The New Tunisian Model of Governance

Tom Malinowski
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Tunis, Tunisia
September 2, 2015

As Prepared

Thank you for that warm introduction. It’s a pleasure for me to be in Tunisia, and especially here at the Mediterranean Business School.

Over the past three days I’ve met with Prime Minister Essid and other members of the government and parliament to discuss Tunisia’s reforms and the serious economic and security challenges facing the country. And I’ve heard from leaders in civil society about the complexity of their work—from providing needed services in communities, to connecting citizens to their elected representatives, and advocating for reforms that will shield youth from radicalization and promote their civic participation.

What I’ve seen is that despite all the challenges Tunisia faces, Tunisia is poised for success in so many ways. Tunisia’s history and experience with a free civil society—once recognized as the most vibrant in the region—, its historic role on the vanguard of women’s rights in the region, its large middle class, and the commitment it has made to democratic politics and expanding economic opportunities for its people—all of this positions Tunisia on a hopeful path toward democratic consolidation.

Some might say that everything Tunisia has accomplished since 2011 is the natural fulfillment of the promise of its revolution. When Ben Ali fled the country in January of that year, and the demands for dignity inspired by a fruit seller from Sidi Bouzid echoed across the Middle East, few of us believed that the road to democracy and good governance in this region would be easy; but most of us harbored the hope that there would be no turning back. Certainly there was nothing natural about the tyranny and stagnation that preceded the Arab Awakening. It is not natural for anyone, here or anywhere, to endure being told that they cannot think or say what they believe, or to accept having no say in the decisions that affect their lives. I think most people understood that the region’s foundations were “sinking into sand,” as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2010; when the possibility of more accountable governments arose, we hoped they would be built on firmer ground.

My own hopes reached their highest point in April of 2011, when I drove from Egypt across eastern Libya just as the anti-Qaddafi uprising was getting under way. I stopped in the seaside town of Derna, where the walls were covered with something I’d never before seen in my life—the graffiti of revolutionary moderation. “Extremism is rejected,” one slogan read. “We want a country of institutions,” read another. No one I met in Derna, in Benghazi, in Tobruk, or later that year on a trip to Tripoli, wanted to replace tyranny with terrorism – and that includes many people I met who believed in a deeply conservative form of political Islam. They saw Qaddafi and al Qaeda as two sides of the same totalitarian coin, and wanted to be rid of anyone who would impose a rigid ideology on them. They wanted a government that would deliver opportunity and prosperity, listen to their grievances, enforce and abide by the law, and otherwise leave them to pursue their goals in peace. That was the hope, and I believe it was shared by most of the young people who rose from Tunis to Benghazi to Cairo to Manama to Aleppo in 2011.

Four years later, in most of the region, that hope has yet to be realized. In Egypt, many of the young leaders who assembled in Tahrir Square in 2011 are now in prison for violating a law that effectively bans peaceful assembly, and an extremist insurgent continues terrorist attacks on security and military forces in the Sinai. In Syria, Asad met peaceful protests with artillery fire and air strikes, creating a pathway to extremism alongside piles of corpses. From that cauldron, a new terrorist group arose that treats mass murder and sexual slavery as exploits to be boasted of on social media. In Yemen, a dictator who yielded now exploits sectarianism and regional rivalries to claw his way back, opening the space for Al Qaeda even wider and deepening the suffering of his people. And Derna, that Libyan town that I visited in 2011, was taken over last year by a small group of extremists who immediately started killing lawyers, judges, civil servants, human rights defenders—anyone willing to fight for the rule of law against the rule of the gun.

Four years is a very short time. It is far, far too early to say what the outcome of the Arab Awakening will be, whether we are experiencing an inevitably painful period of transition to a more stable, just and democratic order, or an unraveling of order altogether. But the stakes have certainly become clear. And here is how I see them. From the turmoil of the Arab Awakening, two new models of governance have emerged – one represented by Tunisia, and one represented by Daesh. We have a profound interest in seeing the first of these models succeed, and ensuring that the second fails.

Now, it may seem unfair to place such a burden on your young democracy to suggest that so many of the region’s hopes depend on your success, especially given the challenges you are confronting here in Tunisia. But it is undeniably true. And what I want to stress today is that the burden falls as much on your friends and partners to help you, because we have such a stake in your success.

In doing so, we must simultaneously confront two burning challenges.

