Tunisia’s Growth Toward Democracy

August 3, 2012 By Zach Silberman

As revolution spread across north Africa in 2011, Tunisia served as catalyst of the Arab Awakening.  Now as the hopes for democratic reform continue to grow, there are new opportunities in Tunisia for greater American engagement.

The State Department recently highlighted the efforts of its foreign assistance programs to Tunisia since the January 2011 revolution.  Tunisia has received more than $300 million to support its transition with a focus on technical and financial assistance to spur Tunisia’s economic growth and boost its private sector.  Even while the numbers of its assistance are small, the Tunisians and Americans have certainly utilized the funds to create groundbreaking programs in a country that a year ago was still recovering from a violent revolution.

Successes in the U.S. assistance to Tunisia include the reprogramming of $100 million of aid to assist Tunisia to pay its debt to the World Bank and African Development Bank, supporting the establishment of a Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) threshold program, as well as the creation of the Tunisian-American Enterprise Fund that will foster stronger investment cooperation between the two countries.

Other important programs instituted by the State Department include assistance to more than 4,500 young Tunisians to develop marketing skills in order to begin careers as entrepreneurs.  The U.S. is also providing a $50 million Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) facility that will offer Tunisian business owners a chance to work with American and European franchisors, which could ultimately create 10,000 jobs for Tunisians.

The release of the fact sheet was fitting because it came a few days before other government officials highlighted the importance of enhancing the U.S.-Tunisian relationship.  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta traveled to Tunisia on Monday to discuss ways to boost cooperation between the two countries, while a group of bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter to President Obama, which urged him to expand military cooperation and build an economic relationship with the newly formed democracy. The bipartisan letter, which was first reported by The Cable, included the signatures of Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Coons (D-DE), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and John Hoeven (R-ND).

The region is still recovering from the impact of the Arab Awakening and the work is not yet finished.  However, as recent evidence has shown with Tunisia holding its first free election at the end of last year and establishing greater cooperation between the U.S. and Tunisia for economic development programs and military assistance, Congress and the administration can agree that the tools of the International Affairs Budget can go a long way in ensuring sustainable and stable partners in a region still recovering from the Arab Awakening.