Tunisia presents an unprecedented opportunity to support a democratic transition in a post-authoritarian Arab state. But, as a recent report cautioned, that prospect is threatened by economic fragility resulting from lost tourist revenue and substantial capital flight.
“While the thirst for political reform is unquenchable, little has emerged about their attitude towards the economic reforms their countries desperately need,” an analyst notes. “That debate, when it comes, could be as wrenching as the political upheaval” – in Egypt as much as Tunisia:
That is because the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes, which ran their economies as rackets for a tight circle of kleptocrats and concessionaires, may have discredited the very idea of reform. That discredit is the greater insofar as Egypt and Tunisia were held up by bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as pioneers of economic reform in the region, while what Egyptians and Tunisians saw was cronyism and regime maintenance.
Similar concerns were expressed today at a Washington conference on Tunisia’s path to democratic and economic reform organized by the Center for International Private Enterprise.
The country had been “blessed” with a peaceful “exemplary revolution,” said Abdulwahab Alkebsi, CIPE’s regional director for Africa and the Middle East. But the reforms required to meet the hunger for jobs and dignity that sparked the revolt were threatened by a damaging dynamic of populist demands generating equally irresponsible government concessions, increasing subsidies and swelling already bloated public sector job rolls.
Radwan Masmoudi, a former exile and president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, had been thrilled and inspired to spend the last month in his liberated homeland, but he feared that economic instability could generate social unrest and potentially reverse democratic gains. A new Marshall Plan is needed to generate investment and consolidate democratic and economic reforms, he said.
[Or perhaps a huge infrastructure project like Destertec?]
The US and Europe should “take a lead in mobilizing resources so that democracy takes root in countries that eject authoritarian rulers,” says one analyst. “Call it a Marshall Plan if you like, but in any event the assistance must be on a scale equal to the challenge and the opportunity.”
The dramatic wave of protests across the Arab world is an unprecedented learning opportunity for questioning our assumptions and analyses, reviewing and resetting our understandings, said the National Endowment for Democracy‘s Laith Kubba.
The NED has been actively engaged in the region for longer than most, he told the CIPE event, employing a distinctive multi-sectoral approach to supporting democratic actors in labor movements, business and across civil society.
Tunisia’s revolution was sparked by a street vendor’s tragic self-immolation, but subsequently organized and politicized by the country’s labor unions. Unrest in other Arab states has been prompted and marshaled by other political forces, whether Libyan lawyers, Egyptian youth activists or Yemeni Islamists.
“The trigger varies, but the dynamics are the same,” said Kubba, the NED’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Business cannot be separated from a country’s political culture, but the private sector has been off the pace when its contribution is vital to ensuring a democratic transition in Tunisia and, therefore, across the region.
Wary of corruption and entrapment, entrepreneurs had largely shunned politics under Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, said Nazeh Ben Ammar, president of the Tunisian American Chamber of Commerce. But business owners did belatedly support the revolution and now accept the need to become better organized in articulating private sector demands while pressing for market-friendly reforms.