Expert Commentary

A Long Road Ahead

Stephen McInerney
Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy

Five years after the Tunisian Revolution in January 2011, the country has become the only liberal democracy in the Arab World. This successful transition from autocratic rule is especially impressive when compared to the relapse into authoritarianism or descent into civil conflict experienced by other “Arab Spring” countries. However, many members of Tunisian society do not feel that their lives have significantly changed for the better, especially in economic terms. The Cipher Brief sat down with Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Stephen McInerney, to discuss the path forward for Tunisia.

The Cipher Brief: Can you just start off by talking a little bit about the progress Tunisia has made since the Revolution in 2011? Where are we now, almost six years out?

Stephen McInerney: On the one hand, Tunisia has made important and historic progress in its transition, and clearly it is the last country standing following the Arab uprisings in 2011. I think it’s accurate to say that Tunisia has made more progress in the last five years towards a democratic transition than any other Arab country has ever made.

Tunisia has had successive competitive multi-party elections, and it has drafted probably the most democratic constitution that the Arab World has ever seen, both in terms of content and also the process by which it was drafted. The country freely elected an assembly to draft the constitution, engaged in a difficult but sincere process of consensus building, and held a series of open debates in which the public played a vital role. Tunisia then followed the constitution with free and fair elections for both the presidency and a parliament. All of these milestones are extremely important and stand alone as difficult achievements in a difficult region.

Another very important area of progress is the creation of a free and open political environment in Tunisia. Beyond elections, people are now able to form political parties, form NGOs, and speak freely about their government. This environment enhances the political milestones that have been achieved.

Having said all of that, there are many areas in which progress has not materialized. Specifically, there has been no real progress on economic reforms to deliver development and prosperity for Tunisian citizens. For that reason, many Tunisians feel like this revolution has not delivered on their demands. When people went to the streets in December 2010 and January 2011, demands for prosperity and economic reform were equal to demands for political reform. Today, they do not feel that the economic rules of the game have shifted in their favor.

TCB: What are your thoughts on the upcoming government of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and the effect his government will have on the political future of the country?

SM: It’s still too early to know. A very common view among many Tunisians is that this new government will not be fundamentally different from previous governments. Youssef Chahed has a pretty good reputation from his time as Minister of Local Affairs, but he was a surprising choice for Prime Minister. He’s relatively young (40 years old), and he’s not seen as being a political heavyweight. Some Tunisians feel as though President Beji Caid Essebsi prefers to have a Prime Minister who is weaker and can’t effectively challenge his leadership. That was part of the conflict between President Essebsi and outgoing Prime Minister Habib Essid.

Chahed is not necessarily strong enough to show the kind of leadership that is needed to address a lot of these pressing reforms, and there is a lot of skepticism as to his ability to take on entrenched interests.

TCB: On the question of economic reforms and what is needed, much of the problem seems to be not just a lack of reform in general, but the economic perpetuation of a sort of East-West divide between the large, rich coastal cities of the East, and the interior and western border regions. This process began under pre-Revolutionary governments, but what have post-Revolutionary governments done, or not done, to address this?

SM: The short answer is, not much. None of the governments have really prioritized this divide between the coastal elites and the interior of the country or really confronted the economic status quo that is essentially left over from the Ben Ali era. The political parties are pretty weak and fragmented. Al Nahda [the largest Tunisian Islamist party] is by far the most cohesive and internally well-organized political party in the country, but they also lost some popularity after their time leading the first elected government after the Revolution.

Nidaa Tounes, which is the party of President Essebsi and won the largest number of seats in the last parliamentary election, has split and fragmented since then. Now it is really more of a loose coalition than a functioning political party. In addition, many of the entrenched business elites and mafia-like networks that benefit from the current status quo and existing corruption have, to some degree, coopted the new parties to protect their own interests.

Those who benefited from the status quo include, the existing bureaucracy; the Ministry of Interior and the security apparatus, as well as the larger bureaucracy in ministries left over from the Ben Ali era, which encompasses traditional business elites; the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT); and some foreign governments – historic trading partners such as France, Italy, and Belgium. All these actors might have somewhat different interests, but they all fear the effect of a serious departure from the status quo.

There’s not really a strong coalition in favor of deep structural reform or redistribution, even though these are the changes that would be necessary to meet the demands of the Tunisian citizens. Many of the political leaders feel that if they push for real economic reform in a way that changes the status quo, then they will lose politically. Honestly, I think they’re more afraid of that than they are of not delivering change for Tunisian citizens.

