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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Political Transition in Tunisia

Alexis Arieff
Analyst in African Affairs

The departure of longtime President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, in the face of massive anti-government protests, was greeted with euphoria within Tunisia and sparked opposition and reform movements across the region. Yet despite significant accomplishments since that time, Tunisians today face a wide range of challenges, including economic hardship, disputes over reform priorities, labor unrest, tensions between the privileged coastal region and relatively impoverished interior, and the security implications of events in neighboring Libya. Domestic tensions between Islamists and secularists have also burgeoned. Elections held in October 2011 to select a National Constituent Assembly provided momentum to a transition process that has at times appeared slow and unwieldy. The Assembly is expected to draft a new constitution ahead of new elections currently slated for early 2013. Al Nahda (alt: Ennahda/An- Nahda), a moderate Islamist party, won 41% of the seats in the October vote, and is ruling in a coalition with two secular parties. The coalition is subject to internal frictions due to the three parties’ divergent histories and policy preferences.

Tunisia’s transition raises a wide range of questions for the future of the country and the region. These pertain to the struggle between reformists and entrenched forces carried over from the former regime; the potential shape of the new political system; the role and influence of Islamism in the government and society; the question of how to transform the formerly repressive security services; and the difficult diplomatic balance—for the United States and other actors—of encouraging greater democratic openness while not undermining other foreign policy priorities. Tunisia exhibits a number of unique attributes within the region: a relatively small territory, a sizable and well educated middle class, and a long history of encouraging women’s socioeconomic freedoms. Some policymakers view these factors as advantageous, and describe Tunisia as a potential “test case” for democratic transitions in the region. Tunisia’s example may nonetheless be less influential than larger or more central states such as Egypt and Syria.

Congress authorizes and appropriates foreign assistance funding and oversees U.S. foreign policy toward Tunisia and the wider region. The Obama Administration has indicated a desire to deepen ties with Tunisia, including by encouraging increased trade and investment, and U.S. bilateral aid has significantly expanded to assist the country with its transition. As part of this transition support, the State Department is providing Tunisia with a $100 million cash transfer to help cover its debt payments. Prior to 2011, U.S.-Tunisian relations were highly focused on military assistance and counterterrorism. International financial institutions, which receive significant U.S. funding, have also pledged aid for Tunisia. Some Members of Congress argue that additional aid should be allocated for democracy promotion and economic recovery in Tunisia, while others contend that budgetary cuts take precedence over new aid programs, or that economic stabilization may be best addressed by the private sector or by other donors.

P.L. 112-74, the FY2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act, contains provisions relevant to Tunisia. Relevant pending legislation includes H.Res. 527 (Murphy); S.Res. 316 (Lieberman); S. 1388 (Kerry); and S. 3241 and H.R. 5857, draft versions of the FY2013 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act. See also CRS Report R42153, U.S. Trade and Investment in the Middle East and North Africa: Overview and Issues for Congress, coordinated by Rebecca M. Nelson; and CRS Report R42393, Change in the Middle East: Implications for U.S. Policy, coordinated by Christopher M. Blanchard.

Date of Report: June 18, 2012
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: RS21666
Price: $29.95

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