Democracy Lab

How the U.S. Can Help North Africa's Democracy Champion

Tunisia has made it farther down the road to democracy than any other Arab Spring country. That means that it deserves hands-on support from the West -- sooner rather than later.

On April 4, Tunisia's Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa will meet with President Obama during an official visit to Washington, and will kick off the first session of the Tunisian-American strategic dialogue. Tunisia has a population of just 10 million and little in the way of natural resources, yet it matters enormously. It is the only Arab Spring country that has so far managed to forge a new political future through a consensus-driven process. In this respect, Tunisia is a vital demonstration case for the rest of the Arab world. Its new landmark constitution, emphasizing freedom, equality, and rule of law, is a significant milestone.

Still, the road ahead for Tunisia is long and arduous. Good neighbors -- including economic partners and political-military alliances -- can and should help fragile democracies succeed through tough times. While both the United States and the European Union have supported Tunisia's transition, their promises of assistance have outstripped what's been delivered. Both need to do more at this important inflection point to ensure that Tunisia builds on the gains it has made. Here are a few recommendations for measures that Washington can take -- in coordination with the European Union -- to help Tunisia reach its goals:

1. Collaborate with European partners to facilitate high-return infrastructure investments that can help jump-start Tunisia's economy and provide jobs.

More than three years after Tunisia set off the Arab Spring, national polls demonstrate that Tunisians continue to view the economy as the country's biggest challenges. Tunisia today faces a tough macroeconomic picture: an unsustainable budget deficit, a bloated public sector, stagnating employment, and low growth rates. Though its economic future is brightening -- with a new constitution, a legitimate government, and the second tranche of a $1.7 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund -- Tunisia now needs to improve productivity levels to remain competitive. This requires regulatory and tax changes, and infrastructure improvements in roads, water, electricity, and information technology, especially in the impoverished interior areas of the country.

President Obama has requested a mere $30 million in economic assistance for Tunisia next year, most of which will go to the Tunisian-American Enterprise Fund to stimulate small and medium enterprise development -- a laudable approach, but one that won't have any appreciable economic impact for years to come. To help jump start the economy and job creation, the United States should evaluate "shovel ready" infrastructure investments that will boost competitiveness. It has already allocated several million dollars for IT investments, such as helping to improve high-speed internet access. Now, it should evaluate other high-return infrastructure investments such as much-needed water and waste treatment systems.

2. Deepen trade and investment relations and increase market access for Tunisian producers, including in agriculture.

The benefits for a transitioning country of tighter economic integration with a "good neighbor" go well beyond increased trade (as Mexico's experience with NAFTA and Poland's experience with EU ascension attest). The process can offer powerful incentives to promote rule of law, anti-corruption practices, transparency, and tax and regulatory code reform, as well as consolidating democracy. The potential for increased trade between the United States and Tunisia is significant, and the process of negotiating some sort of trade agreement could amplify many of the positive reforms already being discussed as a part of the EU's Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Washington's current antipathy to free trade agreements unfortunately makes one with Tunisia a non-starter. Instead, the United States should work to improve trade and investment possibilities by deepening the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) which sets the strategic framework for discussing these issues.

Included in those discussions should be the prospect of greater trade and investment in agribusiness. Farming remains a primary industry and source of employment in the interior, so improving agricultural productivity is imperative. The EU's European Neighborhood Program for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD), which aims to improve agricultural productivity, is a good start. But the funding for this program has been limited, and it is set to wrap up this summer. Tunisia needs a more sustained, better-funded effort to help farmers move into higher value-added agricultural products and new markets. Opening the giant American market to new agricultural imports is always politically tricky. But given the urgent need to address high unemployment in Tunisia, particularly in rural areas, greater market access is worth pursuing.

The United States and European Union should use their economic leverage of investment and market access to help reformers create a more level playing field that can accelerate growth and job creation. As a recent World Bank report documented, the prior regime and its cronies manipulated Tunisia's investment laws so that they could dominate the private sector. By 2010, ex-dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his clan had cornered more than 20 percent of all private sector profits. Although Ben Ali is gone, his skewed investment restrictions remain in place, enriching a new generation of entrenched elites. Through the TIFA process, the United States should push to reduce the market entry barriers that privileged Ben Ali and his cronies, reduced competition and hurt consumers.

3. Encourage Tunisia to pursue greater intra-regional trade.

North Africa generally, and the Maghreb countries in particular, have one of the lowest levels of intra-regional trade in the world, despite numerous attempts foster it. Political tensions have resulted in structural trade barriers deeply resistant to change. This is a huge missed opportunity. Tunisia should position itself as a relatively stable gateway not only to its oil-rich neighbors, but also to the high-growth markets of sub-Saharan Africa. The United States and Europe should promote that idea by bringing trade delegations to meet not only with leading North African businesses, but also with sub-Saharan executives in Tunisia.

