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Defining Its Own Democracy: Tunisia and the Way Forward

Though I came to Tunisia as Ambassador in the Fall of 2015, my relationship with the country and its people actually began in the late 1990s. In some ways, the Tunisia I returned to in 2015 is the one I knew years before—the Arabic and French linguistic mélange, the stambeli and malouf music, the local soccer and handball rivalries, the pine nuts floating atop mint tea. Yet alongside those resilient traditions, the Tunisia I returned to is now in its fifth year of the post-Ben Ali era, and is a country in the midst of an exciting but difficult transition. That transition is replete with a challenging self-realization, as the country and its citizenry redefine themselves and learn what it means to be a democracy in the wake of the 2011 revolution. Tunisians are still deciding how they want to incorporate democratic principles into day-to-day life, and through their decisions are defining what it means to be Tunisian for future generations.  As a longtime friend—our diplomatic relations with Tunisia date to 1795—and strategic partner, the United States will continue to support the new Tunisia as it looks to the future.

When Tunisia chose its first democratically-elected President in 2014, the United States applauded Tunisia’s political process; we have observed the political maturity shown by Tunisians in the years since as they have forged consensus on matters critical to the country’s continued success. And we have mourned with Tunisians in recent years as terrorist attacks rattled the country and threatened to undermine hard-won advances, even as we celebrated Tunisian achievements at the ballot box and elsewhere.

Those attacks have deeply wounded the tourism sector, and an already-struggling economy continues to flounder. Tunisia needs to continue to strengthen its democratic identity and ideals, improve its security capabilities, and foster a much more inclusive, vibrant and diverse economy. Stagnation or decline on any of these three fronts threatens Tunisia’s trajectory.

But Tunisia has already succeeded where others have failed due to the commitment of its citizens to work through their political differences peacefully. We must continue to back that commitment, even as healthy, competitive politics necessarily take root. Success is vital for this nation of 11 million people looking for a democratic, safe, and prosperous future; Tunisia’s continued success is also vital to the Maghreb region and to our inter-connected world. The consolidation of Tunisia’s democracy has been and remains in the US national interest. The assistance of the United States and other partners strengthens Tunisia’s long-term chances for success, and in turn makes the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean Basin a better and safer place for all people.

The Linchpin of Democracy

Since 2011, Tunisia has undergone dramatic transformations, perhaps none more obvious than the growth and proliferation of civil society.  In a country where interest and advocacy groups were previously disallowed or quashed, there are now thousands of registered nongovernmental organizations. The United States supports Tunisian citizens and their efforts to strengthen democratic institutions at the local and national levels. Our programs provide technical assistance and training to Members of Parliament and to executive branch officials to decentralize authority and responsibility and to empower all 24 of Tunisia’s governorates through municipal elections. Since the revolution, we have helped to expand opportunities for women and youth to run for office; as a result, political parties increased their outreach to those audiences in regions outside Tunis and the coastal cities.

The outcomes and continued advance of this transition are evident in all levels of Tunisia’s government—preparations for municipal elections and implementation of decentralization are just two examples. For many Tunisians living in historically-marginalized regions, those local elections—and the devolution of power away from the capital—will define how much say they have in determining their futures. Concrete progress has also been made in strengthening civil society and increasing transparency that, five years ago, would have been unimaginable. On the legal front, Tunisia recently passed legislation preventing trafficking in persons and granting access to public information, and has established an Anti-Torture Authority.

Stability that Fortifies Democracy

Tunisia’s hard-won democracy will wither, however, if it is not protected against security threats. While most of 2016 has been calm, the 2015 terror attacks on a beach hotel in Sousse, the Bardo Museum, and on the Presidential Guard in Tunis struck painful blows to Tunisians’ sense of security. But the country’s ability to repel ISIL’s attack on the border town of Ben Guerdan in March of this year showed the world that Tunisians will defend their democracy. Tunisia participates in the counter-ISIL coalition as a frontline state, and its contributions in the political and diplomatic arenas to regional stability are substantial, particularly regarding Libya. Such engagement as well as the response to internal threats demonstrates that Tunisia is ready, willing, and able to create an oasis of security in an instable area, but this cannot be accomplished by Tunisians alone.

