On November 21, the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World (IWR) at Brookings convened a roundtable dialogue to analyze the opportunities and obstacles facing Tunisia and U.S.-Tunisian relations in the wake of recent parliamentary and presidential elections. The discussion featured Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director and Senior Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy, and Monica Marks, Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate at St. Anthony’s College at the University of Oxford, who is conducting field research in Tunisia. IWR Fellow Shadi Hamid moderated the conversation, which was held under the Chatham House rule.
The speakers emphasized that while Tunisia deserves praise for its strides over the past three years, Tunisian democracy and stability both remain fragile and require robust, ongoing support. Panel members particularly cautioned against an American tendency to overstate Tunisia’s progress or diminish the urgency of supporting Tunisia’s still-tentative stability. Marks also criticized what she called a predominant Washington narrative characterizing Tunisia as “the lone bright spot” in a deeply violent Middle East. Marks cautioned that despite its progress, Tunisia’s history of authoritarian rule, its civil society’s tendency to fear Islamism more than authoritarianism, and still unreformed media sector may jeopardize government accountability in the future.
Marks highlighted deep ideological divides and economic stagnation as significant roadblocks facing the country. Tunisia’s democratic process made significant strides from 2011 through 2012, she noted. But democratization was threatened by calls to dissolve the Constituent Assembly and replace it with an unelected body of technocrats following the 2013 assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi.
Both Marks and Hamid stressed that deep ideological divides in Tunisian society endanger its democratic progress as well as U.S. interests. Marks explained that a single family in a marginalized neighborhood of Tunis may include one son who adopts a Salafist-jihadist point of view, another son who disengages from the political process, and a third who illegally migrates to Italy.
Marks added that Tunisian youth are seeking substantive employment opportunities as well as creative and educational outlets that could stem the appeal of jihadist groups. According to Marks, educational, civic, and political reforms which invest youth with more responsibility and alter the top-down organization of many Tunisian political parties, academia, and civil society organizations may help to address widespread youth alienation while long-term economic reforms take effect.
Wittes focused on recommendations for U.S. policy towards Tunisia. She argued that staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia must be expanded and security constraints lowered to enable the United States government to more fully engage with civil society, political parties, government, and the private sector. She indicated that U.S. engagement in Tunisia are heavily tilted toward security concerns — including the rising influence of North African extremists groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and the wave of Tunisian jihadists travelling to Syria — to the detriment of building a civilian partnership and supporting much-needed economic reform and development. Wittes asserted that, while security concerns should not be disregarded, the United States must balance its security posture with the need to build a broader relationship with Tunisian society.
Wittes recommended the U.S. increase bilateral aid to Tunisia rather than relying on ad-hoc allocation of regional funds to build a predictable stream of support for Tunisia’s economic and democratic development. This would also enable the U.S. government to target funds so as to incentivize and reward specific reform efforts by the government of Tunisia. She also focused on ways to integrate Tunisia into the U.S. government’s African trade initiatives.
The panelists agreed that a more rigorous U.S. policy agenda in Tunisia will help to avert backsliding toward authoritarianism as has occurred in Egypt.
For additional discussion of recent Tunisian politics, please see Monica Marks’ February 2014
Brookings Doha Center
Analysis Paper, entitled
“Convince, Coerce, or Compromise? Ennahda’s Approach to Tunisia’s Constitution.”