Tunisia – has the city on the hill lost its shine?

The Arab Spring started in North Africa’s smallest state, a perennial tourist destination for sun-seeking Europeans, Tunisia. The Tunisian dictator Ben-Ali fled the country and since then Tunis has become a beacon of hope in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions. The country has since adopted its own constitution and held democratic elections. Although terrorist groups have executed attacks in Tunisia, the Tunisian political establishment has shown impressive fortitude in staying on a moderate course. Still, the Tunisian economy is suffering from the effects of terrorist attacks and a lack of investor confidence in the country’s once booming tourist industry. Tunisia is still a shining city on a hill in an otherwise tumultuous Middle East and North Africa, but as the Tunisian economy struggles to get by, is the country at risk of losing its shine? Benefiting from a group of Tunisian liberal politicians visiting the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, we invited stakeholders for an interactive discussion on the future prospects of a Tunisia in transition.

Hardware’s in place, Software still under construction

The panel discussing Tunisia’s future.

Director of the Foundation’s Tunis office, Ralf Erbel, drew a parallel to the computer world in describing Tunisia’s current state. He pointed out that while Tunisia has all the ‘hardware’ needed for a democracy to function; elections, a constitution, political parties, an independent media; its ‘software’ is still under construction. By software Erbel refers to a genuine democratic political culture, a middle class with a vested interest in democracy and a stable economy. The institutions are also still nascent, and even though the country has a democratic constitution, several of the Ben-Ali era laws are still on the books and Parliament faces a momentous task in replacing them with new, democratic laws. This was pointed out by Member of Parliament Lilia Ksibi, from the liberal Afek Tounes party. The media is in desperate need of reform, making sure that the country enjoys both a strong and competitive private and public media. Ksibi stressed that while the country has so far occupied its place as a shining city on a hill, the developments in Tunisia’s neighbourhood is threatening to dislodge Tunisian progress. The Tunisian model of democracy is central to the region’s future, but without lasting solutions in its neighboring countries the future for Tunisia also looks bleak.

It’s the economy, stupid

Any country which has just undergone a democratic revolution would naturally focus on the strength of democratic institutions and the vibrancy of political life. However, closely connected to the stability of any society is the economic wellbeing of the middle class. Tunisia currently boasts an unemployment rate of 15.7%, well above the pre-revolutionary figures. This is especially crippling for Tunisia’s youth, previously employed in the country’s tourist industry. According to Afek Tounes politicians Khaled Fourati and Lilia Ksibi the greatest challenge to Tunisia’s democratic stability is this unemployed, disaffected segment of Tunisia’s society. Fourati stressed that the country now needs a massive capital injection, not only for big flagship projects, but also micro-financing for Tunisian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Former EU Ambassador to Tunesia and a Carnegie Visiting Scholar, Marc Pierini, reiterated this point by stressing that EU aid should go just as much to a tapestry of smaller projects, rather than to a smaller number of larger initiatives. This is essential if we want the Tunisian social contract to stand firm in the face of a wave of authoritarianism and instability in the region.


Change takes time

In terms of economic development or democratic progress, Tunisia needs time to reform. The country has undergone a major change after years of dictatorship and the progress already made is remarkable. The challenge is now to make steady economic headway without weakening the country’s democratic institutions. Just as the system of governance has to be changed, so Erbel pointed out the change underway to decentralize the economy to ensure that those who benefit are not only located in the metropolitan areas such as Tunis, but also in the country’s hinterland. Tunisia and, as pointed out by members of the visiting group, to be a Tunesian has come to stand for a different democratic model in the Middle East and North Africa. It should be the priority of the EU to help Tunisia’s economy flourish once again, be it by injecting capital, encouraging Europeans to vacaction in the country or, last but not least, by fast-tracking the negotiations underway for an EU-Tunisia free trade agreement. Easily forgotten in the midst of Middle Eastern turmoil, Tunisia remains a proverbial shining city on a hill, although the shine might wane if support for its nascent democracy is not upheld.

Håvard Sandvik, European Affairs Manager FNF