Outside observers frequently refer to Tunisia as democracy’s “best hope” in the Middle East—the likeliest case where the initial promises of the Arab Spring will be borne out. Of course, there are many challenges, including getting the economy running, drafting the new constitution, coping with some recent violence, and dealing with the emergence of the Salafis, a hard-line Islamist group. Still, Tunisia’s functioning state, largely successful and legitimate 2011 election for the National Assembly, politically neutral military, and relatively high level of economic development all seem to bode well for democracy’s chances there. If Tunisia is democracy’s best hope in the Arab region, then how is the international community supporting its democratic transition?
As Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy assistance based at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has noted, democracy promotion has both “high” and “low” policy elements. The high policies of democracy promotion—which are formulated in Washington and Brussels—generally involve diplomatic statements, economic sanctions and rewards, or even military intervention. The low policies of democracy promotion—more likely to be formulated on the ground overseas, far from Western capitals—generally involve the delivery of foreign aid programs to support democratic transition or democratic consolidation in other countries. The international community’s effort to support the democratic transition in Tunisia has involved both high and low policy components.
On the high policy side, both the United States and European governments have been strong rhetorical supporters of the Tunisian revolution. And their words, to some extent, have been backed up with financial action. The United States government, for example, gave a 100 million dollar cash transfer to the Tunisian government to pay down its debt earlier this year and will guarantee a 300-350 million dollar loan to Tunisia later this summer. Moreover, American assistance and cooperation with the Tunisian military have played a role in the maintenance of post-revolution stability and the country’s security sector reform process. European donors have also been key players. In addition to its commitments to the international financial institutions in Tunisia, the British government, for example, promised 170 million dollars to a new Arab Partnership fund to support political and economic reform in the Middle East, including in Tunisia.
Yet despite Western states’ stated desires to support democracy in Tunisia using these high policy instruments, not all of their biggest promises have been fulfilled. The best example of an unfulfilled promise to date is the Deauville Partnership, a pledge made by the G-8 leaders in September 2011 in France to provide 20 billion dollars in support to Egypt and Tunisia through 2013. That assistance has not, as of June 2012, yet come close to being delivered. Moreover, the Deauville Partnership’s mandate now seems to have been expanded to include Morocco, Jordan, and Libya, and its emphasis has been shifted away from financial commitments. The reasons have much to do with the global financial situation and donor countries’ tightened purse strings, especially as the Eurozone crisis rages on; as the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development put it bluntly in 2011, the Arab World “has chosen a bad time to revolt.”
At the same time, as the high-level diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Tunisia have been forged in Washington and various European capitals, the local offices of assorted international organizations are also developing strategies on the ground for supporting Tunisia’s democratic transition. Those efforts are part of what Carothers calls the low policy of democracy promotion. As he writes, “’Low policy’ is much quieter and less visible, and resides mostly in the democracy assistance programmes that operate day-in, day-out, in close to 100 countries. These programmes are often complemented by quiet diplomacy at the embassy level, with very little direction from the top. While there has been oscillation with respect to high policy, there’s been considerable continuity in low policy.”
The major international providers of democracy assistance in Tunisia are the European Union, various offices within the United States government (including MEPI and OTI), the United Nations Development Programme, and, to a lesser extent, various foreign embassies. Beyond those government players, many of the international NGOs in the professional field of democracy assistance—what I call the “democracy establishment”—now have offices in Tunisia. Those organizations include the Carter Center, ERIS, Freedom House, IFES, the International Republican Institute, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the National Democratic Institute, and Search for Common Ground. As international democracy assistance to Tunisia continues in the post-revolutionary era, we can expect even more organizations to open up offices.
The local offices of the foreign donors and international NGOs have had some scope for figuring out on their own what they think are the best ways to aid democracy in Tunisia, whether through small grants or in-kind donations to local NGOs. Thus, international democracy assistance programs happen simultaneously but not always in conjunction with higher-level diplomatic efforts. Why is that the case? In part, as I have argued elsewhere, it is because it is hard for donor governments to monitor democracy assistance programs far away and in other languages. Overseas offices also have some discretion in their programming choices because there is little consensus within most Western governments on where democracy promotion should fall among their foreign policy priorities, which gives organizations in the democracy establishment more flexibility and room to maneuver.
Given that situation, what do the international actors do in Tunisia under the umbrella of assisting democracy? I recently went to Tunis to find out. Many foreign-funded activities during 2011 supported the election and they will likely do so again when the next election (date currently unknown) takes place. International NGOs helped political parties craft their messages and campaigns (work that continues post-election), built the capacity of election officials, funded a media center for the election, and supported domestic groups that wanted to monitor the election, among other things. These are all typical parts of the international “toolkit” for a transitioning country. Beyond electoral assistance, international experts have provided technical advice and support for the writing of the new constitution. Moreover, since civil society organizations have rapidly multiplied after Ben Ali’s ouster, many organizations are new, lack capacity, and are poorly networked with each other. International organizations are trying to help Tunisian NGOs overcome those hurdles. As always, women’s groups and youth groups are a focus for the organizations in the democracy establishment.
Will the efforts pay off in terms of a more democratic Tunisia in the long run? The political situation in Tunis is, of course, fundamentally uncertain and prevents any firm predictions. Still, there is much to be optimistic about. On the low policy side of things, effective programs will require international donors to closely monitor the political situation in Tunisia as well as their grantees and to cut their partners some slack because change cannot be expected over night. So far, and thanks to the donor governments’ solid political will to help Tunisia’s transition, international organizations in Tunisia are doing a good job of recognizing that change is a long-term process—although donors may get soon impatient as the days since Ben Ali mount.
On the high policy side of things, international donors would do well to honor their financial commitments to help kick start Tunisia’s economy, which will be crucial for the country’s future. A recent IMF statement projected positive growth in Tunisia this year (2-3 percent). That figure could be worse, but it could also be better. Michael Miller, a political scientist at Australia National University, has convincing new research that shows that economic growth in democracies is a key factor that determines if other countries in the world democratize. In other words, Tunisia’s economy matters not only for its democratic future, but also for the future of other countries, in the Middle East and beyond. Therefore, for Tunisia to remain the region’s best hope for democracy, the international community’s contributions to help the country’s economy should remain a key component of their democracy promotion policies in Tunisia.