The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, and while many argue representative democracy is simply not possible in a region plagued by strongman politics, manipulated economic systems, and religious extremists, Tunisia continues to defy the critics.
But the country is heading into what will arguably be the most trying period for the nascent democracy in transition—the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections.
The conflict in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as the complete disintegration of the Libyan state, highlight the region’s fragility. Tunisia has been relatively isolated from these events. Nonetheless, Tunisian fighters are fleeing to Syria, terrorists kill political leaders and security forces, and violent extremists move across Tunisia’s tri-border area with Algeria and Libya. The Tunisian military is still reeling from the July 17 terrorist attack in the Mont Chaambi that killed 15 soldiers. The terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia has attacked army checkpoints, inflicting massive casualties and instilling fear in the army’s ability to protect civilians.
It is likely that such attacks will only escalate in the coming months, because a successful Tunisian democracy is antithetical to Ansar al-Sharia’s and other extremists’ vision for the country’s future. Indeed, Tunisia needs to be able to secure itself from the region’s troubles. To that end, the U.S. should ensure that Tunisia remains on a path of transition, ultimately leading by example as a force for democratic and economic freedom in the region and the world.
Despite the interim government’s limited budget, the country has set aside $700 million to purchase 12 U.S. Black Hawk helicopters along with missiles, rockets, and training and logistical support. The deal requires U.S. congressional approval. Yet more still needs to be done. During the recent U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki highlighted that the approval and delivery of the equipment was urgent and that much more assistance in the form of counter-terrorism training was equally as important.
In terms of economics, Tunisia, which has been dubbed by current interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa as a “start-up democracy,” is emblematic of the serious risks that are inherent in early stage business ventures to ensure sustainability. Beyond the need for additional capital investment and foreign direct investment, risks remain in pursuit of serious and meaningful economic reforms.
Tunisia’s much-needed economic transition will require strong leadership and a vision. There should be greater attention on getting ordinary Tunisians back to work and effectively replacing the former Ben Ali regime’s distorted economic system with a business environment hospitable to innovation and entrepreneurship. According to a recent International Republican Institute poll, 58 percent of Tunisians describe the current economic situation in the country as “very bad.”
Tunisia has a tremendous opportunity to provide a sound political and economic system that not only is for the benefit of Tunisians but reflects a greater possibility for the broader region. But in realizing that opportunity, ensuring security and economic reforms will be critical. No doubt the U.S. has a shared interest with Tunisia in making its “start-up democracy” really take off.