Government Faces Legacy and Aspirational Challenges
Perhaps it was too much to expect, that Tunisia could overturn a decades long autocratic state, create inclusive political space and a responsive and inclusive economic strategy, and fight off external security threats, all in ten years. Regardless, one thing is clear, the majority of Tunisians are committed to peeling back years of political and economic decay and restructuring their society to be more inclusive and equitable, but how?
There are many analyses of where Tunisia is headed – it even comes up during US wine tastings of Tunisia’s finest (another one of those pesky Muslim countries that grows and enjoys wine!). And there is consensus on the key issues, but the how to get there and who will have to make the sacrifices engender a great deal of debate.
As I noted in my recent blog on Morocco, forming a national strategy is a bit easier when you have a king who reminds his citizens about their obligations towards each other and responsibilities within the context of government serving the people. Yet, even King Mohammed VI has expressed frustration with officials and cultural luddites that see the past as the only guide to the future. And he is giving the Parliament, civil society organizations, and NGOs plenty of space to figure out how democracy will work in Morocco and the burdens of not delivering.
So it is with Tunisia. Everyone is rooting for its success, but it is still fighting past demons of inequitable political and economic empowerment, structural discrimination against women and youth, entrenched elite power networks, and lack of robust economic growth to generate badly needed employment. Among the recent reports of note was published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace authored by Maha Yahya, after extensive research in the country. The report came out before the most recent government shake-up so it is useful to compare the recommendations in the report with the latest policies espoused by the government.
The major concern expressed in the report was the “The spreading disillusionment and alienation of large swaths of Tunisia society and their burgeoning misgivings about their prospects for a democratic and stable future.” Both the political and economic spheres are characterized as out of touch with young people, beholden to elites tied to the old regime, not rigorous in developing inclusive strategies to promote prosperity in the inland areas, and lacking long-term strategies to ensure equitable participation in the political and economic life of the country.
Relying on various polling data, Ms. Yahya points out that in 2014, 50% of Tunisians point to corruption, especially in the health services and police, as widespread, and close to 70% believe that the government is not proactive in combating corruption.
Similarly, it is not surprising that 80% of those 35-49 believe that strong economic growth should be the country’s first priority. Less than 9% of rural youth and 31% of urban youth expressed any confidence in the political system, while more than 80% believe that their local imam and religious organizations are credible. This has serious consequences. “In the 2014 elections 80% of 18-24 year olds did not vote in the parliamentary elections and largely abstained from the presidential election.”
As Nabil Fahmy, former Foreign Minister of Egypt recently noted, “Domestic social and sectarian grievances are still very much a part of Tunisian politics. The Tunisian government must tread carefully, and it cannot assume that all of its citizens are satisfied with the new arrangements.”
The primary recommendation made in the Carnegie study is that “Tunisian political elites need to rebuild the bonds of trust between the citizens and their state, strengthen democratic institutions, and uphold the principles of equity and social justice enshrined in the constitution.”
Regardless of the overarching concern with border security and counterterrorism, the country needs to continue to build on the 2012 National Council of Social Dialogue to build “a common platform for dialogue on basic principles among political parties, civil society organizations, and the private sector, and for reflecting the basic concerns of Tunisian citizens.”
The government has committed to far-ranging economic and political reforms, which need to be defined and sequenced with special attention to addressing regional disparities. An innovation in the MENA that definitely has applications throughout the region is the country-wide use of technology to link state and citizen. While Jordan and others have instituted some e-government programs to promote transparency and communications, the Tunisian goal is more robust and has the potential to generate effective bridges between youth and decision-makers.
It was recently pointed out by a former government minister that the country is moving to equip its people with 21st century technology, for example, promising internet access throughout the country by 2020, but the government is narrowly focused on issued defined in the 20th century using laws and institutions based on 19th century or before models…not, he fears, the most effective equation for success.
Some hard facts…the global economy is undergoing traumatic transitions wherein two-thirds of many jobs will disappear, reflecting increased computer-driven capabilities; and all countries are searching for strategies to prepare market-relevant workers. Put building walls and threatening companies aside. The disruption of digital technologies is here to stay. Some countries will remain competitive with human capital as long as the costs are competitive with new technologies, and that won’t last long.
The former minister suggests three points of impact on countries. First, the widespread availability of Internet, either as a government policy or as a result of market forces, will diminish the isolation of rural areas and forge bonds for mobilization and action that can be used for many purposes. Secondly, digital education will provide equality of access not only within a country but to the world of global classrooms, changing the way we value and accredit education and skills acquisition. National education policies will of necessity need to incorporate these opportunities. Also, for many reasons, technology will lead to greater government transparency as administrations forgo paper and rely more on computer-based cashless transactions, hopefully reducing at least one channel for corruption. All of these will change the forms of government structure and services in the coming generation and require a 21st century constitution reflecting the digital ties between state and citizens.
As Tunisia struggles to implement the pledges of the new government, it faces tremendous entrenched interests, from political and economic elites to trade and other unions protecting their turf. Exhorting Tunisians to do more with less will not save the day in the short term. If and how Tunisia succeeds may point the way ahead for other MENA and African countries.
image from shutterstock.com