4. Scale up efforts to reduce youth unemployment.

Increased trade and investment should better position Tunisia to address one of its most pressing issues: high levels of youth unemployment. With companies in Tunisia having trouble finding the skills and talent they need, there have been a myriad of programs since the revolution to address the supply side of Tunisia's unemployment challenge. Through its Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the U.S. State Department has funded entrepreneurship and workforce readiness programs; the Washington-based North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO), meanwhile, has focused on improving the entrepreneurial ecosystem for youth through mentoring. While these and other initiatives show promise, none has yet achieved scale and most are under-resourced. They also struggle to reach youth in interior regions, where unemployment is highest. The United States can help by working to coordinating donors, foster partnerships, and increasing funding to achieve scale, and by supporting these efforts in the long term to ensure a sustained commitment. The United States should also invest in increased academic scholarships and exchange programs.

5. Provide sustained commitment to professionalizing civil society so that it can effectively hold government accountable.

To support Tunisia through its transition, it is critical that the United States and the European Union increase support for civil society, which have proven essential in successful transitions. International support for civil society organizations (CSOs) and independent media during transitions is generally a low-cost, high-return investment.

The good news is that post-revolution Tunisia has adopted a liberal environment for CSOs and established a legal framework that has welcomed international support and encouraged the rapid growth of the sector. The bad news is "CSO burnout": Tunisian civil society leaders report being overwhelmed by well-intentioned international groups that tie up their time with endless meetings, interviews and conferences. International donors complain about a thin talent pool and civil society's lack of absorptive capacity. But the whirlwind of post-revolution CSO competitive frenzy is dying down as funders move onto the next new thing. What is needed now is sustained commitment to building the capacity of civil society so that it can effectively hold government accountable. This includes continued investment in training and mentoring, support for CSO infrastructure development, and longer term funding.

6. Support the development of professional and independent Tunisian media.

While there is considerable suspicion in Tunisia about foreign control of media, technical support to help nurture independent media is welcomed and necessary. Tunisian journalists are consistent in saying they do not want any more expensive conferences conducted in French and English in fancy hotels. Instead, the United States and the European Union should jointly fund a mentorship program that embeds Arabic-speaking journalists as editors in fledgling media outlets -- newspapers, television news, and community radio, including in the interior of the country -- to train a new generation of reporters in investigative journalism and media ethics. This training needs to be in Arabic since the majority of media consumption is in Arabic. The mentorship program should also include business mentors who can help independent media establish viable business models.

In addition, the United States and European Union should provide technical support for the promulgation of constructive media regulation in Tunisia. Over the next several years, Tunisia's new parliament will be writing legislation that fleshes out protections of (and limits to) the multiple freedoms guaranteed in the constitution. Given the sensitivity surrounding freedom of expression in the writing of the new constitution, bringing all sides together to understand the impact of legislation in this area would be money well spent. Last year, the government established the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), Tunisia's first independent media regulatory commission. Washington should bring HAICA regulators to visit with counterparts in the United States and Europe.

7. Support wholesale judicial reform.

Tunisia desperately needs to reform its judicial system to build independence and professionalism in order for democracy to take hold. Tunisia's judiciary under Ben Ali was stacked with cronies and was notoriously corrupt and inefficient. The new government's ability to deliver consistent rule of law through modern and transparent courts will be an essential step in distancing itself from the corruption of the previous regime.

Various international organizations, including the American Bar Association and UNDP, have been working to strengthen skills and promote the professionalism of the sector. But the United States can still do more, including helping to upgrade computer systems to improve efficiency and reduce corruption, and training lawyers and judges, especially in the interior of the country. The timing is good: The election of a representative government later this year ushers in a new opportunity for productive engagement on judicial reform.

8. Strengthen the security relationship and increase support of military reform.

Tunisia's security sector is in dire need of reform and upgrade. Polls show that the country's deteriorating security situation is the prime motivation for street protests. The brazen attack on the American Embassy in September 2012, followed by two shocking political assassinations in 2013, underscored the breakdown of security. (In the photo above, a demonstrator wears a makeshift hat depicting Chokri Belaid, an opposition figure who was murdered in February 2013.) These incidents not only tarnished Tunisia's international reputation, but have also slowed security sector reform, since the government remained dependent on the remnants of the "deep state" at the feared Interior Ministry to investigate the attacks.

Military reform should be a natural area for American engagement. The United States already has close relations with the Tunisian military, which, in stark contrast to its Egyptian counterpart, has remained above the political fray with its reputation largely intact. Many Tunisian military personnel have trained in the United States, and U.S. equipment makes up roughly 70 percent of the Tunisian military's inventory. In February, the U.S. Navy ship USS Elrod stopped in Tunisia to conduct joint exercises to combat drug and weapons smuggling -- a show of support that was welcomed by many Tunisians.

