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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Protecting Tunisian Democracy from the Islamic State, and Other Challenges: Why the International Community Needs to Do Much More

Protecting Tunisian Democracy from the Islamic State,  and Other Challenges:   Why the International Community  Needs to Do Much More
In late July 2015, CSID organized a press panel at the National Press Club in Washington DC on the need to increase international assistance to Tunisia in the wake of two unprecedented terrorist attacks on innocent vacationers. Tunisia’s nascent democracy is under assault by extremists bent on derailing its institutions, its political progress, and its fragile economy, and international donors need to broaden and deepen their support to confront its new challenges. Panelists included some of the leading proponents in the United States for increased aid to Tunisia, and the event was attended by approximately 75 stakeholders in Tunisian assistance, including a broad cross-section of the Washington DC press corps, representatives of key funding agencies and the U.S. Congress, and several former U.S. ambassadors to the region such as Ambassadors Gordon Gray and Robert Ford, along with other dignitaries.
The assassinations of leftist members of the National Constituent Assembly in 2013, continuing with violent skirmishes in the Chaambi moutains in 2014, and two terrorist attacks on tourists at the Bardo national museum and at a Sousse area beach hotel in 2015 has not dampened the resolve of Tunisian democrats to defend the gains of the Jasmine Revolution. That said, violent extremists are doing everything they can to shake the foundations of Tunisian state and society. Four years after its historic Jasmine revolution, Tunisia has continued to surprise the skeptics, becoming the Arab world’s most profound democratic experiment as well as a regional rampart against extremism.
President Beji Caid Sebsi’s historic visit to Washington in May coincided with a request for increased U.S. assistance to Tunisia, but the latest U.S. Senate budget bill has slashed $50 million from the Obama administration budget request passed without significant modifications by the U.S. House of Representatives (for reasons that have nothing to do with Tunisia, but internal American budgetary modalities, but that nonetheless need to be overcome in the coming days and weeks). Assistance to Tunisia needs to be shored up in every sector, beyond the Obama administration request, to support the Arab and Muslim world’s most promising democratic experiment, and this must occur in every sector, including political, economic, security and justice support and reform, including broad new investments. (Remarks summaries and video links can be found below.)
Tunisian Chargé d’Affaires Kais Darragi spoke in the absence of Ambassador Faysal Gouia, who was invited at the last minute to consultations with U.S. Senate officials and who was departing shortly thereafter to Tunisia. Darragi did not pull his punches. Globally, he said that early enthusiasm from the international community for democracy in Tunisia, including U.S. proposals for a Middle east democracy support fund, had vanished or been blocked. Tunisia’s success has been taken for granted by many in the West. Its natural advantages–such as heritage of moderation and constitutionality, history of women’s participation, and relatively large middle class could be overestimated–and Tunisia still does need robust international support. Tunisia needs economic progress to maintain people’s faith in democracy. After the revolution, democracy was seen as a panacea to all social and economic ills, and this has led to disillusionment. Tunisia  is a regional model, and a particular damning one for jihadist groups because it shows hope in strategies for change other than violence.
Tunisia offers an alternative to the false choice between secular autocracies and theocracies. For this reason, extremists will continue to attempt to force Tunisia to fail. For the U.S., Tunisia offers the opportunity to have its first real democratic partner in the region, including as a strategic partner against terrorism. As a small country with a big role, Tunisia provides a good return on investment. Current programs lack the
proper funding and coordination to have a strong effect. Tunisia also has the capacity, or can build the capacity, to provide real strategic assistance in the fight against terror in Libya and sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia has always punched above its weight, he concluded, and could continue to play a major role in helping the U.S. both promote its values and protect its interests. (Kais Darragi’s remarks can be found by clicking the image to the right, and follow CSID Senior Program Officer Mongi Dhaouadi’s brief introductory remarks.)
