A Long Road Ahead: POMED’s Executive Director Discusses Tunisia with The Cipher Brief

On August 26, 2016, POMED’s Executive Director Stephen McInerney spoke with The Cipher Brief to discuss various aspects of Tunisia’s political transition. The full article is available here, and some highlights are below.

Cipher Brief: 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?

Stephen McInerney: 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.

Cipher Brief: What have post-Revolutionary governments done, or not done, to address [the economic disparity between the coastal elites and the interior]?

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.

Cipher Brief: 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.