At discussions organized by the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Brussels and Berlin, decision makers from Tunisia and Europe shed light on the North African nation's current situation.
Tunisia has adopted a new constitution. Does that mean the North African country will soon be experiencing more democracy and increased employment? At gatherings in Brussels and Berlin, the Bertelsmann Stiftung recently brought together public figures from Europe and Tunisia to discuss answers to that question and other issues critical to the country's future.
In the shadow of Ukraine's political upheaval and the Crimea conflict, Tunisia's population of 10 million is moving swiftly toward consensus and democracy. Might this be a ray of hope, a real-life example of positive transformation, right on Europe's doorstep? In fact, the small North African country, a popular destination for tourists, leads the ranking of Arab countries that have increased political and civil rights, published in the current release of the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Transformation Index (BTI).
Three years after the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship as a result of the Jasmine Revolution, Article 20 of Tunisia’s new constitution states: "All citizens, male and female alike, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination."
An Islamic country adopted a secular constitution – not an easy undertaking. Only after two and a half years of negotiations did 90 percent of Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly vote to approve the document. "Consensus and compromise are the most important factors for success," says Zied Ladhari, spokesman for the Islamist party Ennahda, the country's largest parliamentary bloc. It's a phrase he likes to repeat. After all, it took ongoing efforts by trade unions, business groups, human rights organizations and others to overcome the mistrust separating Islamists and the country's secular minority.
Tunisia's new-found agreement faces a new round of challenges, however. It remains to be seen whether the country's political parties and civil society will be able to nurture their budding consensus into a robust culture of compromise – especially when it comes time to turn constitutional ideals into concrete laws.
The country will be electing a new president and parliament, not to mention regional and local representatives, by the end of the year. Will the campaign be a fair one and will it produce a government able to carry out its duties? Based on the examples of Mexico and Portugal, the constitution establishes an adversarial system in which the country's president and prime minister serve to counterbalance each other.
Another question, however, is just as important: Will the constitution and coming elections result in the desperately needed jobs and prosperity the country has long hoped for?
Article 39 of the constitution states that every citizen, male or female, has the right to work. Moreover, all citizens, male and female, have the right to adequate working conditions and a fair wage. Unemployment is rampant – up to 40 percent among young people – and living standards vary greatly between urban centers and the countryside. Tunisia urgently needs new jobs if it is to prevent protests, strikes and emigration. Employment promotes social harmony, and the country’s small and midsized enterprises offer the best prospects for greater employment. Entrepreneurs, however, need more than courage and dedication, explains Ramzi el Fekih, whose company Tunisia Mobile develops financial service applications for mobile telephones, they also need start-up capital and reliable, transparent partners in the public sector. Unfortunately, he adds, it takes time to reduce corruption and create functioning institutions, which is why international investors are needed today to provide capital to the business leaders of tomorrow.
The European Union is using both financial aid and an assortment of projects – from vocational training and professional development to programs aimed at strengthening civil society – to assist Tunisia in making the challenging transition to democracy and a socially just market economy. A "mobility agreement" will also make it easier for young Tunisians to gain access to Europe’s educational institutions. According to Bernardino León, the EU’s special representative for the Southern Mediterranean, Europe's supportive measures are all headed in the right direction; what is lacking, however, is an overriding concept that will ensure the country’s positive transformation is an ongoing one.
During the discussion, Tunisian opposition politician and business leader Moncef Cheikh Rouhou called for more trade with Tunisia and less development aid. Tunisia focuses strongly on the European market, he said, noting that 70 percent of its imports come from Europe, and 80 percent of its exports are shipped there as well. According to Christian-Peter Hanelt, Middle East expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, better trade conditions could serve as the reward for transformation processes that lead in the right direction, and could take any number of forms. For example, since Tunisia can easily create new jobs in the agricultural sector, it would make sense to integrate the country directly into Europe’s common agricultural market, Hanelt said, instead of doling out minor trade concessions one after the other, such as higher export quotas for olive oil here and higher quotas for potatoes there.
More information is available in the 2014 Bertelsmann Stiftung Transformation Index as well as the current issue of Spotlight Europe, which is dedicated to the topic "North Africa – Crisis and Consensus" (available for download in the sidebar on the right).