Posted by Tess Waggoner on September 13, 2019 in Blog

On September 13, 2019, AAIF hosted a congressional briefing sponsored by Representative Betty McCollum’s office, entitled, Tunisia at a Crossroads: Balancing Political Stability and Economic Prosperity. The briefing was an opportunity to discuss the latest political developments in Tunisia in the aftermath of the passing of President Caid-Essebi, the upcoming presidential elections and their potential repercussions on the stability of the country.  The briefing was organized as part of the U.S. experiential learning trip of the inaugural cohort of the inaugural Tunisian cohort of the U.S. – MENA Experiential Partnership – a year-long, hands-on good governance learning exchange between American and Tunisian public officials, supported by the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). 

The Honorable Imen Karoui a Councilwoman from Sfax, and the Honorable Sami Khalfallah, Councilman from Dar Chaabane El Fehri, served as panelists in the briefing on behalf of their cohort. Both Tunisian officials were elected as part of Tunisia’s historic 2018 democratic elections, which ushered-in the first generation of democratically elected officials at the municipal and city level. The officials shared their success stories of democratic transition thus far and stressed the need to remain diligent about protecting citizen rights and strengthening democratic institutions. 

Mr. Khalfallah spoke about his positive experience in the U.S. – MENA Experiential Partnership and highlighted the need for more US-Tunisian exchange programs to continue to reinforce US-Tunisian relations at the grassroots and local levels, saying, 

“The biggest value-added of the U.S.-MENA Experiential Partnership is its focus on empowering local governance. For a nascent democracy like Tunisia, that’s where we need the greatest investment and strengthening.”

Mrs. Karoui emphasized the need to create economic opportunities and to support the ongoing decentralization effort, in order to empower local governance and strengthen governmental accountability to citizens.   

Dr. Rita Stephan, Director of the U.S. State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, echoed Mrs. Karoui’s sentiment by stressing the role that U.S. foreign assistance, coupled with private sector investment, can play in boosting economic prosperity for emerging democracies like Tunisia. “Democracy without economic advancement really cannot go forward successfully. Economic wellbeing is very important for a budding democracy,”said Dr. Stephan. She continued, 

“Our U.S.-MENA Experiential Partnership is a prime example of the importance of working locally to champion a more inclusive, participatory governance, with an eye on boosting local economic growth through private-public partnerships, and on decentralization efforts to give municipalities and cities greater autonomy in decision-making.” 

Dr. Daniel Brumberg, Professor in Government and Co-Director of the Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown Universityprovided his diagnosis of the key challenges facing Tunisiaemphasizing the critical role a growing economy will have in maintaining political stability, especially in light of the high unemployment rate amongst disenfranchised youthDr. Brumberg stressed that as long as, “poverty and mass unemployment prevail. The result is a lethal mix of desperation, social marginalization, and apathy toward the formal political system. […] Under these polarizing conditions, what is needed is a Tunisian leader who has the experience, integrity, and trust to rise above the political fray,” said Dr. Brumberg. 

Speculating on the potential outcomes ahead of the presidential elections, one of U.S.-MENA Experiential Partnership peers reminded us that we don’t know who will be the next president of Tunisia until Sunday’s elections. That in itself is significant. That’s what having a true democracy has made possible: the people’s will.”