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How the U.S. Can Help North Africa’s Democracy Champion

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
April 3, 2014
ForeignPolicy.com

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On April 4, Tunisia's Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa will meet with President Obama during an official visit to Washington, and will kick off the first session of the Tunisian-American strategic dialogue. Tunisia has a population of just 10 million and little in the way of natural resources, yet it matters enormously. It is the only Arab Spring country that has so far managed to forge a new political future through a consensus-driven process. In this respect, Tunisia is a vital demonstration case for the rest of the Arab world. Its new landmark constitution, emphasizing freedom, equality, and rule of law, is a significant milestone.

Still, the road ahead for Tunisia is long and arduous. Good neighbors -- including economic partners and political-military alliances -- can and should help fragile democracies succeed through tough times.

While both the United States and the European Union have supported Tunisia's transition, their promises of assistance have outstripped what's been delivered. Both need to do more at this important inflection point to ensure that Tunisia builds on the gains it has made. Here are a few recommendations for measures that Washington can take -- in coordination with the European Union -- to help Tunisia reach its goals:

1. Collaborate with European partners to facilitate high-return infrastructure investments that can help jump-start Tunisia's economy and provide jobs.

More than three years after Tunisia set off the Arab Spring, national polls demonstrate that Tunisians continue to view the economy as the country's biggest challenges. Tunisia today faces a tough macroeconomic picture: an unsustainable budget deficit, a bloated public sector, stagnating employment, and low growth rates. Though its economic future is brightening -- with a new constitution, a legitimate government, and the second tranche of a $1.7 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund -- Tunisia now needs to improve productivity levels to remain competitive. This requires regulatory and tax changes, and infrastructure improvements in roads, water, electricity, and information technology, especially in the impoverished interior areas of the country.

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