The lessons of Tunisia's democratic experience

By Youssef Chahed, Prime Minister of Tunisia  |  July 7, 2017 at 9:30 AM
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July 7 (UPI) -- Tunisia's nascent democratic experience yields many useful lessons -- some encouraging and some sobering -- for advocates of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

The encouraging lesson from Tunisia's experiment is that it shows that democracy is an achievable objective in an Arab country. And if a small country like Tunisia, with limited natural resources, can pull it off, then others can, too.

It must be said, however, that Tunisia's young democracy was built on the country's own legacy of reform and pragmatism dating back to the 19th century. In many ways, Tunisian democracy was in line with the natural evolution of its society, not something imposed from the outside.

The sobering lesson of Tunisia's six-year experience is that democracy-builders must keep their feet to the ground. When I was tasked with forming a government of national unity about a year ago, I could not and did not promise anyone a pie in the sky. Our country's challenges have no quick and easy solutions. The future of democracy, as I saw it, depended less on lofty ideals and unattainable promises than on the ability to meet the panoply of daunting challenges that could threaten to reverse the democratic process.

Democracy cannot be built in a vacuum. It requires economic growth, stability and security. It requires keeping hopes and expectations alive and constantly demonstrating to the people that democracy is the best way to meet their hopes.

I knew that social peace would remain elusive as long as unemployment remained at more than 15%. A situation which gave the impression that previous governments were deaf to the legitimate clamouring of our jobless youth who led the 2011 revolution. But it is a stubborn fact that job creation depends on economic growth; and for the last six years, Tunisia's growth has averaged just 1% per year.

Government spending and expanding the public workforce are not the solution. The country's budget deficit, which was at about 6% of the GNP, could not obviously be sustained.

In addition to social instability, Tunisia's democracy was threatened by insecurity as the result of regional upheaval -- especially in neighbouring Libya -- as well as by the global threats of terrorism and radicalisation. Jihadist attacks in 2015 put our economically-vital tourism sector in jeopardy and forced us to allocate precious resources to beefing up our security programs.

Like the challenges we faced, our efforts had to be multipronged. We had to anchor our young democracy while at the same time worked to vanquish terrorism, achieve economic recovery and establish the rule of law. It is too early, today, to declare victory on all fronts. But it is not premature to claim that we are making serious progress.

We have regained the initiative in the fight against terrorism. As a result of the vigilance and determination of our security forces and their closer collaboration with our country's international partners, including the United States, our security forces have gained in efficiency, preventing and pre-empting any major attacks.

We are beginning to see better prospects for economic growth. Tourism is recovering as a number of other sectors. To expedite the pace of economic growth and create more job opportunities, we introduced a package of reforms designed to create a more business-friendly environment for Tunisian and international investors.

We have also launched a determined fight against graft and corruption, which is not only a prerequisite to establishing a sense of equal opportunity among citizens but also crucial to maintaining trust in our democratic institutions and boosting business confidence and economic growth. The high level of popular support we have received in our pursuit of this effort has reassured us that we are on the right track.

As it pursues its democratic experiment, Tunisia has set its sights on becoming an economic powerhouse and a force for peace and stability in the Mediterranean and Africa. We hope that we can count on the steady support of our strategic partners in the United States. Our two nations were allies and partners during the Cold War, when Tunisia proudly sided with the leader of the free world. Today, Tunisia is siding with democracy. For America and all nations with a stake in the success of Tunisia's democratic experiment, betting on Tunisia is betting on the right side in history.

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