Economic assistance alone won’t secure Tunisia’s transition

TUNISIA UGTTSince the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings, a debate has emerged in Washington concerning the focus on development assistance in response to citizen demands for economic advancement and more accountable governance, notes Scott Mastic, the director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute. Advocates of economic assistance argue that popular demands for jobs and an improved quality of life is what drove citizens to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond; therefore, U.S. policy should prioritize programs supporting economic stability and growth, he writes for the Fikra Forum.

A new poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI) shows that Tunisian citizens directly tie perceptions of their economic situation to the political transition’s progress, revealing an important linkage between both factors. This data suggests that progress on the political track is crucial to effectively managing the public’s mood about the state of the economy. At the start of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, initial public euphoria was high with 79 percent indicating that the country was headed in the right direction. However, by October 2013, with little to show in the way of progress in the country’s political transition, that number flipped to 79 percent saying that Tunisia was moving in the wrong direction.

In this most recent poll, IRI’s first since Tunisia’s formation of a caretaker technocratic government and passage of a new constitution, numbers have again shifted toward the positive (right direction up 31 points). The key indicator that changed between the October 2013 and February 2014 surveys was future economic expectations. In asking people what they expect about their household financial situation in the next year, the February survey revealed a 18 point positive shift in the number of people saying that they expect it to get either somewhat better (37 to 51 percent) or much better (7 to 11 percent).

Trends in IRI polling data in Tunisia and elsewhere suggest that the immediate post-election period will see another positive leap in both public attitudes and expectations. The trends underscore the importance of a U.S. policy that provides economic assistance, but also one that helps the current government and next government achieve success by effectively managing expectations and delivering on core democratic governance principles……


Scott Mastic is the director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.


UGTT key to Tunisia’s ‘historic step toward democracy’

TUNISIA UGTTWhat has made Tunisia an exception compared to other severely tested Arab Spring countries? In other words, what has allowed Tunisia to avoid replicating the Egyptian scenario and to instead lay down the foundations of consensual legitimacy? asks Mohamed Kerrou, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center specializing in Islam and civil society in Tunisia and the Middle East.

Tunisia’s consensus was only possible thanks to an inclusive national dialogue brokered by the “Quartet”—an alliance between the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the employers’ union, the Tunisian Bar Association, and the country’s Human Rights League, he writes for the Carnegie Endowment. A multitude of factors combined to make this dialogue a success despite Tunisia’s bumpy democratic transition, which, far from being completed, remains to be consolidated. In particular, four key factors explain the historic compromise reached in Tunisia: the army’s professional and apolitical status, the lessons learned from the Egyptian transition, civil society’s rallying behind the UGTT-led Quartet, and the conciliatory and decisive role played by political leaders.

Civil Society Activism: The General Union of Tunisian Workers

If Tamarod [the anti-Islamist (Rebel) Movement] had a different outcome in Tunisia than in Egypt, it is mainly due to Tunisia’s competing and better structured political forces within civil society. In recent years, Tunisia’s deeply rooted civil society has reinvigorated its resistance first to the tyranny of Ben Ali and, after the 2011 revolution, to the ruling Troika government, which tended to reproduce the same system of government as Ben Ali’s without reinstating a moral and political authority. A key pillar of Tunisian civil society is the country’s labor union, the UGTT. 

With a role tantamount to that of the army in Egypt, the UGTT derives its strength from its history and organizational structure. After its inception in the aftermath of World War II, the UGTT joined forces with the national movement and emerged as a political player. 

tunisia_ugtt(1)Shortly after Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the country’s hegemonic ruling party instituted one-party rule, claiming it was the only guarantee of national unity. Throughout the ensuing decades of partisan and autocratic rule, the UGTT has been a haven for members of the opposition, a platform where they can have their voices heard, claim their rights, and learn democracy. 

Far from being just a workers’ organization, the UGTT is an all-embracing body open to all professionals, be they teachers, doctors, or laborers, among others. It unites the poor segments of society as well as the middle classes, which together make up a significant portion of Tunisia’s population—the UGTT represents 1 million unionists out of a total population of more than 10 million people. A champion of economic and corporatist demands that serve different occupations and professions, the UGTT acts as the link between state and society. It is both a lobbying group and a grassroots organization that is more inclined toward dialogue than confrontation. 

Since the revolution, as Tunisia’s most powerful civil society organization, the UGTT opposed the Troika government without seeking to present itself as an alternative or to fight the ruling power. This opposition continued in spite of attacks on UGTT headquarters and supporters by the pro-Ennahda League for the Protection of the Revolution, which is comprised of groups of Salafists who have engaged in various violent incidents in Tunisia since 2011. 

