Posted by David Curtis on July 28, 2015 in Blog

Tunisia_protest.jpgIs Tunisia the last hope for democracy after the uprisings of 2011? If indeed there is hope, especially in the wake of recent and appalling terrorism, the United States must play an integral role in supporting the democratic transition. Earlier this month, a group assembled on the hill and alerted congressmen of the best ways to assist Tunisia’s democracy, which is still in its delicate infancy.

Witnesses at a July 14th Congressional Subcommittee Hearing, titled “Tunisia’s Fragile Democratic Transition,” were in almost complete agreement about how to bolster prospects for democratic success in the Maghreb country. Their general consensus is both revealing and refreshing, considering the diverse backgrounds of panelists: representatives from both the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute spoke in harmony on how the U.S. can augment the chances for a Tunisian triumph.

Each witness in turn made a point of stressing the necessity to include Tunisia’s youth in the democratic process. Young people are unemployed at a staggering rate in Tunisia, and this problem can lead to youth’s disillusionment with democracy. Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy spoke of young Tunisians whose desire to join extremist groups are oftentimes not ideological at all; rather, groups like ISIL can offer young people payments that they send home to their families (once a young man joins an extremist group, however, the likelihood of becoming enamored with the ideology is amplified). It is therefore imperative that the U.S. buttress the country’s civil society groups, many of which seek to introduce Tunisian youth to the political process and to employment.  

All of the witnesses supported the Obama Administration’s request to double last year’s level of assistance to Tunisia. But their message would fall on deaf ears: the very next day, the Senate defied the Administration and approved of a much-diminished aid package. Still, only 16% of the total aid is devoted to helping Tunisia govern itself justly and democratically; according to the panelists, a much greater portion must be allocated for this specific purpose. Policies implemented by Tunisia’s former authoritarian regime discourage foreign investment and allow for a proliferation of crony capitalism. Combating economic malfeasance and all forms of corruption is absolutely critical.

To the cynical question from a Congressman about the percentage of Tunisians who are terrorists, the panelists each calmly expressed that the amount is almost certainly less than one percent of the population. Speaking after the hearing, Mr. Zelin expressed that although it has widely been reported that Tunisia has sent more foreign fighters to ISIL than any other country, this is an inaccurate representation: aside from the aforementioned economic incentives, Tunisia is a democracy where people can move about freely – imagine how many “foreign fighters” Saudi Arabia would produce if it were a free country, Zelin reflected. He added that in Tunisia, extremism is almost universally frowned upon, so rather than manifesting itself locally, those with radical ideas must find other places to spout their hate.

A Tunisian American woman in attendance was mostly satisfied with the testimony from the panelists, but absolutely disgusted with the questions from some members of Congress. This disparity sadly highlights the continued need to combat stereotypes that Americans – even those in power, unfortunately – still have about Arabs and Arab Americans.

David Curtis is an intern with the Arab American Institute