Determined and courageous, the Tunisians have done it again. Defying the cynics, the bottom-up transition to democracy continues apace in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.
The latest milestone came on Sunday, Dec. 21, when Tunisians held their run-off presidential election. It was a peaceful event, conducted in a free, fair, and transparent fashion. Once again, Tunisia proved to be “unfashionably democratic,” a beacon of freedom and hope in the turbulent Middle East. As such, it deserves concrete U.S. support.
It has been four years since the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia, igniting waves of protest that rocked authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East. While violent civil conflicts have prevailed elsewhere in the region, Tunisia has pursued a transition to democracy without bloodshed. In 2014, the country made massive strides, adopting a new constitution, then holding its first full parliamentary and presidential elections under that constitution. Small wonder The Economist has named Tunisia “country of the year.” As the magazine put it: “Tunisia’s pragmatism and moderation have nurtured hope in a wretched region and a troubled world.”
As with any start-up democracy, Tunisia’s new government will face daunting tasks when it is officially installed next year. At the top of the government’s to-do list: revitalize the economy and build the public’s confidence in a fledgling democracy. That’s a tall order, and it will require government leaders to continue working with Tunisia’s robust and vibrant civil society and youth population.
On the economic front, structural reforms must be carried out decisively to show that democracy can bring prosperity for the ordinary Tunisian. Most crucial of all is an overhaul of public finances. Sweeping regulatory reforms are needed as well, to open opportunities to all Tunisians, not just the connected and privileged. Job opportunities for the young and ordinary are especially crucial, as they represent a huge slice of the population. They also, as the truism goes, represent Tunisia’s future. To solidify their support for democracy, it is vital that they experience, early on, the benefits of a free economy. Failure to meet expectations could result in disillusionment with democracy itself and bring the risk of instability and extremism.
The new government must also confront another serious challenge: the very real threat of terrorism. Extremist elements in the country, though not present in huge numbers, have been quite lethal. So far, Tunisia’s security forces have been able to defuse Islamist terrorism at home, in large part because the population has almost unanimously rejected terrorism and extremism. However, this is a long-term battle that needs constant effort and greater resources.
For the United States, Tunisia’s embrace of democracy presents not just a historical milestone but a strategic asset of tremendous potential value. It is an opportunity for the U.S. to have, for the first time, a truly democratic partner in the Arab world.
To make the most of this opportunity, America must engage with Tunisia through free trade and by offering other economic and security assistance. It is, fundamentally, a matter reaching out to pro-democracy Tunisians and supporting their push for greater political and economic freedoms. At a recent Heritage Foundation event, Tunisia’s Ambassador M’Hamed Ezzine Chelaifa underscored the importance of U.S. engagement, saying:
We are aware that we have to rely on our own potential, vision, and determination to devise and implement the right policies in order to achieve tangible outcomes…Tunisia is committed to a durable partnership with the U.S. Beyond urgencies, we need to elaborate together a new vision for a long-term strategic partnership and shape a new partnership between the two countries that is value-driven, program-based and result-oriented.
Indeed, it’s time for the U.S. to support Tunisia’s democratic transition with concrete action, not mere diplomatically symbolic gestures. Washington must act to help ensure the success of Tunisia’s bottom-up pursuit of democracy and economic freedom.