The union’s leadership remains nonpartisan, but its base brings together people of all political stripes, including Destourians, Arab nationalists, leftists, and Islamists. The UGTT serves as a unifying organization that speaks on behalf of the masses, seeks to remain independent from political regimes, and champions social justice and freedom—key requirements of the anti-Troika revolution it has spearheaded despite its national leadership’s political alignment with the old regime.

In early 2013, the UGTT proposed a national dialogue as a means to resolve Tunisia’s domestic economic and political crises. On the economic front, the country was experiencing price hikes, inflation, a budget deficit, public debt, and a downturn in investments—all signs of crisis. The political challenges were reflected in the rise of violence and instability and in the people’s lack of confidence in their inexperienced rulers, many of whom made partisan-based public service appointments. 

Motivated by political nepotism and social solidarity, these appointments undermined the authorities’ credibility and saddled the public state budget with additional wage-related expenditures. In addition, instability continued unabated under the Troika. Terrorism became increasingly frequent in Mount Chaambi and in urban peripheral areas following the assassinations of three political opposition leaders—Mohamed Lotfi Nagdh in October 2012, Chokri Belaid in February 2013, and Mohamed Brahmi in July 2013—reportedly by Salafi jihadists. 

Against this backdrop of crises and tension, the UGTT played a decisive role in brokering Tunisia’s historic compromise. It revived dialogue and masterfully combined forces, for the first time in its history, with the employers’ union, forming an influential counterbalance to the Troika government’s attempts to monopolize power. This alliance was dictated by the economic crisis, which was harming workers and employers alike, and by the will of the UGTT’s leaders to salvage the country from looming disaster. 

By allying themselves with two other associations known for their track records and symbolic weight, the Tunisian Bar Association (which had openly supported the uprising) and Tunisia’s Human Rights League, which became the first such body in the Arab world upon its establishment in 1977, the workers’ and employers unions’ established political balance, forcing the Troika government to negotiate. The Quartet managed to narrow differences and wipe out domestic political polarization between the Troika, on the one hand, and the secular opposition—rallying behind the Nidaa Tounes party, the Popular Front, and other groups within the secular opposition alliance known as the National Salvation Front—on the other hand.


After Ennahda: Tunisia’s Struggle for Political Pluralism

tunisia_ugtt(1)Tunisians have every right to be proud that their country’s political transition remains on track. But major security, economic, and political challenges remain, according to a new analysis.

Tunisia will need substantial international assistance to solve these problems, and there is an appetite among Tunisian political actors for greater U.S. engagement since ensuring a successful transition will advance U.S. interests and values in the region, according to Tunisia’s Struggle for Political Pluralism After Ennahda, a new report from the Center for American Progress:

Tunisia’s leading political forces have so far managed to avoid direct confrontation, but deep distrust and substantial disagreements over its future persist between Ennahda and the country’s non-Islamists, say Hardin Lang, Mokhtar Awad, Peter Juul, and Brian Katulis, the report’s authors.

The Salafi community, which has a small but active wing of young extremist men, poses a challenge not just to Ennahda but to Tunisia as a whole. To better assess these divisions, the Center for American Progress conducted field research in Tunisia through in-depth interviews with the leadership of Ennahda; members of the Salafi community; representatives of country’s main umbrella non-Islamist party, Nidaa Tunis; and several independent political analysts.

This report provides a snapshot of Tunisia’s political transition around the time of the third anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution. It examines the main Islamist and non-Islamist forces, the tensions between them, and the implications for Tunisia’s continued transition, with a focus on Ennahda as the pivotal actor of the past two years. The report takes stock of the main obstacles confronting Tunisia’s democratic transition, identifies the major trends in the Salafi community, assesses the state of Ennahda-Salafi relations, and analyzes the non-Islamist opposition. It concludes with suggested recommendations for U.S. policymakers. In brief, the report’s key findings include:

