Navigating Democracy in Tunisia

Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building in Tunisia Dec. 17, 2010. Following his death in early 2011, protests and riots erupted throughout the country, unseating President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of rule Jan. 14. Tunisia has been working to establish a democracy since then, and made significant progress in 2014 by establishing a new constitution and holding elections for parliament and a new president.

Tunisia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Faycal Gouia visited the Tower Center to give the seminar “Navigating Democracy and Open for Business” May 18.

Tunisia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Faycal Gouia visited the Tower Center May 18 to discuss Tunisia’s progress and the country’s goals and ideas for the future during the seminar “Navigating Democracy and Open for Business.”

Gouia is most proud of Tunisia’s public education program. The government offers free education from kindergarten through university and PhD programs to students who can pass a series of tests. Gouia says this is an effort of the to have a fully educated population. But even with an educated public, the small North African country is struggling with high levels of unemployment. The World Bank reports Tunisia’s unemployment to be 15.2 percent, with unemployment for graduates at 19.9 percent. Gouia tags this as the number one social problem the country faces. The government’s goal is to reduce the rate to 12 percent by 2020.

This issue has been compounded by an economy in turmoil. Tunisia’s economy has suffered greatly from the threat and presence of terrorism — especially with Libya as its neighbor. However, Gouia is optimistic that this is changing for the country. It has been 15 months since the last attack, tourism and Foreign Direct Investment are both on the rise, and the military has transitioned from defensive to offensive operations to eliminate the terrorist threat.

In response to a question about Tunisia’s violence-ridden neighbor, he offered insight into Libya’s situation and why establishing a democracy seems to be an impossible mission for them.

The unrest in Libya, according to Gouia, is easier to solve than the unrest in other Arab countries such as Yemen and Syria because its population is homogeneous and tribal. The main problem, however, is that there were no established institutions (such as a military or police force) when Muammar Gaddafi was killed in 2011, unlike the well established institutions Ben Ali left behind in Tunisia. Although Libya is a rich country in terms of resources, it has the largest oil reserves in Africa, Gouia said it has been plagued by the “worst leadership” in the Arab world.

Here is Ambassador Gouia’s four-step solution to Libya:

  1. Reduce the number of weapons circulating in Libya, estimated to be around 30 million.
  2. Develop an army
  3. Open up a national dialogue to get the leaders of the different tribal leaders together around a table. The U.S. and UN should facilitate this.
  4. Establish a roadmap for reconciliation. “They’re navigating without a compass,” Gouia said.

The ambassador left the discussion on a brighter note saying talks with the Trump administration have gone well, and that foreign aid has been granted to Tunisia for 2017. But with talks of budget cuts circulating Washington, he said the world is uncertain what 2018 will hold.