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Tunisia’s Historic Transformation Deserves U.S. Support

by Guest Author
April 4, 2014


Today, ahead of the Tunisian Prime Minister’s visit to the White House, we are pleased to have a guest blog from Ann Wyman. Ann is a Senior Advisor at Gatehouse Advisors in London, and a Senior Officer at AfricInvest, a Pan-African Private Equity Fund, based in Tunis.  She is also a member of the board of the Tunisian American Enterprise Fund.

Last weekend, my nine-year-old daughter’s homework assignment was to have her photo taken sitting atop Roman ruins. (Since we currently live minutes from Carthage, Tunisia, the logistics involved were thankfully less cumbersome than they might sound). The photo shoot was meant to help her class understand that the Tunisia they inhabit today is built on thousands of years of history, and has been influenced by many civilizations based well beyond its shores. Indeed, Tunisia’s rich past has been constructed with inspiration from Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Europeans, all mingling with an indigenous Berber culture.

Today, Tunisians are again building history. After a popular revolution in 2011 that saw the overthrow of more than two decades of dictatorship, the country has now adopted an admirable new constitution and managed a peaceful transfer of power to a technocratic government ahead of fresh elections, expected by year-end. In this transition phase, Tunisians are turning once more to their own history as well as looking outward for inspiration in their construction plans for a new brand of democracy in the Arab world—one that for now appears to be on a more stable path than other post-revolutionary countries in the region.

It is in this context that the U.S. relationship with Tunisia is taking on increased importance. Yesterday saw the launch of the first-ever U.S. Strategic Dialogue with Tunisia in Washington, and today Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa will make a historic visit to the White House to meet with President Obama. Discussions will center on potential areas of political, economic and security cooperation.

All of these fronts are important, and the work to be done is plentiful. The economic challenges facing Tunisia today are profound: Fiscal finances are deeply strained, youth unemployment—a root cause of revolution—remains stubbornly high, and security risks (and perceptions thereof) remain an important impediment to long-term investment. The risks around new elections, and campaign financing in their run-up, are particularly important given nascent democratic institutions.

There is much the United States can do. The provision of a $30 million sovereign loan guarantee, the creation of a $100 million Enterprise Fund, and small direct budget support have all provided much-needed assistance in recent years. Moreover, the State Department’s removal of its travel warning just last week is an important step toward generating confidence that Tunisia is open and safe for business and tourists alike.

But even larger direct economic support—at both the general budget level, and through more extensive technical assistance and educational support programs—is still required. Moreover, a reinvigoration of negotiations around trade agreements—under the current Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), and looking toward the possibility of a full-fledged Free Trade Agreement (FTA)—could provide incentives for economic and regulatory policy reforms, especially if agreements are well constructed, and take into account lessons learned from other arrangements in the region.

Greater cooperation to improve perceptible security—mostly notably in Tunisia’s major ports and airports which remain woefully under-protected—could also help to increase the confidence of investors, tourists and Tunisian citizens alike. And both countries would benefit from enhanced sharing of intelligence on extremists and their networks—many operating in Tunisia’s immediate neighborhood.

Finally, the importance of communications and messaging cannot be underestimated. Secretary Kerry’s invitation to Tunisian leadership and members of civil society to visit Washington is an important marker of visible U.S. support for Tunisia’s hard-won progress toward creating a fair, and uniquely Arab democracy. At a time of global turmoil, the United States needs success stories for its encouragement of pluralistic, reform-minded countries. Tunisia is one, and it deserves U.S. support.

When he returns to Tunisia, Prime Minister Jomaa will be able to spot those Roman ruins where my daughter sat last weekend as he lands at Carthage Airport. In the aftermath of his trip to Washington, I hope he’ll be thinking about how this next chapter in Tunisian history will be built, at least in part, with American support this time.


Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Tobe

    Ann, I enjoyed your article I found it interesting and very informative. If possible I would love to see the photo of Maya.

  • Posted by Ben Zwinkels

    Dear Ann, Thank you very much for this nice article. Tunisia is a fantastic country and you story will help to improve the reputation of this lovely country.



  • Posted by genevieve

    Many thanks for this sympathetic article. You known how we love Tunisia.
    Geneviève and Beya

  • Posted by Alexis de Pleshcoy

    Tunisia is a country to watch in the next decades, and hopefully everything goes for the best.
    It is also one pf the places where the EU and the US should really try hard to help in achieving success.
    It is very difficult to subscribe to the author’s benign view that Tunisia has been somehow a confluence of inspirations from “Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Europeans” (although not that important for the general argument).
    The destruction of Carthage by the Romans in the Third Punic war, when 450,000 people were killed and 55,000 were enslaved reminds of the violence of modern and contemporary warfare (not that Hannibal was any better in the 15 years he invaded Italy), which they witnessed during the Tunisia Campaign (close to 400,000 casualties). The European influence sounds positive, but in 1881 the French invaded the country and made it a protectorate (until it obtained independence from France in 1956.)
    The French influence is still very much present in the country (there were positive aspects of course) , which brings us to our time. 64% of the population speaks French (20% English).
    The EU is Tunisia’s first trading partner, for both exports and imports (around 70%), and there is an Association Agreement with the EU since 1995, and since 2008 is in a free trade area with the EU. The French President Francois Hollande has visited Tunisia, and stated a serious commitment in helping the country.
    So in theory Tunisia should be able to overcome “Fiscal finances are deeply strained, youth unemployment—a root cause of revolution—remains stubbornly high, and security risks (and perceptions thereof) remain an important impediment to long-term investment.”, as the author adequately states.
    However this is the global economy, where there are still 300 million people in China living on $2/day, where 600 million Indians are under 26 years of age, where the manufacturing wage appears to converge to somewhere around $2.50 hour so fixing a particular economy is difficult.
    This appears to be the case with France, where the National Front just gained more influence in the French elections. I could add the economic troubles for the many more EU countries, which will show the complexity of surviving in this new global economy.
    Even in this economic landscape, Tunisia deserves to get all the help the country can get (it is after all a 10 million people economy) so eventually is able to progress on its own feet. At one point the West must be able to point to a success in that part of the world; it will not be easy. The alternative, with ISIS not very far is not acceptable.

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