BY MARIAM PARRAY
On December 17, 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against corruption and mistreatment by police. This resulted in a wave of civil unrest and demonstrations known as the Jasmine Revolution, which sparked the various movements of the Arab Spring (Yerkes). While other revolutions in the region caused violent conflicts and were unsuccessful in bringing about the intended changes, the uprising began the ongoing democratization of Tunisia. Despite several issues threatening the nation’s stability, peacebuilding through partnerships with the United States Foreign Service has been successful due to the emphasis on democracy-building, the grassroots foundations, and the empowerment of marginalized groups.
The Tunisian Revolution was the culmination of several decades of citizens’ demands to have their voices heard in a transparent system. While the revolution was successful in removing President Ben Ali from power, the opportunity to create a functional democracy was hindered by the issues Ali’s dictatorial regime left behind. The government was beset with corruption, the interior and south of Tunisia were severely neglected, and political competition was restricted. Ennahda, an Islamist political movement, won Tunisia’s first post-revolution democratic election after years of secular rule under Ali. Consequently, social cleavages between secularists and Islamists grew more prominent, and the issue of how Ennahda would address women in the new constitution exacerbated tensions (Yerkes). In 2013, these divisions climaxed in a national crisis with massive demonstrations and assassinations. However, this threat to democratization was addressed by four civil society organizations, collectively known as the National Dialogue Quartet, which was able to mediate dialogue among parties, convince Ennahda to step down, and resolve issues in the constitution (Chan). This highlighted the fact that although progress towards democracy was made, corruption, unemployment, extremism, mistrust, and political fragmentation were still prevalent (Abouaoun). To address this fragility and strengthen its democratic transition, the US Foreign Service contributed economic aid and resources to Tunisia.
Former US President Obama and former Tunisian President Essebsi emphasized three priorities in American assistance to Tunisia: the creation of strong institutions and civil society; economic reforms and reduced unemployment; and increased military capacity and counterterrorism (“Helping Tunisia Realize Its Democratic Promise”). To address the first priority, USAID developed three programs focused on democracy and governance. One of these projects was the Supporting Youth and Empowering Local Communities Project (SHAREKNA), which promoted social cohesion and created an effective local conflict management system using local leaders and youth. To achieve this, SHAREKNA partnered with multiple NGOs and worked in Cité Ettadhamen, Douar Hicher, El Kef, Sidi Bouzid, and Souk Jdid (“Supporting Youth and Empowering Local Communities Project (SHAREKNA)”). The inclusion of local leaders and youth in the project was instrumental in establishing peace at every level. USAID also implemented the Tunisia Accountability, Decentralization, and Effective Municipalities Project, which aided in decentralizing Tunisia by strengthening municipal governance, boosting political participation, and improving trust in institutions. This project emphasized capacity building at a local level and partnered with thirty-one Tunisian municipalities (“Tunisia Accountability, Decentralization, and Effective Municipalities (TADAEEM)”). Lastly, USAID created a Domestic Election Monitoring program, which provided aid in holding fair, free, and transparent elections—a key part of democracy building. USAID was able to support the deployment of over 4,000 domestic observers for Tunisian municipal elections; increase voter education and registration in youth, women, disabled people, rural populations, and other marginalized groups; and improve media coverage on elections (“Domestic Election Monitoring – Tunisia (DEMT)”). Collectively, these three projects empowered local and marginalized communities and improved trust.
In addition to supporting institutions, the US Foreign Service provided support in growing Tunisia’s economy and private sector. Since 2011, the US has contributed over 1.4 billion dollars to support the democratic transition (“U.S. Relations With Tunisia”). A significant amount of this assistance focused on increasing entrepreneurship and reducing unemployment, especially among youth and women. For example, the US gave assistance to over 4,500 Tunisian youth in skill training, job placement, and other services. The US also partnered with multiple technology companies and eight local women’s organizations to offer entrepreneurship and leadership training (“U.S. Assistance to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya”). Furthermore, the Peace Corps arrived in Tunisia in 2012 to implement English language training and youth skills programs to prepare citizens for future employment.
