February 26, 2016

  To to defeat violent extremism, US must support Tunisia

By Radwan A. Masmoudi - The Hill 
President of CSID 

Five years have passed since the start of Arab Spring revolutions when dictators across Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria were challenged by peaceful, popular uprisings. Immense excitement set in as emotionally gripped Arabs, ruthlessly oppressed by autocrats for decades, began to have hope that they may finally live in freedom and dignity.
Their hopes have since been shattered. The face of the Middle East and North Africa has indeed drastically changed since the revolutions but not in the way they expected. One-by-one the budding democracies stumbled - some with violence and chaos, some with extremism and others with a return to dictatorship. All except Tunisia, the one country that has so far stayed on the democratic path.

Tunisia received much praise and attention, even a Nobel Peace award, as it continued its democratic path founded on dialogue, moderation and a unique political model of consensus, led by Tunisia's party of Muslim Democrats, Ennahdha. But Tunisia too, soon became a victim of its own success as many thought its journey was completed rather than just starting.  In reality, despite global appreciation, very few resources have been allocated to sustain this lone surviving model of democracy in the region.

The West wrongfully presumes that a tiny Arab country - with roughly half of its population under 30, a distressed economy resulting from decades of cronyism, centralization, social exclusion and corruption, and surrounded by a region in chaos - will be able to succeed on its own. That expectation was always misplaced - and now that fact is becoming evident from the new wave of unrest spreading across Tunisia, sparked once again by the recent death of a young man, this time protesting his exclusion from a list of government jobs.

Youth in Tunisia, who expected democracy to provide prosperous lives, are desperate - more than three-quarters of the unemployed in the country are 15-30 years of age. Some have already been lured into extremism - Tunisia endured three horrific terrorist attacks last year, shattering the vital tourism sector and compounding its poor economic situation - more will be tempted to do so as groups like ISIS tap into their resentment. That would be a tragedy, one that can and must be avoided.

Tunisians are aware they are the sole representatives of something great in the region - they have held free and fair elections and two peaceful transfers of power. They have strong women leaders, a resilient civil society and most importantly, the most progressive constitution in the Arab world which was passed by 94 percent of the constituent assembly.

But they also know how precarious their situation is. They see the bloodshed in Syria as both Bashar al-Assad's army and ISIS indiscriminately and mercilessly decimate towns and villages; they see Libya becoming synonymous with the nightmare scenario of a civil war; and they see Yemen essentially becoming a bloody playground for the region's proxy-wars. Worse, they see porous national borders that have allowed extremists and weapons to flow in and out from Libya into Tunisia with relative ease; they see poor infrastructure and a lack of foreign aid and investment that cripples job growth; and they see terrorist activity succeed in bringing the economy to its knees.

This is not what Tunisians want, and this is not what the United States and the rest of the freedom-loving people around the world want either. Tunisians hear western leaders talk about their country being the shining light of Arab democracy; but they need more than talk. They are growing increasingly restless, desperate for a stable and strong economy that would provide meaningful and competitive employment opportunities and restore dignity to their lives.


Just as we provided tens of billions of dollars in direct support to post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the U.S. must similarly help Tunisia. We should work with the Tunisian government to champion its International Donor Conference to raise $5 billion a year, over the next five years. Tunisia desperately needs these funds to support large-scale infrastructure projects - highways, roads, railways, hospitals, schools and universities - that will facilitate job creation and bring investors.

In the short term, this shot of international assistance will spur economic growth in the historically disenfranchised interior regions and keep hope alive for thousands of young Tunisians. Over the long term, it will stimulate economic activity and attract investments.

In turn, the U.S. should push the Tunisian government to establish a Donor Fund, administered by an eminent board of public and private sector leaders, to manage these funds in a transparent manner and enable investors and donors to contribute directly to urgently needed infrastructure projects.  This Fund must also be granted fast-track authority to quickly implement large scale projects, and bypass the notoriously slow administrative and legal web of "required procedures."

The U.S. must also help build Tunisia's institutional capacity so it can counter corruption, strengthen its democratic institutions, and facilitate decentralization and local governance. Importantly, we must also provide urgent military support to combat and defeat the terrorist threat. For example, it will take four years for the U.S. to deliver 12 military helicopters to Tunisia to handle surveillance and counter-terrorist activities. Expediting delivery of these helicopters is a top priority.

Make no mistake, Tunisia is on the brink once again. Whether it succeeds or not largely depends on the role and contribution of the international community. If we are serious about ending the cycle of oppression and extremism in the Arab region, we must usher in peace and security firmly grounded in democracy, freedom and human dignity. In the Arab world today, there is no country better poised to prove that democracy is not only possible, but that it delivers a better life to its citizens, than Tunisia. It must be supported, now, before it's too late.

Masmoudi is the president of Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a Washington, DC based non-profit dedicated to studying Islamic and democratic political thought.