Presented by The Project on Middle East Democracy and the New America Foundation

Friday, June 29, 2012
New America Foundation

As Tunisians focus on the urgent priorities of constitution-writing, economic development, and civil society growth, the country’s political and social arenas have become increasingly polarized in recent weeks. Controversies over public art displays have led to localized violence, the in absentia sentencing of former president Ben Ali has sparked criticism, and persistent economic difficulties continue to cause frustrations in the street. Tunisia, often hailed as the “success story” of the Arab world following last year’s uprisings, is now hitting bumps in the road.

What is causing rifts between political, religious, and social factions in Tunisia? How is the constitution-writing process proceeding, and what effect are new tensions having in the National Constituent Assembly and elsewhere? How are average citizens responding to recent troubling developments, and in what ways are Tunisians participating in public arenas? What has been the nature of civil society growth, and what role can international actors play in supporting its ongoing development? In what additional areas can the U.S. and others provide assistance?


Amine Ghali
Program Director, Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center

Alexis Arieff
Africa Analyst, Congressional Research Service

Tamara Wittes
Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution

Moderator: Leila Hilal
Co-Director, Middle East Task Force, New America Foundation

For notes on this event, continue reading below.


In her opening remarks, Leila Hilal observed that Tunisia is much less visible in Western media, reflecting the common thinking that the country is a “success story” in the Arab world today. But the real question, in her view, is whether Tunisia is really a model for revolutions across the region. While the conventional wisdom presumes that it is, it has become clear in recent months that Tunisia’s transition is fragile and may even be in peril.

Alexis Arieff spoke first, noting that Tunisians are at a point in their transition where they are taking stock of their progress. There have been a host of achievements, of course, while other steps are partially complete. She mentioned that the Constituent Assembly is still finding its way, balancing its specific task of writing the new constitution with broader legislative assignments. Judging by preliminary drafts of the new constitution released to the public, Arieff observed that the process appears to be an inclusive, good-faith effort at building a consensus document. Many questions remain, however, such as uncertainties related to the country’s electoral system and associated institutions, for example. On the topic of institutional reform, she noted that ongoing investigations have shed light the former regime’s modus operandi, but it remains to be seen how the new government will handle real questions of reforms, including the of trials of former regime officials.

Arieff added that the economy presents major challenges in the short run, and that the solutions must be more structural and long-term in nature. Regarding the security situation, Arieff mentioned problems related to transnational smuggling and the possible threat of terrorist activity, as well as “gaping problems” having to do with the operation of internal security services. Moreover, clashes between Salafi groups and security forces highlight, for some, the state’s failures in maintaining security and integrating marginalized groups into the political process. While much of the international press attention has focused on recent Salafi clashes, Arieff contended that the more important issues are longer-term, more complicated issues.

Next, Amine Ghali pointed out that since Tunisia is going through a transition process, many of the phenomena in the Tunisian landscape today are unique – not necessarily because there is something particularly unique about Tunisia, but because every transition process is different. He outlined that Tunisia is currently in the second phase of its transition: the first being the time from the revolution to elections, and the second being from the elections to the delivery of a constitution. The first phase was largely a success, in his view, in that it delivered free and fair elections; Ghali attributed that success to the fact that it was managed by neutral actors. The second phase, in contrast, is being administered by partisan actors. Unexpected political allies, in his view, are not leading an inclusive process, and Ghali stressed that the new Tunisia must not be built by the winners, but rather by everyone. He outlined several points of confrontation in Tunisia today, largely related to efforts by one group to monopolize a part of the transition process.

In response to a question about how Tunisians are working to build consensus around contested issues, Ghali stated that many actors are mobilizing to ensure that their voices are heard – labor unions, lawyers, and a host of other civil society actors, for example. He also noted that various commissions have been formed to investigate cases of corruption and human rights abuses, among other things, which are conducted via consultative and technical processes, rather than partisan ones. Through these types of projects, political actors are pushed to be more open to dialogue with others. On security sector reform, Ghali stressed that lessons from other transitions show that police reform is a key to broader institutional reform efforts.