TCB: Is there any possible scenario for a path forward through these kind of intractable problems in your mind?

SM: I don’t know. It’s very difficult to imagine a real way forward in the short term. It would require real political leadership – someone with real political capital and real political will – and that seems to be missing.

I asked this question to quite a number of Tunisians during my visit to the country last week. What would be required to change this dynamic, to unstick things and move forward with these reforms? It was very difficult to find optimistic answers or concrete solutions in the short term.

People are hopeful, but most hopeful answers involved muddling through and making incremental progress over the next few years in the hope that better political leadership will come along. Tunisians do legitimately fear that if these reforms aren’t addressed then it could threaten the progress that’s been made. There could be the threat of strikes, renewed protests, or some other form of upheaval. We’ve seen a number of strikes and protests already, which people believe may continue this fall.

TCB: In an ideal world, what would be the top reforms – economic or otherwise – that you believe need to be made in order to put Tunisia on the path to long term success?

SM: One of the most important problems in Tunisia is the problem of corruption. There are many open cases of corruption, and a variety of corrupt actors continue to operate. Having a government that’s willing to demonstrate their commitment to a less corrupt system would be enormously important and is almost a precondition for making progress on basic economic reforms.

I think the biggest obstacle is the influence of corrupt actors who benefit directly from the status quo and are opposed to these kinds of reforms. For instance, labor law reform is very important but extremely difficult due to strong opposition from the UGTT. Investment codes, the public-private partnerships law, reforms to the labor law, these would all be valuable, important reforms, but it’s hard to see them being passed and implemented without a government that’s willing to take on corruption.

The issue of transitional justice –  a level of judicial accountability for crimes that were committed before the Revolution – is also important here. There’s a commission set up to address these issues but, frankly, it hasn’t really been empowered, and it has failed to move forward very quickly. Five years later, there hasn’t been much progress.

TCB: To take a wider view, what can the international community do to help Tunisia overcome these obstacles?

SM: Big picture, two themes present themselves. One is to give Tunisia more attention and support. What’s happening in Tunisia is the most important thing happening in the Arab World today, and the international community doesn’t act like that is the case. If Tunisia can succeed in consolidating the first successful democratic transition into a prosperous democracy in the Arab world, that could have enormous positive influence in the entire region.

Second, we need to accompany this attention and support with incentives and real pressure to make progress on some of these issues. Offer Tunisia more support and economic and trade assistance, things that it wants to better integrate in the international community. But also help Tunisia’s political leaders to make difficult decisions to build positive reforms.

This will be tricky for the international community and the United States. It is difficult for western and international actors to really press Tunisia on these kind of reforms when the reality is that Tunisia has made more significant reforms than any other country in the region, and the international community very rarely presses any of these countries. But this is the right way forward.

TCB: Final question: Thinking about your trip to Tunisia last week, what was the most striking thing you saw there that you think western and international audiences should recognize?

SM: I’ve been to Tunisia probably about a dozen times since the Revolution, and this trip was my first in 9 or 10 months. The most noticeable difference now is the improved security environment. Of course, this could change overnight, but last year the country was really taken by fear after a number of high profile terrorist attacks, and that fear got in the way of even discussing other issues, like corruption and economic reform. While there really isn’t much optimism for the prospect of real economic progress or reforms, those issues are at least now more a part of the public debate than they were a year ago, which is a positive step.

I would also add that Tunisia is a country that wants additional engagement from the international community, including from the United States, in a way that is unusual in the region. The U.S. has a pretty positive reputation in Tunisia, more than it does in most Arab countries, and many Tunisians would very much want stronger relations with the United States. They want additional trade, they want more opportunities, and exchanges, and visas back and forth. I think that should be seen as a unique opportunity, where you have a country that is moving generally in the right direction and where both the government and the citizens want increased engagement with the United States. The U.S. should seize this opportunity. 

The Author is Stephen McInerney

Stephen McInerney is Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). He previously served as POMED's Advocacy Director from 2007 to 2010. He has extensive experience in the Middle East and North Africa, including graduate studies of Middle Eastern politics, history, and the Arabic language at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo. He has spoken on Middle East affairs with numerous media outlets including BBC, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, and... Read More

Learn more about The Cipher's Network here