Opinion

Tunisia could be the first Arab Spring success. But it's not there yet.

Tunisia has many advantages that set it up well for progress. But the country's future will not be assured without international support. It must fortify a weak economy, combat crime and terrorism, and continue government reforms.

By , Op-ed contributor

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    Tunisia's Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa speaks during a news conference in Tunis May 14. Tunisia's planned subsidy reforms and public spending cuts should help reduce the budget deficit by 1.5 billion dinars ($927 million) in 2014, Jomaa said.
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In Roman times wild animals paced beneath Tunisia’s El Jem colosseum, ready to spring into mortal combat with gladiators – usually slaves fighting for their lives and sometimes freedom – as an audience looked on. Recently I paced the floor of this same amphitheater, trying to imagine its history – and future.

Today, Tunisia is engaged in its own struggle for the life of its new democracy. Though a small country – 64,000 square miles with 11 million people – Tunisia is vital to regional stability. Now this ancient North African country where the Arab Spring began is poised to become the first success in the region – but only if it can shore up a weak economy, curb the dual threats of terrorism and crime, and continue needed government reforms.

Three years after a young street vendor set himself on fire to protest the authorities’ harassment and corruption, three years after the citizens rose up and ejected their longtime autocratic leader, Tunisia has laid the groundwork for its future. In January, the citizenry adopted a new Constitution that was widely debated and passed with the votes of more than 90 percent of the Constituent Assembly. All sectors endorse and are proud of the forward-leaning Constitution, which balances the secular and religious and is looked at as a model for the region.

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As a further mark of progress, the Assembly recently passed a law establishing a judicial body to determine the constitutionality of new laws. It will be replaced by a new constitutional court after the next election. This opens the way now for the Assembly to pass a law to set up elections, which are anticipated this year.

Many donors and investors, particularly in the West and in the Gulf, are awaiting these elections before they commit further aid. Citizens are hoping the partisanship that divided the country after the revolution won’t reemerge. As one trade union leader told me, this frustration helped pave the way for the new government: “Technocrats were accepted as an interim government because people were fed up with political parties.”

A Marshall Plan for Tunisia

Still, large challenges lie ahead for Tunisia. The greatest is the economy, which remains state-controlled and relies on large subsidies it can’t afford. Some say the country is on the brink of bankruptcy. Interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa visited the United States and the Gulf in April looking for financial assistance, including loan guarantees. 

Mr. Jomaa has agreed with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund that the subsidy programs must be cut back or ended, but there are political and societal costs when prices on energy and food suddenly rise and government employment decreases. Unemployment is already more than 15 percent and as much as 40 percent among youth. In a show of good faith, President Moncef Marzouki recently announced he is taking a two-thirds pay cut.

But Tunisia’s future will not be assured without international support. As Mustapha Ben Jaafar, president of the Constituent Assembly, said to me and a small gathering of international observers: “We need a Marshall Plan for Tunisia and the Maghreb.”

The threat of terrorism

Another threat to Tunisia’s progress is terrorism, along with weapons flows and black market smuggling across the borders of neighboring Algeria and Libya.

“Gangsters control weapons and drug traffic,” Sihem Bensedrine, a prominent journalist and human rights activist, told me. She explained the context that gives rise to violence and illicit activity. “We don’t want to give religious cover to jihadists who are really criminals. The violence is created by poverty. There is a generation of young people marginalized. The state doesn’t have money. The money is in the gray economy, which some say is 60 percent of the economy.”

In order to curb the threat of violent extremism and its links to crime, Tunisia must continue to address the poverty and disillusionment that fuel it. Economic reforms and foreign aid to support economic growth are thus doubly important to Tunisia’s future.

Out with the old

Tunisia must also dismantle and reform the structures of the old dictatorship, including the police and the Ministry of the Interior. Close observers say that the success of the country’s democratic transition depends on the government’s ability to decentralize as well.

The concentration of government at the national level has bred corruption. As Ms. Bensedrine put it: “As long as [the] administration is centralized, it gets many privileges.” Decentralization (establishing more empowered regional governments) has been enshrined in the new Constitution to allow a more equitable distribution of revenue and governance.

“The country has long been divided by its coastal wealth and poorer interior,” former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali explained to me and our small group of international visitors. Some legislators are thus looking to redraw regions so each includes both coastal and interior areas.

Reasons to hope

In spite of the challenges it faces, Tunisia has many advantages that set it up well for progress. For one, it has an educated population (both women and men) and has a 90 percent literacy rate. Women also hold key positions in the public and private workforce.

In addition, Tunisia’s proximity to Europe (geographically, culturally, and historically) facilitates exports and manufacturing. Tunisia also offers a historical bridge between Islam and secularism, one that has played a key role in its democratic transition – and will help it maintain international support going forward.

As I stood in Tunisia’s famous amphitheater (the setting for the movie “Gladiator”), two things were clear to me: The beasts of poverty, terrorism, and criminality wait just beneath the surface to destroy Tunisia’s democratic dream. But Tunisia is also poised to show that more-benevolent and more-moderate forces, including the citizens’ own determination to have democracy, can prevail. 

We – the international community – are the spectators in this great match. But we cannot just sit in the audience and watch. For the sake of Tunisia – and the region – the world must engage and support Tunisia’s economic and political progress. As one local governor told me, “We are determined to succeed with a democratic state. We will not go back!”

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman visited political, business, and civil society leaders in Tunisia as part of a recent trip with the International Crisis Group, of which she is a board member. Ms. Leedom-Ackerman is also a former reporter for the Monitor.

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