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The West and Arab democracy: time for a Marshall Plan for Tunisia?

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In the late 1940s the United States (US) decided to provide an unprecedented amount of financial support to Western Europe. One of the largest shares of the ‘European Recovery Program’, also known as Marshall Plan, was directed to West Germany. This support was not primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns for the hardships endured by Germany’s post-war population, which after all had just been complicit in the Nazis’ destruction of Europe and the industrial killing of six million Jews. Rather, it was informed by two geopolitical concerns: To ensure Germany’s permanent integration into the Western bloc and to showcase the superiority of the Western model of liberal democracy and market economy at providing a decent standard of living to its citizens.

The US understood the reconstruction of the German economy as a strategy to contain the lingering nationalist, militarist and authoritarian political values that had facilitated the collapse of the Weimar republic as well as to counter the grandiose promises coming from the Soviet Union. ‘There is no choice between being a communist on 1,500 calories a day and a believer in democracy on a thousand’, US General Lucius Clay argued to make the case for economic support rather than the deindustrialisation envisaged in an alternative proposal known as the Morgenthau Plan.

Aided by the Marshall Plan, the German economic miracle transformed the country into an anti-communist bulwark. Even when Stalin tempted German leaders with a proposal for reunification and neutralisation of Germany, chancellor Konrad Adenauer opted for further integration into the Western economic and military bloc instead. The inner German border became a dividing line between an affluent Western Europe and an economy of scarcity in Eastern Europe. Information campaigns and propaganda ensured that people on both sides of the border were made aware of the blatant wealth gap between the communist and the democratic camp. Not only did Western Europeans largely favoured staying in the Western bloc as a result, Eastern Europeans in general and East Germans in particular also increasingly desired to join it.

In light of the recent developments in the Arab World, the West should consider applying such a strategy in Tunisia. Obviously there are major differences between Germany in 1945 and Tunisia in 2016. Most notably, Germany had just devastated an entire continent whereas the Tunisian people succeeded in overthrowing an oppressive dictatorial regime and inspiring people across the region to follow suit. In strategic terms, Tunisia is a small state on the fringes of the Arab world, far away from the region’s hot spots and without major natural resources, whereas Germany was and is the economic and political linchpin of Europe.

However, there are parallels with regard to the role Germany played and Tunisia plays in a contest between two antithetic political systems. Similar to the post-1945 battle between liberal democracy and communist autocracy, the post-2011 Arab World has been experiencing competition between democracy and authoritarian rule, at times mixed with different shades of Islamist extremism. And so far, democracy does not seem to be on the winning side.

With the hopes raised during the Arab uprisings now largely shattered, Tunisia remains the only country warranting cautious optimism. However, its transition is threatened by Islamic fundamentalism and a creeping return of authoritarianism as well. This is facilitated by the Tunisian democracy’s failure to deliver on the high expectations it has raised.

Since 2011, public services, security and the economic situation have deteriorated significantly. Overall unemployment has risen and young people have been hit particularly hard. According to the OECD, 37.6% of those aged 15 to 24 and 62.3% of university graduates are unemployed. The situation is even worse in the country’s impoverished in-land regions.

As a result of the lack of socio-economic progress, many Tunisians increasingly feel that they were better off before the transition to democracy began. The Ben Ali regime might be discredited by its brazen nepotism and corruption. However, the increasing glorification of Ben Ali’s predecessor Habib Bourguiba among secular liberals indicates that autocratic rule is not discredited per se.

Meanwhile, the dire socio-economic conditions and the lack of a perspective make young Tunisians more receptive to the simplistic messages of radical Islamism. According to security sources, around 3,000 Tunisians had joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq as of late 2014. Tunisia has thus become the biggest exporter of jihadists, leaving even the geographically closer, far more populous and far more conservative Saudi Arabia behind. At the same time, the Islamic State is getting more and more successful in recruiting young Tunisians to commit terrorist attacks within the country. Its growing foothold in neighbouring Libya is likely to compound this problem.

If the West wants to reverse these trends, it will have to get more serious about supporting Tunisia. In particular, it will have to boost Tunisia’s fragile economy and its fight against youth unemployment. In order to do so, Western countries should fund a major economic stimulus package directed at public infrastructure in the inland-regions. They should increase favourably conditioned loans for Tunisian private and public investments. They should create insurance schemes protecting and thereby encouraging foreign direct investments in Tunisia. Most importantly, Tunisian companies’ should be given immediate access to Western markets in sectors in which they have competitive advantages, such as agriculture.

Tunisia’s economic woes are not the only challenge the transition is facing. Furthermore, parts of any foreign aid directed to Tunisia will vanish in the country’s endemic corruption and bureaucracy. However, this should not discourage Western financial support. Transforming the country will be a generational task. And both the public unrest over unemployment in January – the biggest ones since 2011 – as well as the increasing success of radical Islamists indicate that Tunisia might not get the chance to embark on this task if there is no short-term economic relief.

The challenges arising in case of a Tunisian failure would become far more expensive for the West than supporting the country now. With less than 200 kilometres separating it from Italy, Tunisia’s security problems would quickly become European problems.

At the same time, the country does have a lot of untapped potential. Its small population is well educated, largely francophone and thus equipped for the transition to a service economy. Its Northern soils allow for intensive and extensive agriculture. Its climate, natural beauty as well as attractions ranging from Roman and Carthaginian ruins to Star Wars film sets make it a perfect destination for European tourists. With its existing links to Europe and its strategic location, Tunisia could become a hub connecting the European Union, Africa and the Middle East.

The rationale for Western support goes beyond saving Tunisia’s democracy. Similar to the way the German post-1945 economic reconstruction helped to contain communism, the economic reconstruction of Tunisia might help to contain Islamism and authoritarianism. It might convince sceptics in Tunisia and its neighbourhood that a stable democratic system in the Arab world is possible. And it might convince those tempted by Islamism or authoritarianism that democracy is the better option.

The West should initiate a Marshall Plan for Tunisia to enable an economic success story. It should help to transform Tunisia’s borders into dividing lines separating a relatively affluent and well-governed democracy from misery and repression under Islamist and authoritarian rule. And it should make sure that people across the region will be made aware of this difference.

Vol. 8, No. 4 (2016)

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