Landmark election renews spotlight on Tunisia's fragile gains

A wall lined with posters of political candidates for Tunisia’s parliamentary elections. The country’s presidential election will likely lead to a Dec. 28 runoff. Photo by: Amine Ghrabi / CC BY-NC

Three months ago, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki described at the Atlantic Council the crossroads his country is at nearly four years since a landmark uprising led to the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the North African country with an iron fist for 24 years.

“If the West does not support Tunisia, it will be the last time the West sees democracy in the Arab world for at least a century,” the interim president said.

Ben Ali was the first dictator to be overthrown in the wake of the Arab Spring, a string of pro-democracy uprisings that started in Tunisia in late 2010 and then spread to other parts of North Africa and the Middle East. But while other new regimes borne out of the Arab Spring — like those of Egypt or Libya — continue to be mired in chaos and violence, Tunisia seems to hold a firmer grasp on its own path to stability and economic development. On Sunday, it held its first-ever presidential election, pitting Marzouki against 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, the former prime minister who served under two autocratic regimes.

As of posting time, it seems likely that the election will lead to a Dec. 28 runoff as neither of the two front-runners has secured a 50 percent majority.

The presidential election follows last month’s successful parliamentary vote, which saw more than 60 percent of the electorate go to the polling stations and helped the country continue its march along the path to democracy.

Tunisia’s political reforms, however, have yet to translate into sustainable economic growth and security — and observers agree that international development assistance is certainly still needed to protect hard-fought gains in civil liberties and rule of law.

“They need the support, and that’s what the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are going to do,” Radwan Masmoudi from the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy said Friday during a panel discussion hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Tunisia, he added, needs time for that support to result in real economic progress, and democratic reforms should not be allowed to slide back.

The Marzouki-led government received $500 million in financial aid from the IMF barely two weeks after assuming office and after the new constitution was passed in January this year.

The United States is another of the country’s top donors, and despite receiving a substantial increase in requested development assistance for fiscal year 2015 — up 107 percent from fiscal 2013 — a former U.S. diplomat suggested the country should get even more support from Washington.

“We don’t, frankly, do very much for [Tunisia.] It’s time that we should be offering training for judges, infrastructure, democracy,” Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Algeria and Syria, said at the panel discussion. “Instead of investing in Iraq, I think investing in Tunisia is a better bet.”

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    Russell Moll

    Russell Moll is a former senior associate with Devex. Prior to Devex, he worked for SAIC where he managed and executed collaborative exercises that facilitate the exchange of ideas to improve policymaking.
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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

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