Washington think-tank calls for increased assistance to Tunisia

Sunday 01/05/2016
An unemployed graduate from the city of Kasserine takes part in a sit-in protest near the Tunisian Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment demanding the government to provide job opportunities in Tunis, on April 1st.

Washington - William Burns, presi­dent of the Carnegie Endowment for In­ternational Peace and a former US dep­uty secretary of state, has proposed a “new framework for partnership with Tunisia because Tunisia mat­ters”. Burns spoke on the release of a Carnegie report that warned that “the Tunisian experiment is teeter­ing on a knife’s edge between peril and promise”.

The report, written by Carnegie Vice-President Marwan Muasher, Marc Pierini and Alexander Djeras­si, lamented that five years after the revolution “internal headwinds and regional whirlwinds continue to be­devil the country, jeopardising its democratic transition”.

They pointed to “disillusion­ment” among Tunisians “with the risk that the consensual fabric that has kept the country afloat and moved it forward may tear”.

A RAND Corporation analyst who closely monitors Tunisia told The Arab Weekly that, on a recent visit, he sensed the deep frustration of Tunisians — especially those out­side major urban areas around Tu­nis. He noted that in Tunisia “edu­cation correlates negatively with job opportunity”, which adds to the frustrations of educated young peo­ple. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Carnegie report blames both Tunisians and the international community for the country’s pre­carious state. “International coordi­nation and follow-through has been lacking, making hard choices about meaningful reforms more difficult,” the report said. But Tunisians “have to do their part” because “too much assistance and too many projects are mired in a bureaucratic morass inherited from the previous re­gime”.

The report proposes a new “Framework for Partnership” un­der which Tunisia’s international partners would deepen engagement with and assistance to Tunisia, in­cluding increased financial aid and trade. The Tunisian government would be called on to practice great­er transparency, accountability and follow-through, as well as “advance reforms that can gain public buy-in and remove obstacles to economic growth”.

Yassine Brahim, Tunisia’s minis­ter of Development, Investment and International Cooperation, coun­selled patience in the international community’s demand for reforms. “When you don’t have political sta­bility,” Brahim said, “you don’t have speed of reform.”

US Deputy Secretary of State An­tony Blinken agreed, saying: “We need to put our expectations in line with the reality of the difficulty and the durations of these transitions.”

Blinken reiterated US commit­ment to Tunisia’s success and vowed to deepen the country’s po­litical, economic and security efforts so that Tunisians could “consolidate their democratic gains”. But he ac­knowledged that “the hope and the promise of this extraordinary dem­ocratic transition is at risk”.

Muasher, one of the report’s co-authors, said the world would be missing an opportunity if it does not help Tunisia. Tunisia’s success is very important “to the whole region and the Arab world”, he said, and “helping a model of pluralism and inclusiveness will serve as a good model to the region. If it fails, the message it sends is that democracy and pluralism don’t work.”

US assistance to Tunisia remains relatively small but is growing. The Obama administration’s economic aid request for 2016 is $55 million, more than double that of 2014. Mili­tary assistance has risen from $20 million in 2014 to $62.5 million in the 2016 budget request.

Djerassi, another of the report’s authors, said the main obstacle is Tunisia’s “inherited” system. He said that under the Ben Ali govern­ment, it functioned like a lock where the presidency was “the key that could unlock anything it wants”. After the revolution, “they got rid of the dictatorship but they also got rid of the key and they are left with the lock”. Djerassi said that now when the system prevents things from happening, “no one is in control to give the green light to unlock it”.

Djerassi said it would require time to alleviate this problem and that in­ternational assistance should “fast-track” urgent needs such as roads and hospitals. He also said that the West should “expand market access for Tunisian business in the most labour intensive sectors: agriculture and textiles”.

Djerassi and the report’s other authors are optimistic but offered a warning. As Djerassi said: “If [Tu­nisians] feel the model does not de­liver, then their support could start to disappear and continued faith in the democratic approach will be af­fected. This could lead Tunisia to a dark path. We saw that in 2013.”

The report points to three up­coming opportunities to create its proposed framework: the Group of Seven meeting in May, the UN Gen­eral Assembly in September and Tu­nisia’s anticipated fall investment conference. For this to happen, the United States and its European al­lies must act quickly to develop a comprehensive plan. But with the war against the Islamic State, the Syrian, Yemeni and Libyan crises and immigration demanding so much attention, Tunisia could fall between the cracks.