Next, Tamara Wittes contended that Tunisia’s challenges are not any worse than challenges elsewhere. She also noted that while it is natural for the winners of elections to seek to design a system that is favorable to them, parties must create laws that will benefit them even if they lose in future elections. Such a strategy is not altruistic, but rather practical and self-interested in the long term. Wittes continued that one feature of Tunisia’s transition that bodes well for its future is that the military quickly removed itself from the political sphere. In addition, a number of Tunisia’s current political factions existed in exile under Ben Ali’s rule and engaged in dialogue with each other while in exile. Through this process, many forged agreement on basic principles related to democracy and the role of religion in politics. When those parties became active after the revolution, they shared some basis of understanding. However, since new parties were not part of the pre-revolution exile community dialogue, there is now a challenge of engaging those emerging actors so that everyone can agree on the rules of the game.

On the economy, Wittes observed that there were some early assumptions about how quickly the Tunisian economy could recover, based largely on how quickly it was expected that political stability would be achieved. However, the developmental disparities in Tunisia were greater than many people thought. Furthermore, the conflict next door in Libya also slowed Tunisian growth. And, while Europe would have had a central role to play in supporting Tunisia economically, it is of course struggling with its own economic difficulties.

When asked about U.S. strategy towards Tunisia, Wittes pointed out that U.S. assistance to the country has risen substantially since pre-revolution levels. Before the revolution, the U.S. embassy was severely constrained in its contacts and activities in Tunisia. Almost overnight, however, U.S. policy required a fundamental shift: major economic assistance needed to be quickly dispersed, for example, and election support needed to be administered. Now, the overall U.S. assistance package to Tunisia is about $190 million.

Following each speaker’s prepared remarks, Arieff asked Wittes about the future of U.S. assistance to Tunisia. She responded that one challenge for donors is that it is not possible to provide apolitical economic assistance. Assistance is a sensitive issue, and donors want to be responsive to consensus on the ground (unfortunately, Wittes added, there is not always consensus). Another challenge has to do with domestic American politics, related to Washington’s willingness and ability to commit substantial funds to assist new democracies during their transitions. She mentioned the Obama administration’s proposal for a Middle East Incentive Fund, which is a step in the right direction towards committing meaningful resources to transitioning countries. Ghali also pointed out that that although Tunisia is doing relatively well, compared to its neighbors, it still needs resources from the international community. He stressed that foreign assistance must be anchored to standards of human rights and democracy, including media freedoms, women’s rights, and other issues.

During the question-and-answer period, it was asked whether Tunisia will receive the amount of private investment that it requires. Wittes responded that it is difficult for Tunisia to attract private investment because it is a small market; thus, it must integrate itself into a wider Maghreb market. Western governments can play a role in facilitating that broader market development, she contended. Another economic development opportunity for Tunisia may also be as a transshipment point for companies that want to do business in Libya. For that to be feasible, however, Libya-Tunisia relations must improve.

Another audience member asked about the decline in optimism among Tunisian youth and former revolutionaries. Ghali addressed the issue of fatigue, noting that it is common in a post-revolution environment for youth to lose energy and even feel deceived as the transition process proceeds. While optimism and high youth involvement characterize the first stage of transitions, politicians generally take over during the second phase. Arieff pointed out that some degree of frustration can actually be constructive if channeled properly.

The problem of defining success in Tunisia was also mentioned, to which Wittes responded that a successful transition ends with an election that transfers power to another party. Responding to a question about Tunisia’s informal sector, Wittes emphasized that the Tunisian bureaucracy needs to be reformed to incentivize people to participate in the formal sector, adding that there is a problem with regulatory frameworks. Decentralization can help give people a greater sense of ownership over their efforts, but it can also have the opposite effect of empowering local power brokers.

Finally, on a question about civic education, Ghali said that while small civil society organizations are holding workshops and engaging in other projects aimed at educating Tunisians, the government has not made civic education a priority. He indicated that a wider civic education effort will be crucial moving forward.