Prime Minister of Tunisia Mehdi Jomaa is currently visiting the United States on a trip designed to demonstrate “the strong bonds of friendship between the American and Tunisian people.” He will meet with President Obama on April 4.
The success of Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, in moving toward greater economic and political freedom is important to America. In the words of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–FL), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa, a “stable, secure and democratic Tunisia is in the best interests of U.S. national security.”
Against the odds, Tunisia has made measurable progress largely on its own accord. Its remarkable political turnaround, epitomized by the near unanimous ratification of a new constitution and the peaceful inauguration of an interim technocratic government in early 2014, is a hard-won triumph for Tunisians. The country has also been a staunch ally in fighting against extremism and terrorism. As reported by The Washington Post:
Islamist militants across North Africa have been fighting governments in Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Mali for not imposing harsh Shariah law. But Tunisia is pushing back.… [T]his country seems intent on not letting go of the fledgling democracy that came out of its Jasmine Revolution, to date perhaps the most successful of the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s response [to al-Qaeda] has been forceful.
Tunisia’s great progress on the political and security fronts in no way lessens the need for policies that promote lasting and inclusive economic growth. The country’s ongoing bottom-up democratic transition will not succeed without effective reforms that advance economic freedom for ordinary Tunisians.
Notably, Tunisia is one of the five countries in the Middle East and North Africa whose economic freedom improved over the past year, according to the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom. Tunisia in particular made progress in the areas of tackling corruption and engaging with the world through trade. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s economic dynamism remains far below its full potential.
As Tunisia has been charting a more hopeful course than some of its neighbors, the U.S. cannot afford to give only lip service in support. A good place to start would be to upgrade our current trade and investment relationship with Tunisia to a free trade agreement. Trade flows between the U.S. and Tunisia are relatively modest, and liberalization would bring important benefits with little disruption. Most importantly, such an agreement would have great symbolic value in demonstrating the potential for win-win solutions in a region too often characterized by conflict.