The tiny North African nation of Tunisia has overcome tremendous security odds to uphold a fragile democracy since 2011, but it now needs serious economic growth to thrive as the lone success story of the otherwise ill-fated Arab Spring.
That’s the message Zied Ladhari, the newly appointed Tunisian minister of development, investment and international cooperation, brought with him to Washington last week.
“The main challenge now is the economy,” he said, “to demonstrate that democracy leads to prosperity.”
In town for annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings, Mr. Ladhari suggested that U.S. leaders may need to be reminded that they want Tunisia to succeed as a democracy in the Muslim world.
“Tunisia shows it is possible in this part of the world to establish a democratic and liberal nation of people who believe in free markets and believe in democracy and liberal values and freedoms,” he told The Washington Times.
“I think for American leadership it is important to continue to support politically and economically this nascent democracy,” said the 42-year-old, who, in addition to being elevated last month to a minister post, also has a key role in Tunisia’s powerful and one-time Islamist political party, Ennadha.
“Tunisia offers a great model and it’s important to support this,” Mr. Ladhari said, “to see the global impacts of the Tunisian story.”
It’s a message the Obama administration latched onto in 2011, amid a burst of freedom that swept Tunisia after demonstrations that overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. After years of subsequent tumult, Tunisia has achieved a modicum of parliamentary stability — even as the government has stared down the evolving threat of Islamic extremism.
But the situation remains delicate. A security vacuum in neighboring Libya continues to loom, providing a regional foothold for the Islamic State. And Tunisia has the distinction of being the single-largest source nation of foreign fighters who joined the terrorist group.
Authorities may have contained the IS threat by jailing returning foreign fighters and cracking down on suspected jihadists over the past two years. But all could be lost without economic growth, since hopelessness among Tunisia’s young is seen to be what made the country so attractive to IS recruiters.
“We are facing a major challenge of unemployment an the unemployed population is mainly university graduates,” Mr. Ladhari said.
Nationwide, unemployment has hovered around 15 percent since 2014, although estimates put it as high as 30 percent in some areas of the country.
Mr. Ladhari said agribusiness, such as olive oil, dates and other fruit exports, represent the “most dynamic sectors of the economy,” and stressed that the government is pushing “new sectors that are very dynamic and very promising.” The biggest promise is in pharmaceuticals, and the automotive and aerospace manufacturing and design sectors.
“Tunisia now has a full supply chain for the aeronautics industry,” he said. “We’re working with major international companies like Airbus and other suppliers of Airbus and big manufacturers.”
But the prospects for increased foreign investment are mixed. While the State Department’s most recent “Investment Climate” assessment noted Tunisia’s proximity to the European market and “relatively educated workforce,” the World Bank listed it as 77th out of 190 on its 2016 “Ease of Doing Business” rankings.
It’s unclear how proposed Trump administration cuts to U.S. foreign aid may impact the situation. If Congress approves the administration’s 2018 budget, non-military assistance to Tunisia could drop from its 2016 level of nearly $180 million to less than $55 million next year.
One factor that could sway the administration’s thinking on Tunisia involves the extent to which Islamic parties are seen to be wielding control over the government in Tunis.
At the center of such concerns is Ennahda. It was the first Islamist party to take power in Tunis following the 2011 revolution and currently holds 69 seats — the largest bloc in the 217-seat Tunisian parliament. And its members include many high-level ministers, including Mr. Ladhari.
Party members say Ennahda has evolved as its influence has solidified. Amid a wave of criticism from leftists and secularists last year, Ennahda’s leaders declared the party was officially moving away from its past tradition of mixing Islam and politics.
Mr. Ladhari is secretary general of Ennahda, and some Tunisians say he may one day lead the party if not the Tunisian government. During his interview with The Times, he suggested American leaders would do well to understand Ennahda’s evolution and the nuances of Tunisia’s nascent democracy.
“Like any other nation in the world, we have two major political trends. We have conservatives and liberals. So we in the Ennahda party, we think we are in the conservative component,” he said. “The story of political Islam is behind us, but we think that we need to develop this new model also for parties with and Islamic background, who believe in democracy, who believe in universal human rights values and who believe in liberal values.”
“Ennahda is a democratic party. It is a conservative party. It’s not Muslim Brotherhood,” Mr. Ladhari said. “It’s different and we think that it is important that the transformation of the political landscape in the country allows different political forces to express their service but also to work together.”