I really like today’s video, but I think I stuck my foot in my mouth a bit at one point. I just sort of declared that Tunisia is not a “white country”. I already know I’ll be getting a ton of comments on that. There is no settled definition of “White”. Because of some historical weirdness, in the US Arabs have generally been described as white, long before Italians or Slavs were considered to be in that category. That hasn’t kept US foreign policy from being heavily focused on bombing Arabs for the past two decades.
I try to avoid using desperately inexact terminology like “white” and “Latino”. But what I was trying to get at with today’s video was the fact that certain countries are inside the charmed circle of countries that are seen as deserving of serious help and foreign aid, and some are not. Tunisia, whatever you may think of the country’s relation to “whiteness”, is not in that charmed circle. It should be.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Is Tunisia’s Democracy failing? This is probably the most important question in the Arab world today, by far. You may be surprised to hear that Tunisia has a democracy. This has been pushed out of the news by the more dramatic fallout from the Arab Spring over the last decade, the horrors in Yemen and Syria, and the machinations of regional and world powers across the region. Nonetheless, 8 years later, Tunisian democracy exists, in a country that identifies as both majority Arab and majority Muslim. It’s quite an accomplishment.
The Arab Spring began in December 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi bouzid to protest government oppression. I still think the Arab Spring is a good thing, but there’s no denying that it’s fallen into chaos in many places. Tunisia is the exception. On January 14th, 2011, President Ben Ali resigned and fled the country after 23 years in power. Tunisia had successful presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, and free and fair elections to local municipalities in 2018. Tunisia has a mixed parliamentary and presidential system, with a directly elected president, and like the United Kingdom, prime ministers who can fall without an election. So we have already seen multiple peaceful transitions of power. Even more impressive, in 2014, The Islamist Ennahada party entered into a coalition with the more secular Nida Tounes Party. Ennahada is supposedly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, whatever that means, and Saudi Arabia really wants to convince us that democratic government is impossible with that kind of party. For five years now Tunisia has been proving that it is very possible, and that Arabs can absolutely do better than dictators and medieval kings. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment.
But nobody is happy. The economy is a disaster. A series of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 almost killed the lucrative European tourist market. More and more Tunisians are beginning to wonder whether this whole democracy thing is worth it. Yippee, they’ve got free speech and assembly, but living standards have not improved significantly since 2011, and the pace of protest seems to be picking up. Even worse, under all this stress, it seems like the Islamist and secularist parties are beginning to do a slow motion version of what killed Egyptian democracy back in 2013.
The Islamist party is a little stronger in elections, so the secularists have been threatening to declare them a terrorist group. Even worse, the International Crisis group reports that the secular party is reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to help them crush the idea of Islamic democracy. The Islamists are reacting to this poorly of course, and trying to consolidate power. The elections at the end of this year could be a disaster. Of course, none of this is any help at all to the 11 million Tunisians who have been waiting for 8 years for things to get better.
SOURCE: INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP
So does this mean Saudi Arabia is right? Is Arab democracy impossible? Of course not. The Tunisians have proved that it is possible. The fact that they’ve managed to do this for 8 years is an extraordinary victory. Even if it does fall apart, the accomplishment will stand as an example of what’s possible. And if Tunisian democracy fails, it won’t be the Tunisians fault.
First off their neighborhood is a disaster. The old Tunisian dictatorship sat fat and happy in between two oil rich cointries. Tunisian democracy has not been so lucky. Libya was destroyed by NATO in 2011, and the international community continues to support differing warring factions. It’s been a constant low level civil war, and it’s an absolute disgrace for the international community. Tunisia has to deal with refugees, spill over terror attacks, and obviously has very little useful trade with Libya. To the West, Algeria is in better shape, but it’s still a rotting oligarchy, reliant on oil prices that have been too low for comfort for five years now. And Algeria’s teetering oligarchy really doesn’t want a successful democracy next door either.
Last week I used a very incomplete data set to estimate that since 2011 Tunisia had received somewhere under 800 million a year in aid from every country and international agency in the world. I contrasted that with the 8 to 9 billion Euros that Poland gets every year, just from the EU. So after spending some hours with the data, I have to conclude it’s worse than I thought. There is some double counting in the data set, and a lot of it is money that’s promised but not delivered. But that’s not the worst of it. Most of this money is loans, not grants. Poland gets this money as a gift in return for making certain governmental reforms. Tunisia has stricter requirements and has to pay almost all of this money back. Tunisia’s not a white country, so they dont get foreign aid. They get foreign debt.
As with many countries in trouble, Tunisia’s most important source of loans is the International Monetary Fund. Back in 2016 Tunisia was awarded a 4 year 2.8 billion dollar loan. Not a grant, a loan. And before they get each chunk of money, the IMF has to approve their progress. In January the government was trapped between its promises to the IMF, and a massive countrywide strike led by the country’s largest labor Union. The IMF is now threatening to withhold the next chunk of money because Tunisia gave in to the strikers and raised the wages of some workers.
Yup. You heard that right. In the midst of an economic crisis, with runaway inflation, and the economic collapse of the entire region, the IMF is demanding that Tunisia pay people less money. How do you think that’s going to effect Tunisia’s struggling democracy? Now I am no economist, and don’t know enough to take an opinion on austerity one way or the other, but this policy makes me wonder if the I international community is actively trying to kill Tunisian democracy. As I noted three years ago, my country, the United States isn’t any help either.
…the state department recently boasted that the United States has provided more than 360 million dollars in economic growth related activity, since 2011, including loan guarantees in 2012 and 2014, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…
That’s a good start, but an average of 72 million dollars a year, and the opportunity to get into more debt is essentially nothing. Compare that to the billions we’ve already given to Egypt’s restored dictator, or the billions we’ve already spent to make the Syrian civil war worse. We need to do more for Tunisia. If we’re really serious about Arab democracy, we will.
The US AID website makes it clear how little the U.S. cares. As Tunisia has racked up successful elections and peaceful transfers of power, US grantmaking to Tunisia has fallen, not risen.
What’s really stunning to me here, is how little money it would take to make a massive difference. A grant of a mere billion dollars a year, an 8th of what Poland gets, would be absolutely transformative, for Tunisia, and probably for the region. Tunisia’s democracy looks to me like it might be failing, but we could easily save it, for the cost of like 8 fighter jets a year.
And if we could help set up long lasting freedom and democracy in North Africa, we could avoid the cost of hundreds of fighter jets, over generations. That’s the opportunity we are squandering here.
The counterargument here is “oh well we don’t want to create dependency”. If we didn’t want that, then we probably shouldn’t have destroyed Libya, Tunisia’s next door neighbor. We’ll cover the international community’s ongoing destruction of that poor country next time.
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