 His Excellency Alberto Fernandez made a strong case for Tunisia, followed by several media appearance on Tunisia based on the remarks prepared for this panel. Recently in charge of the State Department’s counter-message efforts against extremists Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications from 2012 to 2015, he began by arguing that Tunisia is important because the Arab world lacks success stories. Tunisia’s success has the potential to be more impactful on the entire region than the models advanced by Al Qaeda and ISIS. The Arab spring changed the way jihadists think about the region. In 2011, a pro-Al-Qaeda cleric named Abu Monsur Al-Shinquiti published a document emphasizing dawa work (preaching, proselytization and other missionary-type activities) and network building to undermine nascent democracies from within. This was an alternative to the ISIS model of building a state out of the chaos of Syria (or other weakly governed areas). Syria is attractive to young Tunisia radicals because the cause appears so black and white, and this call is persuasive to some Muslims around the globe. In Washington’s (erroneous) “mission accomplished” phase between the death of Bin Laden and the fall of Mosul, jihadist messaging was centered around Syria in a three part call, namely “1. Muslims are dying., 2. You can do something about it, and 3. You can do it by participating in a new caliphate.”
Tunisia has the opportunity to be an alternative to the two models we see right now–the jihadist model and the authoritarian state model, which is typified by thuggishness and brutality. The Tunisian model, which is most like the American model, ironically has the least amount of money and power behind it. An important expression in the Arab world is hibat ad-dawla–the prestige of the state. While in too many case this means the brutality of the state, in Tunisia there is a chance to redefine this. To make Tunisia into the model for the Arab and Muslim world that it should be, radicalization must be addressed. This is something that must be fought on multiple fronts. President Obama has called the struggle against ISIS an ideological struggle. If we think of Islamic terrorism as a political crime, there is motive and opportunity. Syria is the opportunity, and salafi jihadism is the motive.
We must address both. Tunisia can be a laboratory in which a new Muslim politics can be shaped-something that can be both Islamic and demcoratic. Supporting Tunisia economically, politically, and in the security sector would mean supporting a new discourse to redeem corrupted aspects of Islamic thought and language. (Alberto Fernandez’s remarks can be found by clicking on the image above to the right, and a written copy of his remarks may be made available upon request to CSID and posted on our website in the near future.)
Stephen McInerney also argued that the success of a democratic model in the Arab world is as important as the defeat of ISIS, but the media tends to focus on short term threats rather than long term impact. The Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy and leading advocate for Tunisia said that supporting the successful transition of Tunisia to democracy should be on par with defeating ISIS, but we have shown it much less regard, despite the fact that it is much more achievable. Supporting Tunisia is vastly less expensive but requires the same scale of attention. Jihadist ideology relies on an authoritarian foil that is represssive and brutal, and jihadists understand this relationship, perhaps better than we do. They want Tunisia to fail and experience authoritarian resurgence. Tunisia is out great hope to counter this strategy, but Tunisia is not on sure footing, and it is a dangerous and fragile time.
Outside support needs to be increased in security, economy, and governance. Security assistance to military has been strong, but less so to the internal security services and police. Economically, Tunisia needs a lot more help, and economic success is a lynchpin of political success. U.S. direct assistance would be helpful, as well as programs to create jobs scaled to job demand and to address the disparity between coast and interior. In both economics and security, U.S. support must be accompanied by friendly pressure to undertake reforms and increase openness. For the political component, sustained engagement is needed to provide technical support to Tunisian government entities trying to transition to democratic governance. Civil society and political parties have receive dbursts of support around elections and the writing of the constitution, but need more sustained support to improve capacity. Parties like Nidaa Tounes are still very new and loosely organized and need a lot of assistance. He joined CSID’s MENA director and panel moderator William Lawrence in criticizing the U.S. Senate move, which is not final and can be modified or reversed. The total request for fiscal year 2016 is 134.4 million, roughly double that of 2015, and the U.S. House of Representatives passage of it took hard work by many supporters of Tunisia was very welcome. The U.S. Senate’s version of the bill authorizes about $89 million. McInerney gave several areas in the budget where the $50 million could be found for Tunisia, such as a portion of the $1.3 billion given to Egypt (albeit tied to the Camp David accords). Despite budget cuts in many areas in the appropriations bill, there were some increases that were the result of effective lobbying. It was too bad that Tunisia does not have an effective champion in the U.S. Senate to assure its funding.