The first is the challenge of meeting the basic economic expectations of the generation that dared to demand better, more responsive government. On the eve of the revolution, Tunisia’s economic system was unable to provide employment for its youth, incapable of ensuring that development and resources could reach its most vulnerable citizens, and unwilling to restrain those in positions of authority from abusing their power at the people’s expense. All three of these played directly into Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of desperate defiance in December 2010.

Today Tunisia has made a commitment to right this. But, many challenges remain for the government to address. Unemployment in Tunisia remains high, especially among youth. Deep regional disparities in development, infrastructure, and opportunity persist. Tourism has been particularly affected by the Bardo and Souse attacks.

What I’ve seen over the last three days is that Tunisian leaders from across the political spectrum are coming together to address these economic challenges. They are striving to enact the reforms that will improve the economy, create jobs, strengthen the business climate, and promote trade. And the United States is helping that process.

The United States has invested $60 million to establish the Tunisian-American Enterprise Fund, which makes loans and private equity investments in small businesses. The goal is to empower entrepreneurs who will then create jobs.

Our $20 million Thomas Jefferson Scholarship program has funded over 400 Tunisians to study at universities and community colleges in the United States in fields critical to Tunisia’s economic success.

Our technical assistance programs are helping Tunisia reform the tax, banking, and customs systems to attract foreign investment and create an environment in which business can thrive and be an engine for growth.

Perhaps most important, the United States has supported two sovereign loan guarantees totaling $985 million, which have helped the Tunisian government gain affordable financing from international capital. In May, during President Essebsi’s visit to Washington, President Obama said the United States would consider a third guarantee of up to $500 million if Tunisia needed it to support economic growth and advance its ongoing reform program.

These steps are a strategic investment in Tunisia’s future success. Through them we are helping Tunisia enact the kind balanced, inclusive economic development it needs to meet the demands of its people and move the economy forward.

The second great challenge Tunisia faces is the scourge of terrorism.

How does one build a free society, how does one maintain focus on the long, hard, complicated task of building democratic parliaments and parties and courts and police forces when one is being hit again and again by terrorists bent on mass murder? Americans know what it means to experience what Tunisians suffered at Bardo in March and in Sousse in June. But when we were hit on September 11, 2001, we were not simultaneously struggling to establish a new system of government; your challenge is immensely harder.

And we know that when society is under attack by such forces, it is natural that some people will say: “Now is not the time to be thinking about human rights, or fair trials, or democratic elections. We need first to focus on protecting ourselves.” After all that’s happened in this region since 2011, it is natural that some people are saying: “Yes, change is needed; yes, democracy is good; but look at what happened in Syria and Libya; we cannot open the door to that.”

These feelings of fear and anger and resolve to fight back against the suicide bombers and gunmen can all too easily give way to an anti-democratic reflex. It is a reflex that short circuits due process for all who are suspected of crimes in the pursuit of those who actually commit them. It is a reflex that stifles speech for the many to counter the bad influence of a few. It is a reflex that equates peaceful political opposition with violent political extremism.

In the United States we are familiar with this kind of reflex as well. After our 9/11, we improved our security, military, and intelligence capabilities, we enhanced coordination among law enforcement agencies, and we pursued those who attacked us—all rightly so.

But we also made some mistakes. We expanded unsupervised surveillance. We detained men without charge or access to courts at Guantanamo. And as a report released by our Senate last year showed, for several years after 9/11, in our pursuit of our most dangerous enemies, we engaged in torture. We corrected these mistakes, and I believe that our democratic institutions emerged stronger than ever. But in their time, these actions were inconsistent with our values. Each time we crossed those lines, each time we gave in to the anti-democratic reflex, it diminished the moral clarity with which we call others to adopt democratic practices and protect human rights. Just as important, each time we did so, it hurt us more than it helped us in our fight against terrorism. It alienated communities whose cooperation we needed to uncover and prevent terrorist acts, and it blurred the moral distinctions that must be maintained if we are to have the advantage in this fight.