We have doubled our security assistance to Tunisia this year, including training Tunisian security and military forces and upgrading their equipment and methodologies.  Our aid is helping Tunisia’s military, police, and national guard evolve into forces better equipped to face down internal and external threats. We are also enhancing Tunisia’s ability to detect weapons trafficking and increase border security.

We applaud Tunisian law enforcement and criminal justice institutions and their increased respect for human rights and rule of law. In the past year, we provided crowd control training for the Tunisian Ministry of Interior. During protests in January 2016, the police showed first-hand the positive effect of that training in the protection of citizens as well as police. US assistance is helping Tunisia’s judicial sector implement improved procedures for investigations and prosecution. We are working with the Ministry of Interior to improve the means for citizens to register complaints against the police without fear of retribution.  

Economy that Fuels Stability

Tunisia’s continued stability hinges on boosting economic sustainability, dynamism, access, and opportunity. While international donors can assist Tunisia’s security sector reform and development, violent extremism will continue to attract Tunisians who do not have a way to contribute to their families, communities, and society.  Despite these challenges, the Tunisian government has moved forward with economic reforms—reforms that will be more lasting as they are the result of a legitimate political process. New public private partnership, banking, and bankruptcy laws will enhance Tunisia’s global economic relationships, including with the United States, and have set the stage for increased investment and trade, and a more robust private sector.

Though building sustainable institutions for long-term growth is critical to success, Tunisia needs help now, which is why since 2012 the United States has helped Tunisia gain access to affordable financing amounting to almost one-and-a-half billion dollars through three loan guarantees. Bilateral cooperation continues with benchmarks like the first full US-Tunisia Joint Economic Commission meeting in Washington in May. Both countries announced a series of steps intended to expand investment opportunities, create employment, improve the overall business climate, and spur economic growth that benefits all Tunisian citizens. Programs like the Tunisian American Enterprise Fund (TAEF) exemplify US commitment to invest in small and medium-sized businesses. With substantial Congressional funding, TAEF invests in small and medium enterprises—some of the most important drivers of job creation—to build the long-term sustainability of Tunisia’s private sector. Other assistance programs help Tunisia’s new businesses and young entrepreneurs to drive private sector-led growth and have supported the creation of over 12,000 new and sustainable private sector jobs. Enabling open competition within Tunisia, and significantly improving the country’s competitiveness in the regional and global economy, deserves the highest policy attention of Tunisians, Americans, and all those invested in a better future for democratic Tunisia.  

Looking to the Future

It is important to recognize that the place where the Arab Spring began is a place where we have seen the most extraordinary progress in allowing all parties and all parts of the population, including women and minorities, [to] participate fully in the civic and political life of the nation. And it bodes well for Tunisia’s future and for the future of its children.…I want the President and the people of Tunisia to know that the United States believes in Tunisia, is invested in its success, and will work as a steady partner for years to come.

President Obama’s statement after his May 2015 meeting with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi still rings true. Tunisia has accomplished extraordinary things during the past five years, but those years have not been easy ones. Youth are frustrated that fundamental change has not happened more quickly, and most Tunisians are facing the realization that democracy is a marathon, not a sprint. But even in the face of disappointment and the harsh reality of the work required to make democracy function, Tunisians maintain their steadfast commitment to succeed. Our relationship with Tunisia is based on the pillars of solidifying a young democracy, enhancing security where it has been sorely tested, and spurring sustainable, inclusive economic growth.  If one pillar falls, the whole foundation will be at risk. It is the responsibility of the United States and Tunisia’s other friends to help that foundation be as firm as possible, to support that commitment so that it results in success, and to ensure that Tunisia has every opportunity to realize its dream of democracy.

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United States Ambassador to Tunisia