlikely to get involved in a way that contributes to resolving the broader conflict. As it did with Operation Odyssey Lightning in 2016 in Libya and as it continues to do in Syria, US involvement will be largely military and will separate military involvement from a comprehensive plan to resolve the broader war.

A solution in Libya would bring peace to Libyans and better security to Europe. It could also mean more secure borders, more jobs and more business and trade opportunities for Tunisia. “We estimate that the Libyan crisis may have contributed 24% to the overall drop in Tunisia’s growth over the five years from 2011 to 2015,” noted the World Bank in a recent report. The connection be­tween socio-economics and security should motivate the United States and Europe to help. Neither fear nor wishful thinking should drive the West’s agenda regarding Tunisia.

But Tunisia cannot wait for the United States or Europe to resolve Libya’s war. Because of regional and domestic factors, it will be an uphill battle before Tunisia’s political trans­formation can lead to an equally transformative socio-economic change. Success on the social and economic reform track will deter­mine Tunisia’s chances for long-term security and stability as well as those of others in the Mediterranean.

The worst scenario that can unfold is that of benign neglect on the part of the West and utter disillusion­ment on the part of Tunisians but, in all circumstances, the “Tunisian spring” will be the by-product of what Tunisians can bring to the table at the end of the day.

(This op-ed was originally published by the US Atlantic Council’s MENA­source. http://www.atlanticcouncil. org/blogs/menasource/tunisia-the-west-and-the-arab-spring.)