Screen-capture of webcast: "A Transatlantic Strategy for a Democratic Tunisia." Atlantic Council. 7 June 2016.

Screen-capture of webcast: “A Transatlantic Strategy for a Democratic Tunisia.” Atlantic Council. 7 June 2016.

The spring months have seen a profusion of think tank analyses and discussions evaluating post-revolution Tunisia and foreign support for the country’s so called democratization process. The most recent of these is a report by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Sponsored by the European Union Delegation in Washington, D.C. within the scope of an initiative to “advance transatlantic cooperation in supporting political and economic reform in the Arab world,” the paper proposes a new “Translatlantic Strategy for a Democratic Tunisia.”

As Tunisia “enters a make-or-break phase for democratic consolidation,” authors Frances Burwell, Karim Mezran, Elissa Miller (Atlantic Council) and Amy Hawthorne (Project on Middle East Democracy, POMED) recommend that the United States, European Union, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom adopt a coordinated assistance strategy for the country.  Their approach encourages donors to (1) significantly increase support through the provision of a joint aid package—at least 2 billion dollars per year for the next five years, (2) coordinate assistance packages and measures to avoid redundancy, (3) increase attention paid to democracy-building and the protection of human rights, and (4) engage Tunisia in visibly different ways than with non-democratic Arab states in order to showcase its progress internationally.

Taking stock of the country’s transition process, the authors pinpoint the weak economy as Tunisia’s greatest challenge which must be overcome through “deep and urgent reforms.” They indicate that obstacles to such reforms include policymakers’ and the private sector’s caution and conservatism, many officials’ strong attachment to a state-dominated economy, fears of triggering social unrest, bureaucratic gridlock, and the “persistent influence of an old guard that rejects far-reaching reform.” As much as it faces a “far more volatile region and domestic security environment,” post-revolution Tunisia lacks capable and efficient security agencies. The security sector ‘s main apparatus, the Ministry of the Interior, is “still in dire need of an overhaul to improve its professionalism and adherence to human rights standards” and until now “has managed to avoid any significant reforms.” Politically, the “deep state of the Ben Ali era has not been dismantled” and “old guard networks are present throughout the political system, the business world, and security institutions.”

Middle-range interest in the region’s only emerging democracy

A detailed section on donor support for post-revolution Tunisia quantifies the level of monetary and material aid provided by the US, EU, and key member states. The authors observe an across-the-board increase in assistance since 2011, and common priorities in the areas of economy, security, and democracy-building. And yet Tunisia, “despite its unique status as the region’s only emerging democracy, remains only a middle range interest for the West”: in terms of foreign assistance doled out by US and European donors, Tunisia ranks far behind other North African and Middle East countries. Still, investment in Tunisia is considerable and objectives overlapping enough, the authors argue, that transatlantic partners will do well to coordinate their efforts and optimize support for the country.

Economically, aid initiatives are “too small-bore, short-term, and disconnected from one another.” Proposed adjustments to economic assistance echo what have become familiar recommendations in extensive existing literature (and in particular, studies carried out by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) evaluating the country’s transition: that the efficacy of initiatives be measured against impact on youth unemployment and regional economic disparities; that reforms should open up the economy and create a more level playing field; that dialogue be engaged in impoverished governorates. While acknowledging that budget assistance can help macroeconomic stability, the authors also question the efficacy of disbursing abundant cash transfers and loans. They advocate for investment in high value sectors including information technologies, international call centers, agriculture in the interior regions—to boost employment, and for the adoption of free trade agreements to increase market access for Tunisian goods and services.  Aware that many Tunisians are concerned about foreign competition flooding the domestic market and the less-than-impressive example of Morocco’s stalled free trade negotiations, the authors advise that “The US and EU also need to craft a much more resonant public narrative on why free trade agreements will benefit Tunisia.

Security

None of the security assistance provided by the US, the EU, and key European member states, including training programs and weapons and equipment to the Ministry of Interior, is linked to meaningful reforms.

To strengthen security without prodding the creation of a security state, the authors suggest: convergent diplomatic messages; consultations with Tunisian stakeholders to agree on progress benchmarks in exchange for equipment and material support; consultations with Tunisian NGOs to address radicalization and to monitor security forces; more transparency on security assistance (“The public should be aware of what is being provided and to what agencies”); more training and technical assistance for border security including the promotion of proposed free trade zones.

Politics 

That the success of democratization depends upon deep political reform is central to a new transatlantic strategy and is the basis for many of the report’s recommendations. The United States and Europe should, in this vein, cooperate to transform “deeply rooted institutions of authoritarian governance, which for decades served and protected those who ran the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes, into a new system with completely different norms, purposes, and beneficiaries.”  They dissuade investment in areas where there has proven to be a lack of political will for reform and/or where there is already a sufficient level of competence, such as judiciaries and electoral administration respectively, and encourage instead technical support for anti-corruption and media watchdog bodies. Finally, the authors conclude, consistent information-sharing amongst donors might be realized through a task force composed of US, EU, France, Germany, and UK foreign ministers who meet “in Western capitals, where policy is made, not by embassies in Tunis, in order to elevate Tunisia as a policy priority and to ensure accountability from the bureaucracies.”

Western donors, Tunisia’s fair-weather friends

The Atlantic Council is not the first to call for a coordinated approach to foreign support for Tunisia. In March, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace compelled Tunisia and Western donors to pursue a new Framework for Partnership of which many objectives—the “elevation and intensification” of economic support, high-level engagement with leaders, information-sharing, continuation of macro-economic and budgetary assistance, commitment to multi-year funding, opening up market access, adoption of free trade agreements with Europe and the United State–are features of the Translatlantic Strategy advanced by Burwell, Hawthorne, Mezran, and Miller.

Indeed, the authors commended Carnegie research work on Tunisia while presenting their own report in a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council on June 7. Also present at the event were Nicholas Westcott from the European External Action Service (EEAS) and Paige Alexander of USAID who evoked pertinence of the Atlantic Council report shortly after the forty-year mark of European cooperation with Tunisia as well as the country’s signing of a third sovereign loan with the United States. In other conversations, such landmarks are associated with inequitable bilateral relations—namely Tunisia’s privileged partnership with the EU and strategic partnership with the United States, where the risks and implications for Tunisia in terms of international market competition and the conditionality of financial assistance are significant, potentially disastrous. As the authors recall, the US and Europe were steadfast supporters of the Ben Ali regime, and, “caught off guard by the uprising, quickly pivoted in January 2011 to become enthusiastic champions of the democratization process.”

With each new assessment and academic paper that has surfaced over the past months, one wonders: might these new approaches to foreign support give way to a shift in the way that Western partners engage with a Tunisia-in-transition, or do such proposals merely reflect an updated vocabulary and the next phase of soft power dynamics that characterize fickle diplomatic alliances?