Lastly, the US promoted peace in Tunisia by enhancing its security capabilities. The US provided Anti-Terrorism Assistance, financial aid for police reform, and equipment and training to the Tunisian military through the Foreign Military Financing program (“Fact Sheet: Enduring U.S.-Tunisian Relations”). These programs have ensured that extremism and neighboring conflicts do not impede the democratic transition and also increased civil-military cooperation.
Peacebuilding efforts in Tunisia have been supported by those of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Since 2014, USIP has assisted the Alliance of Tunisian Facilitators (ATF)—a network of mediators and dialogue facilitators that focus on local conflict management. The project prevented violent extremism through empowering women in Douar Hicher, improved civil-military cooperation in Medenine through youth, and focused on conflict transformation between secular and Islamist student unions (“Alliance of Tunisian Facilitators (ATF)”). This program is deeply rooted in local communities, thus allowing for a grassroots approach. USIP also utilizes the Synergizing Nonviolent Action and Peacebuilding program in Tunisia, which has established connections between peacebuilders and nonviolent civic action practitioners to develop efficient methods of advancing shared goals (“The Current Situation in Tunisia”).
Finally, bilateral dialogue between the US and Tunisia has occurred on multiple levels and emphasized the dedication of both nations in their initiative for peacebuilding. In a joint statement, Obama and Tunisian Prime Minister Jomaa emphasized the commitment of their nations to foster peace, growth, and democracy (“Joint Statement by the United States of America and the Tunisian Republic”). Later on, Obama and Tunisian President Essebsi reaffirmed those sentiments, stating, “...as Tunisians seek to build the Arab world’s newest democracy, they will continue to have a strong friend and partner in the world’s oldest democracy, the United States of America” (“Helping Tunisia Realize Its Democratic Promise”). Furthermore, former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton made multiple visits to Tunisia, applauding the efforts of the citizens and emphasizing important characteristics of the peacebuilding initiative (Clinton; Kerry). The dialogue between these officials and their commitment to democracy-building in Tunisia exemplifies how peacebuilding in Tunisia is not only a grassroots initiative but also an international priority and has been implemented at every level.
The Tunisian peacebuilding enterprise was successful because the approach stressed democracy-building, grassroots foundations, and the empowerment of marginalized groups. Firstly, programs and assistance have largely centered around building the nation’s democracy. This aspect of peacebuilding is particularly important, as the advancement of democracy promotes citizen inclusion, trust in institutions, and social cohesion. As a result, extremism and the violence caused by oppressive, corrupt regimes are avoided. In addition, Tunisia’s democratic transition had a grassroots foundation, which strengthened the peace initiative by emphasizing the will of the people. Foreign aid followed this grassroots call for change and continued to promote a local approach by emphasizing decentralization, community-based dialogue, and partnerships with local civil society organizations. Lastly, the empowerment of youth, women, and interior communities of Tunisia fostered peace by providing fair opportunities and addressing their previously neglected needs. With over 60 percent of the population under 30, it was especially important to involve the youth, whom Clinton said would “determine what the future will be” (Rupert, “Tunisia, Stable Under Essebsi, Now Must Recruit Youth”; “Town Hall With Tunisian Youth”). Consequently, there was increased inclusion of these citizens in the government, exemplified in the May 2018 local elections in which 47 percent of council seats went to women, and 37 percent went to those under 35 (Yerkes).
Because of the success of peacebuilding initiatives, Tunisia remains a model of a strong democratic transition. Furthermore, USAID, USIP, and US government officials’ multifaceted approach to Tunisia exemplifies the significance of diplomats in achieving peace. With the continuation of diplomatic efforts, Tunisia’s future as a peaceful, democratic country will be secured, and it will serve as a paradigm for other global peacebuilding initiatives.
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