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F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A Y 2 0 1 2
cratic agenda stays on track, by
continuing to take strong positions
on such critical issues as freedom
of speech, freedom of the press,
and free and fair elections.
The continuance of Ben Ali-era
laws and bureaucracy, coupled
with the relative weakness of the
opposition, means that the United
States and other international actors also have an impor-
tant role to play in standing up for universal democratic
values. As journalists such as Karoui and Ben Saida go on
trial or are imprisoned, it is important to publicly voice
concerns and stress the important role that a free press
plays in protecting democracy.
Maintaining continued, high-level contact with both the
coalition government and the opposition parties is also
vital, making clear that the United States is not playing fa-
vorites, but that the door to dialogue is open to any party
that respects nonviolence and respects and promotes dem-
ocratic values. We must continue to make explicit that we
support democracy, not just stability.
Through organizations such as the National Demo-
cratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and
Freedom House, the United States can facilitate training
for both the Tunisian election authority and Tunisian po-
litical parties. Ennahda’s political dominance was won at
the ballot box, reflecting its strong support throughout the
country. However, a strong and viable opposition is also
critical to the long-term stability of Tunisia’s democracy.
Encouragingly, the country’s center-left parties are slowly
forming coalitions, which will help them compete more
effectively for political influence and assuage fears that sec-
ular views are at risk.
The United States should encourage Tunisia to set a
date for parliamentary elections and begin preparations,
such as voter registration. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali
has stated that the government expects elections to occur
in 18 months. However, Ennahda’s leaders have also in-
dicated that voting could be postponed if the work of the
Constituent Assembly is not completed within that time
The Economy on Hold
While understandable, this lack of clarity about par-
liamentary elections fuels the suspicions of those
Tunisians who believe Ennahda has ulterior motives.
But more importantly, it increases
the general sense of uncertainty in
the country. Only half of eligible
voters were registered for the Oc-
tober constituent assembly elec-
tions. Early preparations for the
parliamentary elections would help
engage a greater proportion of the
population, increasing confidence
in the process.
While the October elections proceeded relatively
smoothly, there were some irregularities. Reports that
Ennahda provided money for weddings and offered
sheep, and that the Progressive Democratic Party handed
out sandwiches, may seem trivial, but they are still a hot
topic. U.S. technical assistance to the Tunisian election
authority and political parties could help avert similar in-
cidents during the parliamentary elections, whenever they
are held.
Promoting Tunisian economic growth remains critical
to ensuring the success of democracy. In 2011, gross do-
mestic product contracted by nearly 2 percent, and fore-
casts for 2012 remain pessimistic. Unemployment,
already high prior to the revolution, has continued to grow
and is currently estimated at 19 percent; but is estimated
to be nearly 30 percent for university-educated youth.
For their part, foreign and Tunisian investors are also
in “wait and see” mode. Setting a clear timeline for the
transition will help provide predictability and encourage
investment. The country has requested significant inter-
national funding to support economic development, and
the Obama adminstration has already increased funding.
Although a Tunisian “Marshall Plan” is not realistic in
these years of lean budgets, the United States can signal
its strong commitment to Tunis by considering a free
trade agreement. The congressional mood may not be
ready for a U.S.-Tunisia FTA at the moment, but because
the negotiations would be a multiyear process, congres-
sional sentiment could change. In-depth trade discus-
sions with Tunisia would also provide a forum for
promoting serious economic reform and would facilitate
a strengthened economic partnership between our two
In short, America cannot resolve Tunisia’s identity cri-
sis. But it can, and should, help the country address its
very real social and economic challenges to keep its
democracy on the path to success.
Setting a clear timeline
for the transition will
help provide predictability
and encourage investment.