  • Tunisia faces continued challenges in its political transition. Despite the agreement on the constitution, the economic and security challenges facing Tunisia’s new political order are daunting. A caretaker government with limited power and unproven political legitimacy is charged with producing results for a Tunisian public impatient for tangible improvements in daily life. Substantive and deep reconciliation between Islamist and non-Islamist political forces remains elusive.
  • Ennahda is focused on getting its own house in order. The abrupt transition from exile and prison to political office left Ennahda little time to build internal strategic consensus. Historical divisions have become more pronounced as the Ennahda rank and file struggle to understand the party leadership’s decisions over the past year to voluntarily surrender control of the government and support a constitution that makes no reference to Sharia. Bridging these internal divides and building cohesion will be a major focus for Ennahda going forward.
  • Ennahda is leaving office, not power. Ennahda remains the most powerful bloc in the National Constituent Assembly with 90 seats out of 217 seats. Ennahda maintains a relatively robust election infrastructure, which it is mobilizing for the elections later this year. The leadership sees a natural role for the movement in parliamentary opposition. Most observers consider Ennahda well positioned to capture the second-largest block of votes in the next election, and the Islamist movement will likely remain a significant political force.
  • The struggle over the role of religion in Tunisia’s transition continues. Ennahda’s decision to back away from the inclusion of Sharia in the constitution paved the way for a final agreement, but many in Ennahda and the broader Islamist camp are unhappy with the result and are likely to press for a different outcome in the next stages of Tunisia’s transition. Ennahda may now look to pass legislation in parliament on key religious issues that they could not write into the constitution.
  • Salafi frustration is on the rise. Salafis appear unified in their frustration and disdain for the path of conciliation that Ennahda chose regarding Sharia law in the constitution and handing over power to a technocratic government. Nonviolent Salafi activists consider Ennahda weak-willed and are sympathetic to their Salafi jihadi counterparts. If their views are reflective of the wider Salafi community, a more militant Salafi current may be on the rise with Ennahda in its crosshairs.
  • Tunisia’s ascendant non-Islamists are prone to fracturing. Tunisia’s non-Islamist political parties and organizations are unified in opposition to the country’s Islamists under the banner of Nidaa Tunis. However, there is little else holding this coalition together. Constituent parties and individual members are at odds on policy matters and vocal in their suspicion of each other. There are signs that the coalition is already beginning to fracture.
  • The state bureaucracy and civil service remain a potential flashpoint. Ennahda appointments to key government ministries were part of a strategy to gain influence over the civil service. Non-Islamists and some civil servants saw the appointments as an effort to Islamize the state and may seek to purge those who remain. This issue could become the next front in the standoff between non-Islamists and Ennahda.Washington should consider taking the following steps in order to help consolidate Tunisia’s continued democratic transition:
  • Enhance U.S. diplomatic engagement. The United States should recognize the recent accomplishments of Tunisia’s transition through the establishment of a strategic dialogue on the occasion of Tunisian Prime Minister Jomaa’s visit to Washington this month. The United States should continue to build diplomatic momentum by establishing a framework and benchmarks for eventually elevating this dialogue to a strategic partnership. On the ground, U.S. diplomats should seek to broaden and deepen the dialogue through political and civil society outreach and economic statecraft. Support should be provided to ensure that Tunisia can hold the next round of elections before the end of 2014.
  • Mobilize economic assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors. The United States should mobilize donors around a shared plan to shore up the Tunisian economy, building on the $1.7 billion in aid recently unlocked by the international financial institutions, or IFIs. The United States should bolster its own bilateral economic assistance while coordinating with France and the Gulf states to deepen their engagement. The United States should also signal its intent to pursue a free trade agreement with Tunisia, while encouraging the European Union to do the same.
  • Bolster U.S assistance to help combat extremist violence. The United States should review the level of support it provides to the Tunisian military and security services in their efforts to combat extremist violence. Additional U.S. security assistance could include equipment, joint military exercises, activities of the U.S.-Tunisian Joint Military Commission, and resources to better protect and manage Tunisia’s borders.
  • Increase support to security and justice sector reform. The United States, together with its EU partners, should engage the Tunisian government to design and implement a comprehensive program to professionalize the country’s security and justice sectors and to bring these institutions under the control of Tunisia’s elected officials. The United States should increase its financial commitment to this effort beyond the $24 million so far provided to the Tunisian Interior Ministry.RTWT

    Hardin Lang is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Mokhtar Awad is a Research Associate at the Center. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center. Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center.

As Tunisia takes on militants, labor helped forge political settlement

tunisia_ugtt(1)The first to cast off a dictator and herald the Arab Spring uprisings, Tunisia has been dealing with political unrest and terrorism from those who hoped to establish a Muslim theocracy, Sarah Lynch writes for USA Today:

Yet this country seems intent on not letting go of the fledgling democracy that came out of its Jasmine Revolution, to date perhaps the most successful of the Arab Spring. The protest movement that began with a simple act — a desperate fruit vendor set himself on fire in December 2010 — and gave rise to uprisings across the country that led to the ouster of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

The country has developed significant counterterrorism forces that have been given the means to fight back, say analysts. And the government is infiltrating the once-sacrosanct haven of the mosque to root out imams accused of inciting violence….. By far most here believe the greatest challenge now to a peaceful future is the defeat of militant ideology.

