WASHINGTON — During a surprise visit to Tunisia recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the country saying it could be a “model to other peoples seeking reforms.”
While Tunisia’s political transition has been praised as a regional model, the country’s economy has stagnated. Discontent over the economy exploded in January when strikes and riots largely shut down the country after new taxes were imposed by the government. While the taxes were rescinded, Tunisia’s government continues to struggle to revive the economy.
As part of that effort Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki has pledged to revive The Arab Maghreb Union, a regional organization founded in 1989 to promote trade and political ties between its five members; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.
Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington says Marzouki’s efforts make sense.
“The Tunisian revolution was about jobs and economic opportunities. Economic development requires a bigger market with free trade partners and investment in economic ventures, so reviving the union could help pull the economies of its members who have a lot in common.” Masmoudi said.
Earlier efforts to foster regional cooperation broke down over the decades-long dispute between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara.
Masmoudi says Tunisia has a role to play in helping to bring the two sides together. “Tunisia can be a mediator in trying to reach an acceptable solution to that dispute which prevented the Union from succeeding.”
But William Lawrence, a Professor of International Relations at George Washington University and a Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) disagrees.
“2013 was a bad year for Algerian-Moroccan relations, they had several disputes over the same issue and given the Moroccan appetite for scoring points internationally on the Western Sahara issue, I don’t see much chance for a Tunisian role any time soon,” he said.
Masmoudi says Tunisia can still benefit from both Morocco and Algeria.
“Morocco has a thriving economy, so there are tremendous opportunities for economic cooperation that creates badly needed jobs and Algeria is a very rich neighbor with surplus capital that can be invested in Tunisian agriculture and tourism,” he said.
Lawrence agrees, saying regardless of the tensions between Algeria and Morocco Tunisian efforts to revive the Union serve all members.
“All of the Maghreb states are very aware that they lose several points of their respective gross domestic production GDP every year by not having a unified economic activity,” he said.
Tunisia’s economic problems stem in part from the global economic downturn – especially in the EU countries – which are Tunisia’s main trade partner. So while it is trying to revive the Arab Maghreb Union, Tunisia is also working to develop trade with regional powers like Iran and Turkey.
Tunisia reduced customs duties on imports from Turkey, an early supporter of its revolution. Turkey’s economy minister recently said that Turkish companies have invested $744 million in Tunisia with more to come. Turkey also provided a critical $500-million assistance package immediately following Tunisia’s revolution.
Masmoudi says Turkish economic support has been a boon to Tunisia. “Turkey has become a major economic super power in the region and with its swift support to the Tunisian revolution it became a main partner in energizing Tunisian economy and in technology transfer,” he said.
Tunisian officials have also been outspoken in their diplomatic support for Iran, with President Marzouki criticizing efforts to isolate Tehran over its nuclear program. In a recent meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Tunisia’s ambassador in Tehran pledged to expand trade and political ties.
William Lawrence says however Tunisia’s outreach to Tehran is more political than economic.
“Islamists in general have always been long inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution and in particular Iran’s stance with regard to the Palestinian issue,” he said.
Radwan Masmoudi says regardless of where it finds economic partners it’s vital that Tunisia do so if its revolution and its transition to democracy are to succeed.
“For the last three years Tunisia focused on developing its democratic institutions and recently ratified a new constitution, but at the end of the day people would like to have jobs and food on their tables. Democracy has to deliver economic development so people can feel that the Tunisian revolution improved their livelihood,” said Masmoudi.