POMED Notes: “Two Years Later: Assessing Tunisia’s Progress since the Jasmine Revolution”
On Monday (1/14), the Project on Middle East Democracy, the Tunisian American Young Professionals, and the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) hosted a panel discussion entitled “Two Years Later: Assessing Tunisia’s Progress since the Jasmine Revolution.” The panel, moderated by founder and President of the Tunisian Young American Professionals Mohamed Malouche, featured Leila Chennoufi, Senior Environmental Specialist for the InterAmerican Development Bank; Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy; Eamon Gearon, analyst and lecturer in the SAIS African Studies Program; and Samia Msadek, Financial Management Regional Director of East Asia and the Pacific at the World Bank. Daniele Moro, visiting scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS, gave opening remarks.
For full event notes, continue reading or click here for the PDF.
Daniele Moro opened the discussion with a brief portrayal of post-revolution Tunisia as a potentially “positive symbol of transition,” and as a traditionally tolerant and cosmopolitan society. He asked whether Tunisia would mirror Western Europe following World War II, which flourished thanks America’s large investment of “money, security, and values,” or post-Cold War Eastern Europe, which floundered with the absence of significant American intervention.
Next, Mohamed Malouche described the state of the Tunisian transition as delicate, noting that there are mixed opinions among observers with some saying that despite the challenges, the country is “heading in the right direction,” while others feel that the “Tunisian identity is being threatened” by intolerance. Among the enduring concerns over the country’s transition are the dire economic situation, the lack of jobs, and inequality. Malouche said the outlook was grim due to the lack of a viable political roadmap, questions of legitimacy, fragile security, and worsening economic conditions.
Stephen McInerney opened his remarks by asserting that the anniversary of the revolution marked an important moment for Tunisia and the region as a whole. Many Tunisians feared that they would be forgotten as the revolutions spread across the region, though that has not been the case. Until the past few months, he noted, Tunisia was viewed in Washington as the regional “success story,” but that following the attacks in Benghazi, concerns about the future of Tunisia’s transition have increased. While McInerney stressed that there are many positive aspects about the transition, there are also major challenges, namely fear and uncertainty of the country’s future. Having visited the country four times since Ben Ali’s ouster, McInerney noted that Tunisians’ views on the most important issues change frequently, underscoring the “continuous cycle of events [during which] Tunisians fear the worst.” The most vital concerns are interpreted differently by Tunisians across the political spectrum, particularly among the Islamist and secular camps, which has created intense political polarization that has “spilled beyond the political parties into the civil society sphere.” McInerney reported that Ennahda remains dominant due to other parties’ failure to successfully mobilize. International funding for political party capacity-building and training has tapered off and the parties and coalitions continue to shift frequently. He pointed out that Tunisians are largely disappointed by the government’s failure to produce a working constitution that Tunisians can be proud of. Finally, McInerney said the two immediate goals are to complete the long-overdue cabinet reshuffle and the institution of a viable political roadmap to provide certainty over the country’s transition.
Leila Chennoufi then addressed the state of Tunisia’s civil society development since the revolution and structured her remarks around civil society’s “legitimate but unrealistic hopes,” the sense of disillusionment, and the resulting deadlock. She began by outlining the hopes “fueled by achievements,” such as the release of political prisoners, the formation of new political parties, free and fair elections, and institutional help from international organizations. She noted, “It felt like a multi-generational revenge against history,” and civil society threw itself into the revolution expecting things to happen quickly. Despite significant mobilization and international assistance, progress has been slow and expectations have been dashed because Tunisia reached its “absorptive capacity.” Now, portions of civil society are disillusioned, the government is deadlocked, and there are questions about national identity that leave Tunisians feeling “in a fog and uncertain.” Chennoufi mentioned specific concerns including the Constituent Assembly’s ability to fulfill its mandate, the efficacy of the security forces in ensuring proper border control and preventing terrorism given the armed forces’ size and experience, and fostering confidence in the tourism sector. Finally, Chennoufi stressed that unless new jobs are created to capture youth lost during the country’s economic downturn, the situation may create a political structure that will not inspire hope or patience and produce a “nothing to lose” attitude among the country’s younger generation, which could test the limits of successful elections to come. Chennoufi ended by stating that she is neither “pessimistic nor optimistic” at this point about Tunisia’s future prospects.
Eamonn Gearon spoke on the country’s security situation, saying it is “unquestionably worse” than before the revolution, but that this was expected due to Ben Ali’s “robust authoritarianism.” The security concern is primarily internal, and primarily a matter of Tunisia’s faltering economy. In Gearon’s words, it is “more important to create jobs than rewrite the constitution,” because Tunisians today are not protesting about democracy but jobs. He acknowledged that the rise of Salafi groups was a concern, but that they are not one of Tunisia’s major problems. Regarding its external security, Tunisia, Gearon notes, is at an advantage due to its relatively small size and generally good relations with its neighbors. Regarding regional security, resolving the Western Sahara impasse remains important in order that Tunisia can move forward with the Arab-Maghbreb economic union, encourage greater regional commerce, and improve the dire situation of migration to Europe. Gearon noted that there are encouraging aspects of Tunisia’s security situation, such as its strong national identity, but that the country must face its political challenges too and repair its image of security, adding that “perception of security is half the battle.”
Finally, Samia Msadek addressed Tunisia’s economy but was not speaking on behalf of the World Bank. She said that Tunisians now know that the transition will be a long journey, and she expressed concern that the current government was making the same mistake as past ones by only dedicating 15% of its budget to development of any kind. Msadek said the government was not making the difficult decisions to bring Tunisia the non-traditional investment it needs. She suggested that success and failure are man-made, emphasizing the need for national cohesion and a fiscal decentralization policy to achieve equality between those on the profitable coast and everyone else.
During the Q&A, Msadek noted that there is not a simple exit strategy from the transition, but that she is more concerned about the cost of inaction than near term failure. Moro recommended that Tunisia increase its trade with the U.S., while McInerney stated that the political coalitions are fluid and have not evolved as much as was anticipated, and that opposition parties are still seeking more time to organize. He added that while antagonistic rhetoric between the Islamists and secularists may have declined, not much is bridging the divide between them. Finally, Gearon expressed that though Ennahda has begun to distance itself from some Salifi groups, as a political party that wants to win another election, it must retain some of their support.