McInerney also pointed out a number of areas that Tunisia needs to address following the Sousse attack, and that it could address with assistance. Fighting terrorism should not entail a rolling back of civil liberties, for example. The new counterterrorism law includes an overly broad definition of counterterrorism that could be used to target nonviolent demonstrations, for example.  The new law also includes a very long period of time detainees can be held without access to a lawyer. Tunisia, now in a state of emergency, needs to ensure that that posture does not become permanent. There is also a law that may provide amnesty to those who financially gained from corruption under the authoritarian system. These developments are worrying from a transitional justice standpoint, and Tunisia needs outside engagement to help it keep its gains on track. (McInerney’s remarks are available by clicking on the image above to the right.)
Scott Mastic arrived late from a memorial service for Julija Belej Bakovic, who was part of the first team that the International Republic Institute, where he serves as Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), sent to Tunisia after the fall of Ben Ali. She had said that at that time, everyone was talking about young Tunisians and what they accomplished, but she reported that they were very disorganized, and that the labor union seems to have done most of the organizing. Tunisia had the same problem that her native Serbia had, of bringing young people into organizations and into the political system. Mastic went on to brief the audience on new and unreleased May-June 2015 polling data from Tunisia, which gave him “cautious optimism.” He said that Tunisians are not happy with the pace of progress in the economy and unemployment, and that government success seems to hinge on addressing economic issues. Tunisians do have an appetite to solve economic problems. They want entrepreneurship to be easier, investment in the south and interior to increase, more foreign business in Tunisia, more foreign trade, and more foreign factories. More Tunisians now want to work for business rather than for the government, a reversal of 2014 polling data in which Tunisians preferred government work.
Two major components of solving tensions in Tunisia are solving the disparity between coast and interior and strengthening local government, supported by the public, and neither of which has even begun in Tunisia. Where there has been investment, there is a significant lag time between projects and palpable impact on people’s lives. Decentralization gives an opportunity for more people to have a voice in government. People are not happy with their representatives in Tunisia, and they do want political empowerment. Decentralization will also help Tunisians address radicalization, which as has been said happens in clusters. Decentralization will also help cement democratic culture in Tunisia. IRI believes political parties are important, and key to all of the issues mentioned in the panel, especially because of the disconnect
 between people outside the capital and people in the capital. Lack of established connection between constituencies and their elected representatives is normal in new democracies, and parties in Tun
sia are still very weak in the interior of the country. Local elections may happen in a year, but the time to make decisions about how to make those elections meaningful is now, and not in a year. (Mastic’s remarks can be viewed by clicking on the image above to the left.)
CSID Director of Middle East and North Africa programsDr. William Lawrence moderated the event and gap filled on a number of late-breaking issues where invited participants had not provided certain information. He noted that the bulk of the proposed Senate cuts were to the security part of Tunisian assistance, which was particularly illogical given two large-scale terrorist attacks. Even though Tunisia was not at issue in the Senate mark-up, those in attendance needed to do their part to rescue Tunisia funding from the U.S. Senate’s partisan struggles. He drew parallels between Tunisia’s security and policing woes and American security moves after 9/11
and recent exposures of problems with policing, noting that U.S. has much to offer Tunisia including lessons learned from its own experience. He briefed the audience on CSID’s transitional justice programs in Tunisia, and how Tunisian security forces, unfortunately, still see security reform as a threat. For these reasons the security agenda and the reform agenda have to be closely linked, including an effort to work with security forces themselves to embrace needed reforms. He summarized the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) new report on Tunisian security released on the same day of this panel, which opens with a line describing Tunisian security forces as “dysfunctional.” Security forces need lots of technical assistance, but there also needs to be an effort to attenuate mutual fear between police and populace (as in parts of the U.S.) As noted in the ICG report, “fear of police” is not an effective or comprehensive counter strategy to terrorism. Lawrence also moderated the question and answer session which can be seen by clicking on the image above and to the right.

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