Tunisia is a paradox. It is the Arab Spring’s one fragile success story, still committed to a democratic path. It is also the largest recruiting ground for Islamist terrorist groups, revealing deep fault lines in the country’s efforts to provide its citizens with more political and economic opportunity. The Trump administration is currently sending mixed signals in terms of its approach to the country, highlighting the key role Congress can play in ensuring a balanced and productive policy.
Tunisia—small, relatively homogeneous and endowed with strong human development indicators rather than natural resources—is the last Arab Spring country standing. It has run truly contested elections, finding a way to integrate moderate Islamists into the historically secular political elites. But its struggles abound. The economy has weakened since former dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali fell from power in 2011, dropping Tunisia from the World Bank designation as an upper middle-income country to lower middle-income status. Terrorism and corruption have dominated policy debates. The parliament is now considering measures that in theory will help restore the economy and empower security forces to deal more effectively with internal threats, but are deeply worrying for Tunisia’s democratic future.
Earlier this month, Tunisia’s young, technocratic prime minister, Youssef Chahed, visited Washington to discuss economics and security in meetings with Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis and congressional leaders. While he heard encouraging messages from the executive officials and received moral support for the fight against terrorism, other proposals from the Trump administration are quite unhelpful to Tunisia and will require congressional action to reverse.