Tunisia in Transition: Challenges & Prospects

Thursday April 27, 2017
JW Marriott

On April 27, 2017, the Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) cosponsored a panel discussion titled “Tunisia in Transition: Challenges and Prospects.” ACW and POMED invited two special speakers and civil society activists from Tunisia to participate in this event and had also organized meetings for them with representatives from the US government, media, academia, and nongovernmental organizations. They were Amine Ghali, Program Director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, and Chawki Tabib, President of the National Authority for the Fight Against Corruption. The distinguished panel featured two additional speakers: Sarah Yerkes, International Security Fellow in the Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Leila Hilal, Senior Fellow in the International Security Program, New America Foundation.

Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director of ACW, and Cole Bockenfeld, Deputy Director for Policy at POMED, welcomed the speakers and audience. Jahshan said that since the Jasmine Revolution started in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, the country has seen both successes and challenges—a mixed record. The gains included significant milestones such as the end of the Ben Ali regime, parliamentary and presidential elections, and the adoption of a new constitution, but many problems remain in the economic and governance sectors, in security services, and in the areas of human rights and corruption. He posed some of the questions that the panel would tackle, including, what is needed to revitalize the Tunisian economy? Will Tunisia achieve the necessary internal stability needed despite the regional instability all around it? What is the role of outside powers?

Chawki Tabib outlined the principal reason for the Tunisian revolution as the pervasive corruption in the regime’s economic, administrative, political, and even judicial sectors. After the revolution, efforts to fight corruption during 2011-2015 were insufficient, despite the important work of civil society, the media, certain parliamentarians, and the National Commission Against Corruption. The National Unity Government recognizes that the priority to fight corruption should be on the same level as fighting terrorism. In 2016, important laws were enacted to provide free access to information and to protect whistleblowers; in addition, a strategy to fight corruption and promote good governance was adopted. Nevertheless, the fact is that 50 percent of the Tunisian economy is informal, which has resulted in trafficking of essential items and the growth of mutually beneficial relationships between Libyan terrorist groups and Tunisian smugglers.

Tabib also said that injustice is now felt by everyone, especially the youth, and this makes them especially vulnerable to terrorism. He cautioned that the Tunisians need to win the war against corruption as this is a national, regional, and international issue. He said that historically, countries with strong traditions of citizen engagement have had strong leadership and a modern administration, healthy state institutions, and a strong judiciary. He noted that Tunis is perplexed by Washington’s position on corruption; indeed, US support to fight corruption has been lagging. The United States has a strategic interest in Tunisia’s democratic transition and can help by building Tunisia’s capacity to protect witnesses, collaborate with researchers, and support civil society institutions, judicial authorities, and investigative journalism.

Amine Ghali agreed that one of the biggest problems in the democratic transition in Tunisia is the fight against corruption. He described other salient challenges facing the country as the following:

  1. The elections: although the 2011 and 2014 elections were successful, the 2017 municipal elections have been delayed;
  2. The constitution: the work over the last few years to formulate a constitution that accommodates everyone, and not just the winners of the election, has resulted in a “good constitution” and it is being tested and discussed, though the efforts to make it into law are lagging;
  3. Security: because security has been the tool of the dictatorship in the past, dismantling the security apparatus is important—keeping in mind the civil war in next-door Libya, whose impact has a deep reach into Tunisia;
  4. Human rights: a culture of the promotion and respect of human rights is needed, and this is not yet fully present in Tunisia; and,
  5. Good governance: the failure in fighting corruption so far has, at the very least, increased public awareness of the problem, but there has been limited success with transitional justice.

Ghali added that the Truth and Dignity Commission, which manages the transitional justice process, is in its fifth year of operation, but it has not been able to deliver on its mandate, including fighting corruption. The formula for Tunisia is to open the civil space—citizens should be interested and engaged in the public sphere. Ghali said that one positive development is that the people who are not in power did not resort to violence, unlike many other countries in the region. He said that it is important to support all agents of reform in Tunisia, such as civil society organizations, the media, independent anti-corruption and anti-torture authorities, NGOs, and other international partners.

Sara Yerkes applauded Tunisia’s accomplishments to date, including the incorporation of civil society engagement from all over the country. She characterized the process of tackling transitional justice, corruption, and transparency as thoughtful and deliberative. The United States should hold Tunisia accountable to the highest standard, she advised, and it should focus on anti-corruption training, helping Tunisia make the link between corruption and instability.  Transparency and citizen engagement in local government practices quell popular unrest and bring stability. Civil society organizations have played a good watchdog role in Tunisia, but pointing out problems is only a first step; civil society has to be the bridge between the people and the government.

Yerkes said it was important to make sure that everyone has equal access to education and government services. To that end, the United States has offered programming through USAID in job skills training and job matching to help address youth unemployment. Although there are many challenges in Tunisia at present, there are also opportunities, and with the growing interest in Tunisia in the United States, it is important to hear from each other and work together.

Leila Hilal cautioned that it is crucial to correct the imbalance between Tunisia’s coastal areas and its underdeveloped interior. Citizens complain about election irregularities, high levels of unemployment, and little participation in government and in change. She said that security remains a big challenge in Tunisia, adding that it was the army that made the ultimate regime change real. In general, states have used the security sector to monopolize their political control over citizens, and it is difficult to restrain this and root out the bad actors. As for corruption, which is one of the major problems facing the MENA region as a whole, Hilal echoed her colleagues’ emphasis on the linkages between stability and corruption. She said that Arab society is based on maintaining good relationships, which is positive and can also create resilience, yet it also can lead to nepotism and reliance on wasta, or favoritism based on connections. She finally said that some of the lessons learned from the Tunisian experience are as follows:

  1. Change is a process, and Tunisia is still going through it;
  2. There is an intersection between an anti-corruption agenda and transitional justice, and that the interventions and outcomes of the two can shed light on how to manage change in complex places; and,
  3. Change requires multiple actors, such as media, civil society, political analysts, and external supporters, who must all work together toward a meaningful transition.

Event Photos