“I would describe the overall sweep as a stunning success for the first phase of the crackdown,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

But without the muscular involvement of a powerful labor union, it is unlikely that Tunisia’s remarkable political settlement would have come about, says Carnegie Endowment analyst Sarah Chayes:

Explanations in the West for this Tunisian exception have emphasized the country’s penchant for consensus in general, and the conciliatory nature of the Islamist party in particular. “The Ennahda Movement made many concessions and agreed to relinquish control of the government in order to preserve genuine consensus,” reads the approving account of Ghannouchi’s remarks at a roundtable held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in February.1

“And yet, without the muscular involvement of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) —perhaps the only organization whose power and legitimacy rival the Islamists’—it is unlikely that Tunisia’s remarkable political settlement would have come about,” Chayes contends.

“The UGTT and other key institutions, the talent and tenacity of a few individuals, and several fortuitous events combined to drive the process. It was this convergence that compelled inexperienced and sometimes bitter and refractory politicians to bridge the divides.”

Tunisia has had an easier transition to democracy because it has assets other countries lack, analysts suggest.

The population is wealthier and more educated than other countries in the region and women are more emancipated, said Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And while the military backed the revolution, it made space for civilian rule and did not involve itself in politics — vastly different from Egypt where the military governed after Hosni Mubarak’s fall and then forced then-President Mohamed Morsi out of power last summer.

“Tunisia now has set the stage for greater political stability,” said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Westerners, while acknowledging the persistence and ultimate flexibility of Tunisian political actors in reaching consensus, should not draw the wrong lesson from this remarkable story, says Carnegie’s Chayes:

As they think about how Tunisia’s experience might usefully be applied to other contexts, they should be sure to give appropriate weight to the mediating role of powerful and legitimate external institutions. After all, as LTDH Vice President Ali Ziddini puts it, “just as our revolution was a model, we want our National Dialogue to be a model for other countries.”


World Bank study details crony-capitalism of former Tunisian leaders

tunis-flagTunisia’s former regime used existing regulations and created new ones to benefit family members and those close to the regime. Regulations were manipulated to such an extent that by the end of 2010 this group of privileged insiders was capturing over 21 percent of all private sector profits in the country, according to a new study from researchers at the World Bank Group.

All in the Family, State Capture in Tunisia was published today as a World Bank Policy Research Working Paper:

The authors compiled a unique data set of 220 Ben Ali connected firms, as identified by the confiscation commission, created shortly after the 2011 uprising, to identify and confiscate assets belonging to the inner clan of former President Ben Ali:

The analysis from the confiscation commission data demonstrates that the firms studied were closely connected to the family of the former president. The analysis of firm level data with the decrees signed by the former president over a 17 year period shows that the legislation often served to carve out and protect clan interests from competition. The evidence found 25 decrees issued during the period introducing new authorization requirements in 45 different sectors and new foreign direct investment (FDI) restrictions in 28 sectors. This resulted in over one fifth of all private sector profits accruing to connected firms.

This study provides compelling confirmation that the former regime benefited from crony-capitalism,” said Bob Rijkers, PhD, researcher at the World Bank Research Department and the study’s lead author. “We show that interventionist industrial policy became captured by the family of the president and de facto became a smokescreen for extraction of rents. In fact the evidence suggests that the State allowed capture of a significant part of the private sector to be appropriated for the regime’s own rent-seeking by ‘ring-fencing’ family-connected companies from regulations or giving special advantages to those firms.  More perniciously, we also found evidence that the regulations themselves were in fact being adjusted in function of personal interests and corruption.”

The study’s authors explain that while the regime has left, the regulatory structure it created remains largely unchanged.

The problem of crony-capitalism is not just about Ben Ali and his clan–rather it remains one of the key development challenges facing Tunisia today,” says Antonio Nucifora, PhD, World Bank Lead Economist for  the Middle East and North Africa region. Three years after the revolution the economic system which existed under Ben Ali has not been changed significantly.  With the revolution Tunisians have got free of ex-President Ben Ali and the worst of corruption, but the economic policies remain largely intact and prone to abuse. This policy infrastructure inherited from the Ben Ali era perpetuates social exclusion and invites corruption.”