Although U.S. military assistance to Tunisia has doubled since the revolution, it is still less than $35 million, a paltry sum given the strategic importance of Tunisia and the scope of security challenges it faces. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its offshoot Ansar al-Sharia have publicly stated their determination to gain control in Tunisia -- an unlikely scenario but one that could result in a destabilizing wave of violence. Already, low-level fighting against jihadis along the Algerian and Libya borders has resulted in casualties. Smuggling remains a pressing issue. The military badly needs to modernize its equipment, improve intelligence, and bolster training for counter-terrorism operations. Washington should increase financial support for equipment modernization and training, and deepen the intelligence relationship.

Tunisia is simply too important to fail. While Tunisians themselves are ultimately responsible for the success of their transition to democracy, Tunisia's friends have good reasons to support it through the inevitably painful process of economic and political restructuring that is still to come. The benefit of a stable and prosperous Tunisia amid an otherwise unstable North Africa would be priceless.



The Election Is the Enemy

The Taliban isn't attacking the Afghan army anymore -- they're trying to blow up the heart of Afghan politics.

When a group of gunmen killed nine people in Kabul's Serena Hotel in late March, the victims included one of the international observers who was supposed to help ensure that this week's presidential vote wasn't marred by widespread fraud. The response was grimly predictable: The National Democratic Institute shuttered its Kabul office and sent its staffers home, while the United Nations pulled some of its technical experts from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC). The IEC compound itself was assaulted last weekend by a group of heavily armed Taliban militants. The withdrawal of so many international observers, according to the New York Times, "potentially raises serious questions about the validity of the election." For the Taliban, it seems, the election, not the Afghan National Army, is now the primary target.

During the four-and-a-half years I served as senior advisor to three U.S. special representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2013), one of the most frustrating obstacles to clear thinking about U.S. goals in Afghanistan was the primary definition of our effort as a "war." Discussion of troop numbers often led the agenda, with politics and diplomacy relegated to the end -- and sometimes dropping off entirely. Today, while Afghanistan prepares for its third presidential election this Saturday (April 5), the policy discussion in Washington is again dominated by whether and when Afghanistan will sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) and, if it does, how many, if any, U.S. and allied troops will remain in Afghanistan after the end of NATO's combat operations in December 2014. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama, frustrated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign the deal, has told his commanders to prepare for the possible withdrawal of all American forces -- the so-called "zero option."

Lost in the sparring is that the Taliban are not trying to defeat the Afghan army in battle, but instead are aiming straight for the political conditions that enable the security forces to function. They have focused their attacks on targets directly linked to the balloting with the clear goal of driving out international monitors, depressing voter turnout, and reducing the ability of Afghanistan's Independent Electoral Commission to do its job. If the upcoming presidential election does not produce a legitimate successor to Karzai, or if foreign governments and international public opinion see Afghanistan as too flawed for the country to merit further assistance, it will not matter how strong Afghanistan's security forces may be or how many troops Obama will ultimately wish to deploy. Military success and a political solution will be equally difficult.

Despite attacks on international personnel and warnings to voters that they cast ballots at their own risk, the Taliban cannot stop the election. Their killings at the Serena Hotel and the attack against the Independent Election Commission have led most, if not all, international observers to withdraw, but Afghans interviewed by journalists show a defiant determination to participate, and turnout for campaign events remains unprecedented.

Still, even if voters defy the Taliban and turn out in large numbers, the combination of Taliban control over parts of the population, especially in the south and east, with the weakness of Afghanistan's national institutions might delegitimize the outcome. If public opinion in the United States and other donor countries judges the election by unrealistic standards, the assistance needed to sustain Afghanistan's fragile progress could be in danger. Afghanistan is still Asia's poorest country, and it has been at war for 35 years. Once the results come in, Afghans may have to reach an outcome by deal-making and negotiation, not solely by ballot counting. But using flawed electoral results rather than bloodshed as a basis for negotiation would still constitute progress.

Despite their best efforts, the IEC and Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission may not be able to prevent suspected fraud and other uncertainties from calling the vote count into question. If no candidate wins over 50 percent, the constitution requires a runoff between the two top vote-getters. Polls show Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah nearly tied with about 40 percent support each (with a slight lead for Ghani) among those expressing a preference. Zalmai Rassoul, widely seen as Karzai's favored candidate (though Karzai denies having a preference), comes in third with about 12 percent.

Despite skepticism about political polls, which have a limited track record in Afghanistan, any result vastly different from this may lead to claims of fraud. Some in Ghani and Abdullah's camps are already anticipating challenges to votes for Zalmai Rassoul from insecure areas of the South, where there will be little government presence and few if any monitors.

