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Tunisia at the Crossroads

Author: Victoria Taylor, 2011-2012 International Affairs Fellow in Residence
October 21, 2011

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October 23, Tunisians will go to the polls, many for the first time, to elect members of an assembly that will rewrite the Tunisian constitution and pave the way for direct elections next year. The vote is one step in a gradual transition, but represents a dramatic change for a country led by only two rulers since its 1956 independence. Change cannot come quickly enough for many of the disenfranchised Tunisians who participated in the mass uprising that led to former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's departure.

The election will begin to address Tunisian hunger for representation but still to be settled is the chief challenge of persistently high unemployment. The election will also likely not resolve the growing debate over the role of Islam in politics and society.

"A Country That Worked"--For Some

Tunisia was often dubbed "a country that works." It achieved an impressive level of economic development and education, and boasted one of the region's largest middle classes. Tunisia was hailed by the West as a model for secularism in the Muslim world, with strong protection of women's rights and strict separation of religion and state. According to an unwritten social compact, many--though certainly not all--Tunisians believed that political freedoms were a tradeoff worth making for the country's stability and high level of development.

The Tunisian government under Ben Ali had a moderate face, but it was a police state where the government tightly controlled nearly every aspect of society. Government censorship of the media and Internet consistently ranked Tunisia in the bottom tier in Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom assessment. Civil society and opposition political activists confronted near constant harassment by the authorities, including spurious lawsuits, jail sentences, and surveillance. Most Tunisians chose to avoid politics altogether.

Decades of political repression, the lack of freedom of assembly and expression, and absence of accountability took a toll on all aspects of Tunisian society, including the economy. Although Ben Ali's regime touted its success, eventually the Tunisian economy became more stagnant than stable. †At the time of the revolution, official figures placed unemployment at 13 percent (current estimates place unemployment as high as 18.5 percent), with unemployment among university-educated youth estimated to be nearly 30 percent. Growing inequality between rich and poor and urban and rural populations created a growing sense that the Tunisian model had run its course. Endemic and brazen corruption, often at the hands of Ben Ali's family and associates, ultimately sealed the government's downfall.

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, he conveyed the frustrations of many poor and unemployed Tunisians who were failed by the system and had no avenue to express their dissatisfaction. Tunisians had begun to question their bargain with the Tunisian government and were ready to protest.

Out with the Old

After decades of single party rule, Tunisians are now confronted by a dizzying array of options. Nearly ten thousand candidates representing eighty-one parties as well as numerous independents will vie for the 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly. Banned in 1989 and only legally authorized this year, the Islamist an-Nadha, or "Renaissance" party, has emerged as the front-runner and is expected to win around 25-30 percent of the votes. Well-established opposition parties under Ben Ali--the center-left Progressive Democratic Party, Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedom, and Congress for the Republic--are expected to perform well.

A free and fair election would be a first in Tunisia, and strong voter turnout will signal public support for the transition process.

As these political parties attempt to win over Tunisian voters, they must also appeal to the revolutionary movement they did not lead. Ben Ali's departure set the stage for a transition to democracy, but the interim government has had difficulty convincing Tunisians that it represents a complete break from the regime. Tunisians continue to protest, at times forcing resignations from officials of the caretaker cabinet viewed as vestiges of the Ben Ali government. It remains to be seen whether the Constituent Assembly and the Tunisian government can deliver change quickly enough to satisfy the still restive protest movement.

In no small way, Tunisia's successful transition also depends on reenergizing the economy. Tunisians protested not only for a change in political leadership, but for tangible changes in their daily lives. To deliver economic growth and produce jobs, Tunisia will need massive investment to increase competitiveness in export-oriented sectors such as manufacturing, as well as knowledge-based sectors like information and communications technology that will employ university graduates. Encouraging tourists--previously a significant source of income--to return to Tunisia will also be critical to economic growth. The interim government's establishment of a corruption commission was an important step to demonstrate accountability and will help restore the confidence of investors. However, both foreign and domestic investors will want to see stability and continued economic reforms in areas such as transparency, regulation, and labor policies.

In many ways, the election process may be just as important as the results. A free and fair election would be a first in Tunisia, and strong voter turnout will signal public support for the transition process. As long as voting proceeds without significant irregularities, the international community should applaud the elections as a significant step toward democracy.

Hidden Islamist Agendas?

Many analysts will be tempted to view the vote breakdown as a referendum on the role of Islam in Tunisian society. However, this election is the beginning of a broader national dialogue on religion that is long overdue. Although there are certainly positives about Tunisia's secular character, Ben Ali's staunch defense of secularism prevented even modest expressions of religiosity, leading to occasions on which veils were forcibly removed from women's heads.

Despite an-Nadha's assurances to the contrary, many secular Tunisians are suspicious of a possible hidden agenda that would erode Tunisia's progressive social policies. An-Nadha's burgeoning popularity may reflect an interest by many Tunisians in having greater religious freedom, and does not necessarily portend a radical shift in the fabric of society.

A Crucial Role for Washington

As Tunisia attempts to restart its economy and make its institutions genuinely representative, the United States should focus on providing significant technical and financial assistance. With U.S. foreign aid on the chopping block, a substantial U.S. contribution is likely a difficult sell in Congress. A Middle East "Marshall Plan" may not be in the offing, but even moderate funding for assistance in supporting democratic and economic reforms would go a long way. The G8 countries have pledged nearly $80 billion in financial assistance and debt relief to support Arab democracies, but so far only a fraction of this money has been delivered. The United States and its G8 partners cannot afford to let budget cuts come at the expense of newly emerging democracies.

Moreover, the United States must aggressively encourage private investment. The $30 million in loan guarantees and the $20 million Enterprise Fund announced by President Obama would help spur this investment--and Congress should agree to fund these initiatives.

Just as Tunisia's revolution inspired millions living under authoritarian regimes through the Middle East to rise up, Tunisia's success will serve as a critical example for other transitional countries. At this juncture, tepid U.S. engagement would reverberate throughout the Middle East, with activists in neighboring countries questioning Washington's support for democracy.

It may be tempting in some parts of Washington to balance the budget to the detriment of foreign aid or to limit U.S. engagement in the wake of an Islamist victory. The United States must instead demonstrate dedication to Tunisia's democratic transition through sustained high-level engagement and a serious financial guarantee. Tunisia's high level of development and well-educated and large middle class bode well for its future. The United States should not, however, be content to watch from the sidelines.

Victoria J. Taylor is a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State currently serving as an International Affairs Fellow in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

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