As new Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa visits Washington this week, he will carry with him a message of hope, but also of high expectations, from one of the more promising countries of the Arab Spring. Setting the tone for the Friday meeting between President Obama and Jomaa, the White House said in a March statement that the American president “looks forward to discussing the commitment Tunisia’s leaders have made to advancing Tunisia’s democracy and how the United States can further support Tunisia’s historic transition”.
President Obama was alluding to the compromise-agreement by Tunisian political parties on a timeline for the remaining stages of the country’s democratic transition.
After three years of dangerous polarization, Islamists and secularists accepted to put aside their differences making it clear that zero-sum-politics does not have to be the inevitable fate of the Arab world. Negotiations, facilitated by key civil society actors, led to the adoption of a new constitution, the appointment of Jomaa as head of a new technocratic government, and arrangements for general elections to be held by the end of the year. But despite the sense of relief created by the agreement, Tunisians are not starry-eyed about the tough road that lies ahead.
The economy is in bad shape. A recent IMF mission to Tunisia noted that recent political progress might “reduce investors’ ‘wait-and-see’ attitude”, but the country’s “economic situation remains very fragile, with a growth rate that is too low to meet the population’s high social aspirations.”
This year’s expected 2.8 per cent growth will not enough to reduce the 15 percent plus unemployment rate. To deal with the huge budget deficit, continued government spending and mounting debt are to be curtailed. Loan conditions, insisted upon by international financial institutions, might even transform working class frustrations into a full-blown social crisis. Prime Minister Jomaa has also to reckon with the added burden of dealing with a precarious security situation at home and in the region. Tunisia shares borders with Libya and Algeria.
Despite the government’s recent vigorous approach to fighting terrorism, Salafist radicals are still a threat. The main menace is posed by “Ansar al Sharia” militants, chief suspects in last year’s political assassinations, bloody ambushes of the army and the National Guard, and suicide-attack attempts. Terrorists’ tasks are made easier by the situation in Libya, Tunisia’s southern neighbor and a Jihadist haven for weapons and training. In the short to mid-term, Tunisia’s politicians will have to show the same type of pragmatism which had allowed them to break the three-year old logjam last December. They still have a long way to go before overcoming their mutual suspicions and bridging dangerous divides. For the current truce to become a final peaceful democracy, raw ideological disputes and historical grudges will have to become a thing of the past. Despite its current difficulties and limited natural resources, Tunisia is not likely to become an economic basket case. The enterprising spirit of its citizens has always kept the nation afloat. But the problems faced by the country cannot be solved by next elections, despite Jomaa’s valiant efforts.
Reform of the educational, fiscal, financial and social welfare systems is needed to address such enduring problems as regional imbalances, youth unemployment, and sluggish economic growth. What can the United States do to help? The American government has already allocated about $450 million in assistance to Tunisia since 2011, and is providing indispensable anti-terrorism support.
But there is more that could be done.
Last week, 65 American personalities, including four former U.S. ambassadors to Tunisia, signed a letter urging Secretary of State John Kerry to take a number of new initiatives, including the reassessment by the US of diplomatic security and travel warning restrictions, increase of economic aid and the pursuit of a free trade agreement between the two countries. If the history of bilateral relations since independence is any indication, assistance to Tunisia has always yielded results. And then there is the big picture, which Friday's U.S.-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue focused on. A more stable and prosperous Tunisia will be better equipped to overcome the turbulence of its own democratic transition. It could also be a catalyst and a model for successful transformation in a region where socio-economic failures have consistently provided a fertile ground for violence and extremism.