Even if the candidates agree on the result of the first round, meanwhile, the capacity of the system to hold a second round of balloting has never been tested. The IEC may not be able to complete preparations before August, even though Karzai's constitutional term expires on May 22. The time needed for printing and distributing new voting materials and securing polling places will extend through the summer fighting season, which will see a test of strength between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces as the U.S. and NATO forces continue to withdraw.

In addition to the heightened security risks, a second round of voting presents unique political challenges. Given the centralized power of the Afghan presidency in an otherwise weak state, the second round risks turning into a winner-take-all contest between ethnic coalitions. The high stakes could create nearly irresistible incentives for fraud, which even the candidates could not control. Contested votes could exceed any claimed margin of victory, so that the second round, too, would not be decisive.

At issue, after all, will be not only who becomes president, but the structure of the Afghan state itself. While attention in the United States focuses on the shooting war between the Taliban on one side and the Afghan government and the U.S. and NATO-led international coalition on the other, major issues divide the groups that have joined the system. These include the degree of centralization of the state; the balance of power among regional, ethnic, and tribal coalitions; control over the security forces; the role of the former armed resistance; and how all of these will affect the distribution of the diminishing flows of foreign aid.

If disputes drag on for months, the Taliban will claim to have proven that the system of government adopted by Afghans with international support after their ouster from power cannot function. The increasing capacity of the security forces and the extent of their international backing will be irrelevant if they have no legitimate authority to defend.

One factor militates against such a result: All the candidates and their major supporters are part of a coherent political elite, which has formed since the 2001 Bonn Agreement. Despite their disparate origins and the conflicts they have had and still have, they know each other and have worked together for well over a decade. Their televised debates have shown that even if they say different things, they speak a common language. They all want to win, but they know that they all could lose.

Electoral disputes will pose a difficult dilemma for Washington, especially because of what happened in 2009, when Holbrooke's efforts to make the election more competitive appeared to Karzai as an attempt to oust him, heavily politicizing the ballot audit. As one of Holbrooke's advisors on Afghanistan, I never heard him say -- even in private -- that he wanted to defeat Karzai, despite former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's allegation in his recent memoir that Holbrooke wanted to unseat Karzai as part of what the former defense chief derides as a "clumsy and failed putsch." On my first day in office, April 24, 2009, however, I advised him against U.S. intervention to "level the playing field." Afghanistan's weak institutions, I argued, might not withstand the strain of aggravated contestation. I advised the United States instead to support consensus-building among the candidates, but the administration -- not just Holbrooke -- had already decided on a different policy.

To avoid a repetition of those events, and because of our immediate interest in stability, we might press for a premature compromise that some will see as legitimating fraud. Our longer-term interest in maintaining the coalition supporting the current system, however, may require us to allow these disputes to take their course to assure that no group feels it has lost its stake in the system. It may be better to let the United Nations take the lead in convening the international stakeholders in the election if disputes persist.

The timing for signature of the security arrangements, however, imposes a deadline. Karzai has refused to approve it. All major candidates have said they will sign the BSA, but even a small post-2014 presence will require either a signed agreement by September or a difficult decision to extend the December 2014 deadline.

Confronting these alternatives may force the candidates into negotiation. One obstacle to any deal, however, is that only one person can be president, and the current constitution makes no provision for power sharing to enforce an agreement. International guarantees could help, but these would require support from Afghanistan's neighbors. Iran, which has great influence within the current setup, has a strong interest in the stability of Afghanistan. And even if the election leads to the new president signing the BSA, Tehran still wants the election to succeed. The United States should be prepared to give its diplomats the latitude to engage their Iranian counterparts in Kabul. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, some may see any such crisis as their best opportunity to overturn or restructure an Afghan government that they fear brings Indian influence uncomfortably close to their western border, even if an unsettled Afghanistan strengthens extremists in Pakistan. The United States -- and most important, Pakistan's closest ally, China -- must let Islamabad know that all will suffer from the fallout of a failed election across the border.

Any new Afghan government, with or without a BSA will confront a serious test of strength from the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan. It will require and merit American support, despite inevitable crises in the electoral process. That test is likely to prove that one thing has not changed: Neither side can eliminate the other. An election result based on a reasonable consensus among the groups committed to it can set the conditions for a political settlement. Despite the temptation to shrug our shoulders and claim partial success after the decimation of the al Qaeda leadership, a more stable Afghanistan could have immensely positive effects in a region where the spheres of influence of China, India, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan meet. Far from being a distraction, peace and stability in Afghanistan is crucial for the pivot to Asia. And that can't be ceded to the Taliban.