No grievance against power justifies terrorism, but terrorism is born of such grievances that are deeply held by those who are marginalized by their governments and their societies. Daesh, for example, arose by exploiting the deeply felt grievances of Sunni Iraqis fed up with a decade of increasingly sectarian and non-inclusive governance, and the vacuum created by Assad’s atrocities in Syria. What is Daesh’s message today to young people across the Middle East who have been struggling peacefully since 2011 to build more just and democratic societies? The message is: “Your methods are doomed to failure; you will be imprisoned; you will be tortured; you will be silenced; nothing will change. We who use violence, on the other hand, are strong and will be victorious.” Imagine how that argument can resonate in places in this region where terrorists and peaceful political activists are in fact sharing the same jail cells today. By the way, this is also Daesh’s message to proponents of political Islam who have rejected violence and placed their faith in democratic institutions and elections: “Your way will lead to your destruction; our way is the way to win.” That is why it is a mistake to conflate peaceful Islamist parties with terrorists. If we treat their adherents as one and the same, eventually more and more of them will be.

When we give in to the anti-democratic reflex—when we start legislating exceptions to the laws that protect our liberties, when we quiet peaceful dissent, when we brutalize those we imprison—we dampen hopes that peaceful redress of grievances is possible. As President Obama has said, “When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.” Such abuses also alienate people whose help we must have to defeat terror. Some of the best information we get about young men going off to fight for Daesh and similar groups comes from their families, religious leaders or other members of their community. But who is going to call the police about a friend, a neighbor, or love one if they think that person will be tortured or disappeared after they are arrested?

This is not to say that we must be passive in the face of this existential threat. We must be relentless in confronting it; we just have to recognize that this is not a question of balancing protection of our people and preservation of our values; in fact we must do both if we want our side to win and the terrorists to lose.

So, how do we win?

First and foremost we must bring to justice those who chose violence and terror—and that sometimes requires the use of force. And in this regard, we are with the Tunisian people and government 100 percent. Through our security cooperation with the Tunisian government—over $225 million since 2011—the United States is bolstering Tunisia’s ability to counter internal and regional threats, including terrorism. Our designation of Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally recognizes our shared values and deepens our counterterrorism cooperation.

Our second approach is to build a culture of liberty in society, to protect free expression, to make institutions open and representative, and to ensure that the security institutions meant to keep us safe truly serve and protect all the people. As Secretary Kerry said in Cairo last month, “our success depends on building trust between the authorities and the public, and enabling those who are critical of official policies to find a means of voicing their dissent peacefully, through participation in a political process.”

That is why we are working with Tunisia to improve the way forces engage with communities and prevent the return of the practice of torture, while helping police forces develop more effective tools for gathering evidence. We hope counterterrorism laws will be implemented so they bring terrorists to justice and not to restrict rights. We hope there will be continued progress towards transparency and accountability, and in strengthening civilian institutions—from the Parliament to civil society independent of government—to conduct real oversight.

Building a culture of liberty also means strengthening the role of civil society. Tunis was home to the first human rights CSO in the Arab world, the League Tunisien de Droits l’Homme. Sadly the Ben Ali regime mastered all the tricks and tactics dictatorships use to restrain CSO activity with legal measures and bureaucratic hurdles, just as other authoritarian governments across this region are still doing.

Today, Tunisia’s civil society has regained its freedom. New organizations are springing up to engage people in the political and economic life of their country once again. Organizations like Al Bawsala, are making information on the Parliament and on municipal governments freely accessible to all Tunisians. Organizations like Mourakiboun whose 3,000-plus trained and certified election observers fanned out across Tunisia in 2011 and 2014 using technology to send real-time reports, and showing skeptics what an open, free, fair, and competitive election in an Arab country looks like. Organizations like WeYouth, which is lifting up young people with leadership development and skills training, preparing them to participate in the inclusive economy Tunisia strives to build.

Civil society is also the source of community resilience to fight the forces of extremism. In Tunisia there has been a rush of new CSOs dedicated to discouraging radicalization. These organizations channel youth dissatisfaction into positive participation and help families advocate with their government for stronger laws and policies that prevent young Tunisians from joining the fight in Syria and Iraq.

Some in the region today say that CSOs working to counter violent extremism are all well and good. But unchecked, a free society can spiral into danger. They say that liberties place extremist forces outside the bounds of government observation and control. They say that too much freedom makes society weak, more vulnerable to this threat.

These people don’t understand terrorists very well. Terrorists don’t need freedom of speech or assembly to walk into a public place and gun people down. Terrorists know how to circumvent all the restrictions that governments can place, all the tricks that Ben Ali used to stifle Tunisia’s civil society. For every blogger in the Middle East who is arrested for a Facebook post or tweet criticizing the government, for every CSO director whose organization is shut down for accepting foreign funding, there are a hundred real terrorists out there who, under cover of proxy servers and aliases, are quietly recruiting more followers in chat rooms and spiriting suitcases of cash across borders. What’s more, the terrorists know how to exploit governments’ policies of repression by incorporating them into their grievance narrative. They use these policies as a recruiting tool. Terrorists don’t need liberties to thrive—they thrive in the shadows of liberty’s absence.

