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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

REPORT: Consolidating the First Democracy in the Arab World – Why Tunisia Matters

REPORT: Consolidating the First Democracy in the Arab World – Why Tunisia Matters

September 22, 2016

01With the occasion of the UN General Assembly in New York, Former Prime Minister of Tunisia Ali Larayedh made a visit to Washington D.C. to touch base with key policy makers, journalists and academics and refocus attention on the burgeoning democracy. In front of an audience of over 120 political and civil society personalities at the luncheon event held at the Mayflower Hotel, Larayedh – who currently serves as the Vice President of the Ennahdha Party in Tunisia – spoke to the current successes and shortcomings facing the government in hopes of encouraging greater engagement with stakeholders in key sectors of Tunisian society.

Five and a half years after the revolution, Tunisia finds itself navigating murky waters. On the one hand, as Larayedh noted, elected officials managed to pass a new, democratic constitution, the most liberal and consensus-driven of the Arab world, and “set up the necessary institutions to advance [along] the path of democracy; Tunisia declared war on terror and is now in full control using the judicial system as well as the security forces effectively.”

02While these are very important steps to securing the peace and stability of the country, Larayedh insisted that there is still a lot of work to be done to keep the country on the right path, particularly in addressing economic and social challenges that remain. As a current member of Parliament, he provided insights into the areas identified for urgent attention, notably “financial, banking, monetary, investment, and tax reforms” that have already been passed.

The hope, explained Larayedh, was that prioritizing these specific reforms will spur both domestic and international investment in the short-term, and serve as the bedrock for a prosperous economic system for many years to come. Thus far, with some of the needed reforms already passed and others still in consideration, investment projects have yet to materialize, adding undue strain on the already difficult democratic transition.

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Even with all these challenges and the progress being made to alleviate their negative impacts on society, Larayedh stressed that “the real demands of the Tunisian people and the real needs of the interior and marginalized areas in infrastructure, education, health sector, and other areas, cannot be ignored.” The national budget of around $14 billion has proven insufficient to meet even the minimal demands of keeping the administration moving, let alone covering new and much needed infrastructural projects as mentioned.

Keeping in mind the need to balance the needs of the citizens with the financial burdens on the government, Larayedh laid out the three fronts which the current administration his prioritizing: first, strengthening democratic institutions and mechanisms as a means of guarding stability in the country; second, pushing forward on the necessary and most urgent reforms to jump-start the economy; and finally, tackling “the urgent social issues through negotiations with various partners, and reaching agreements in the hopes to table some of these demands to a later time.” In short, Tunisian officials are doing their best to proceed as swiftly as possible but with consensus and partnership in mind.

04On that note, audience members in attendance asked Larayedh precisely what role the international community, and the United States in particular, can play in lending support to Tunisia. In particular, two audience members inquired about the possibility of pursuing a Free Trade agreement and the Enterprise Development Fund to deepen the government’s cooperation with the United States. He answered that Tunisia not only needs direct financial assistance to be able to balance the federal budget, but would also benefit from greater trade with other nations, support to its once thriving tourism sector, and increased investment, the goal of an international conference taking place in Tunisia in November of this year.

05Larayedh was also asked a number of times to offer insights into the causes of radicalization and the steps being taken by the Tunisian authorities to curb radicalization efforts and offer alternatives to young people. He answered that the government and its arms in the military and security forces are forcefully pursuing violent extremists throughout the country and all those who may become radicalized, but are in equal measure confronting the “radicalizing environment of unemployment, ignorance, illiteracy, injustice and hopelessness” as a means of ensuring a long-term solution to the problem of violence and terrorism. To this same end, he added, the country is moving forward towards greater decentralization as a means of giving more power to local authorities to act upon the best interests of their communities.

Having spent thirteen years in solitary confinement and many more years still in prison, Larayedh spoke to the firmness of his dual convictions that “freedom, human rights, and democracy are priceless” and the he owes a great debt to the society that raised him and gave him opportunities to study at the best universities. Both of those convictions compel him, he said, to continue the fight for democratic consolidation and economic and social well-being.

He remains hopeful, in spite of the many trials and tribulations that no doubt remain, that the help and assistance of friends and allies around the world will usher in the imminent success of Tunisia’s democratic experiment.

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