SEATTLE — In its Fiscal Year 2010 Foreign Operations Budget, the United States government committed $1.677 billion to supporting “democratic reform and political institution building in the Middle East and to target the economic despair and lack of opportunity exploited by extremists.”
This was divided amongst Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Tunisia, a country which shortly after the end of that fiscal year would become the birthplace of the Arab Spring, was allocated only a few hundred thousand dollars towards improving its security sector and counterterrorism efforts.
Following the Jasmine Revolution, the U.S. government’s interest in Tunisia spiked. It took democracy coming to the fore of popular discourse during the Arab Spring for the United States, as well as political pundits and journalists covering the matter, to begin considering more intently how the U.S. benefits from foreign aid to Tunisia.
This is evident on the State Department’s “U.S.-Tunisia Relations” page, which opens the “U.S. Assistance” section with “Since 2011…” If the Arab Spring had been a race to democracy, Tunisia would have emerged the victor, though not without a struggle. After the abdication of Prime Minister Ghannouchi in 2011, elections were held, in which an Islamist party won a near-majority in Parliament.
Unrest would continue into 2012 after the drafting of a new constitution by this parliament, which referred to women as “complementary to men.” After years of turmoil and the establishment of a moderate interim government, a new Tunisian Constitution was adopted in January 2014. The state of emergency imposed during the 2011 revolution was lifted, and both presidential and parliamentary elections were held later that year.
Tunisia today is considered the only full democracy in the Arab world and is set to hold municipal elections in May of this year. Despite political conditions improving drastically, economic conditions for Tunisians are still less than optimal. Stagnation and unemployment continue to worsen.
Protests were held in Tunis in January, after which the government of Tunisia promised substantive reforms, but President Essebsi highlighted in a speech that protestors should “be modest,” as “your country does not have a lot of means.”
It is of great benefit to the United States for a nation in a region marred by dictatorship, extremism, mistrust and bloodshed to emerge as not only democratic, but a democratic U.S. ally.
The Jasmine Revolution was brought to a head by poor economic conditions, yet the government that replaced Prime Minister Ghannouchi has done little to quell them. If the government is not serving the people’s interests, not only could it be expelled, but Tunisia and its people (and possibly its neighbors), with a bad taste in their mouths, may no longer wish to continue this experiment in democracy. This would only add to the existing unrest in the region, an incontrovertibly damaging prospect to U.S. interests.
Since the revolution, the United States has committed roughly $190 million to supporting Tunisia’s democratic transition. Most of this money has been spent on counterterrorism efforts, conflict mitigation and security sector reform. Only recently, within the last three years, has a greater share of U.S. aid been allocated towards economic development.
This could stand to be increased, with more dollars going towards stimulating private sector growth and competitiveness. U.S. benefits from foreign aid to Tunisia include increased trade opportunities with a multitude of new and developing businesses, such as those invested in by the Tunisian American Enterprise Fund. This fund, according to the United States Agency for International Development, invested somewhere between $18-$20 million in Tunisian firms by the end of 2016.
Additionally, the United States could do more to influence investment in Tunisia by Western venture capitalists. As Lahcen Achy of the Carnegie Middle East Center writes, “In high-growth countries, private investment typically exceeds 25 percent of GDP. But investment struggles to reach 15 percent in Tunisia.” A large influx of foreign investors could have the potential to surpass, in its effectiveness, the tens of millions of dollars allocated by the United States in foreign aid towards Tunisia annually. So long as the reforms offered by the Tunisian government include only welfare and education programs, unemployment (namely youth unemployment, which sits at around 35 percent) will remain unchanged.
In its pursuit of stability in the region, it is important that the United States recognizes the economic roots of much of its civil unrest. The U.S. benefits from foreign aid to Tunisia, particularly for purposes of stimulating private sector growth, could include drastically reduced unemployment, poverty and other ailments that still have Tunisians protesting in the streets more than seven years after the abdication of Prime Minister Ghannouchi.
If the U.S. government chooses to ignore Tunisia, allowing its economy to degrade further, America could lose out on great returns from increased trade in crude petroleum and other resources. Instead, fostering democracy and economic stability in this small republic will set an example.
– Talmage Tyler III