Who then does need liberty?

  • Young people and women need liberty.
  • Journalists and academics need liberty.
  • Those who are marginalized, outside the sphere of economic development or political influence need liberty.
  • Those who have been wronged by government policy or corrupt practice, and who seek change within the political system, need liberty.
  • Those who work in their communities to improve peoples lives, to advocate for better schools and safer streets and more jobs – the very things that serve as a counterweight to extremism – need liberty.
  • Those who are moderate and peaceful, who reject violence, who accept tolerance and diversity, and espouse that their deeply held religious conviction should be a guiding principle for social and political life need liberty and they need and deserve a voice and role in government.

The Tunisian model of governance has shown how this can work. Tunisia has shown how—in the presence of liberty—secularists and Islamists can come together in common purpose to solve public challenges despite their profound differences. We saw that in 2012 and 2013 when, in the midst of a severe political crisis, Ennahda, Nidaa Tounis, and other political parties joined in a National Dialogue created by civil society organizations, and in a spirt of inclusion and compromise reached consensus on key issues dividing them. They agreed on a new democratic constitution. They agreed to a peaceful hand-over of power to a transitional government. They agreed that free and fair elections must go forward. And after those elections, this spirit of compromise and inclusion continued when they agreed to support a consensus government. This is Tunisia’s great comparative advantage – its progress towards democracy, its commitment to political inclusion, the space given to civil society – including through one of the most progressive NGO laws in the region – its promise to devolve power to local communities. These are the qualities that distinguish Tunisia from so many others in this region, that bring friends like the United States to its side, that will ultimately ensure the defeat of terror. The fight against terrorism must therefore preserve democratic gains, and never be used as a reason to retreat from them.

The new Tunisian model of governance—a model based on rights, political inclusion and compromise, and institutions that aim to have the interests of all the people at their core—is far harder to pursue than its alternative at the other extreme. As we’ve seen in other parts of the region, it is a lot easier to destroy a country than to build one, as you are doing in Tunisia, as so many of your counterparts still want to do from Syria to Yemen to Libya. So if we want to see the promise of 2011 realized – to build democracy and defeat terrorism – we will need one more thing: we will need the realism to be patient.

Authoritarian states don’t make things easy for their democratic successors. They leave behind hollowed out institutions; networks and habits of corruption; security institutions trained to protect their state not their people; populations that grew up with little or no civic education. Academics say that on average, successful transitions from dictatorship to full democracy with rule of law take around 15 or 20 years, in the best of circumstances. And democratic transitions demand so much more of ordinary citizens than established democracies do. In the United States, democracy demands that we show up and vote every once in a while. We don’t have to take into our own hands the work of building local governments from scratch, retraining our police, rewriting our laws, recruiting new judges, creating new political parties, while simultaneously having to provide for our families and to protect ourselves from terrorists or barrel bombs.

In the United States, we forget this sometimes. We get excited when revolutions for democracy and human rights appear to have won; we mobilize to support them; we try to stay on the right side of history. Then, a few years later, when the highest expectations of those revolutionary moments remain unrealized, we are tempted to conclude that even modest gains were never in the cards, and to go back to managing a depressing status quo rather than making the investments and taking the risks necessary to change it. Patience does not have to mean accepting a lower standard for countries in the Middle East than we would apply to ourselves. It does not mean we should accept injustices; no one who is being tortured or arrested wrongly today wants to be told to wait a generation for redress. We simply need to remember that the inevitable setbacks that every democracy in transition faces are a reason to work harder, not to give up, recognizing that the ultimate payoff will likely not come in a single news cycle or even in the lifetime of one of our presidential administrations, but that the payoff is worth working for as long as it takes to achieve.

That is the patience and commitment we are determined to show in partnership with the people and government of Tunisia, and everywhere in this region where people are willing to work for liberty and the rule of law. You have shown that it is possible to make progress, even when facing the gravest danger. You have shown that it is necessary to make progress, precisely because of that danger. This region and the world needs the Tunisia model to succeed, and to spread so that you are not alone. And the United States is proud to stand with you as you continue to make the courageous and sometimes difficult decisions required of the democratic path you have chosen.