Claire Spencer
Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative
Supporting Tunisia’s burgeoning democracy now will cost considerably less than confronting another security failure on its southern borders.
(L to R) Secretary General of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) Houcine Abbassi, President of the Tunisian employers union (UTICA) Wided Bouchamaoui, President of the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) Abdessattar ben Moussa and Tunisian lawyer Fa(L to R) Secretary General of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) Houcine Abbassi, President of the Tunisian employers union (UTICA) Wided Bouchamaoui, President of the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) Abdessattar ben Moussa and Tunisian lawyer Fadhel Mahfoudh. Photo by Getty Images.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Tunisian quartet of civil society organizations little known outside North Africa should be an encouragement to all Tunisians to continue on the path of consensus-building for which the National Dialogue Quartet’s actions in 2013 are now being internationally recognized. 2015 has been a challenging year for Tunisia, with two major terrorist attacks (at the Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis in March, and at a beach resort in Sousse in June) compounded by a worrying new trend of unexplained assassination attempts on public figures over the past two weeks, involving a TV journalist, who has left Tunisia allegedly under threat, and a serving parliamentarian from the ruling coalition whose car came under fire the day before the Peace Prize was awarded.

Perhaps more troubling than the still uncertain security landscape is that the bedrock of future stability for wider Tunisian society, namely sustained economic growth and job creation, is now wavering. This year’s summer tourist trade, representing 400,000 local jobs, was decimated following the death of 38 tourists, the majority of whom were British, in the Sousse attack at the onset of the high season. Amidst continuing workers’ protests in Tunisia’s main export industry of phosphate, the minister of finance, Slim Chaker, recently readjusted this year’s projected growth rate down to 1 per cent from the still slow 2.3 per cent of GDP growth of 2014; the current account deficit will reach 8.5 per cent of GDP by the end of 2015. In the first two quarters of 2015, foreign direct investment showed signs of recovering, but has stalled now that Tunisia is officially in recession.

Momentum of reform

Tunisians have always argued that the multifaceted disruptions they have faced since 2011 will take time for them to adjust to, and that successive governments still need to redress a backlog of infrastructural development and the disproportionately high levels of graduate unemployment inflicted by the latter years of the deposed Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali presidency. The growth of trust in a society still haunted by fears of the return of a Ben Ali-era  ‘deep state’, along with the newer threats of armed jihadism in their midst, has been equally slow to emerge. The political compromises engineered by  the National Dialogue Quartet, comprised of the national employers’ union, UTICA, the trades union congress, UGTT, together with the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) and Bar Association, came at a critical moment in the late summer of 2013, when a previous wave of political assassinations and the increasingly heated stand-off between the then ruling coalition Islamist party Ennahda and Tunisia’s secular elites threatened to derail the constitutional process.

The main achievement of the spontaneously-created and self-styled National Dialogue Quartet was to succeed in putting both the constitution and subsequent election process back on track. From outside, the unseating of Egypt’s then-president Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military in July 2013 also alerted  Tunisians to how abruptly their democratic experiment might be curtailed if political divisions became as entrenched as they had in Egypt.

For now, the momentum of reform and democratic consolidation requires perhaps even more civic vigilance than two years ago. Since this year’s terrorist attacks, Tunisia’s international partners have focused on assisting the Tunisian security services to be better equipped to guard against future attacks. With the future of neighbouring Libya still in the balance, and incursions of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sympathizers within Tunisia already well-charted, the hard end of the security agenda continues to be a priority. Equally important, however, is the speeding up of ‘soft security’ measures to strengthen the resilience of mainstream Tunisian society against the fragility of the current regional environment. Much of the financial assistance promised to Tunisia from outside has failed to materialize at the levels required to address youth unemployment and the potential radicalization of communities excluded from Tunisia’s commercial and economic hubs.

The UGTT and UTICA have also been engaged in their own stand-off in recent weeks over workers’ pay and conditions at a time when even the most prosperous of businesses have struggled to maintain their profitability. A recent proposal to enact an ‘economic reconciliation’ law has been interpreted as giving protection to business interests which thrived under the previous regime, while the commission empowered to promote transitional justice has been mired in accusations about the transparency of its own expenditure and targets for investigation.

Europe’s responsibility

While the outside world still applauds Tunisia’s progress, there are considerable risks in neglecting the details of what is still needed to consolidate these achievements for the next generation of Tunisians. The reluctance of the international community to interfere in the internal affairs of this new democracy runs counter to what senior Tunisians keep requesting: namely, considerably more direct and indirect investment in making the Tunisian economy sustainable over the longer term.

Responsibility for this lies more than ever with Europe: its own recession has badly affected markets for Tunisian exports since 2008. Making up the shortfalls should now be conceived of as in Europe’s own interest. Fulfilling the promises of financial support made in 2011 will cost considerably less in direct outlays than confronting a security failure on its southern borders should Europe’s  much-vaunted solidarity with Tunisia’s democracy fail to take concrete form soon.

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