What The U.S. Can Learn From Recent Progress In Tunisia And Stumbles In Egypt


Tunisia's Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, right, speaks to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. Feb. 2014

Prime Minister of Tunisia Mehdi Jomaa’s state visit to Washington this week –- the first visit for a Tunisian Prime Minister since 1990 — presents an important opportunity for the Obama administration to reengage the birthplace of the Arab Spring. The visit also offers a vivid reminder of the sharp contrast between the political transitions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Egypt has been a strategic partner and cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East for decades. But the relationship has been strained by the military’s decision to oust Mohammed Morsi and the brutal crackdown that followed. In contrast, the transition to democracy in Tunisia remains on track but only after hard compromises. Prime Minister Jomaa came to power after protracted and painful negotiations between Tunisia’s largest and then-ruling Islamist party — Ennahda — and the non-Islamist opposition in which the former agreed to resign from government. This agreement paved the way for a deal on the county’s new constitution – one of the most progressive in the region.

We visited both Egypt and Tunisia last year as part of a wider study on U.S. policy in the Middle East, and our research resulted in two reports (Egypt and Tunisia). The contrast between the two transitions could not be more striking on several fronts:

  • Simmering violence in Egypt as Tunisia remains relatively calm. The bombings near Cairo University this week provided a grim reminder that Egypt is slipping back into violence. The country’s politics remain deeply problematic. Last year, Tunisia’s politics threatened to collapse under the weight of two assassinations, terrorism and disputes over the role of Islam in the constitution. But its leaders turned back from the brink and chose the path of compromise.
  • Tunisia sees political competition while there is little space for real political alternatives in Egypt. Presidential elections are set to bring to power Field Marshal Sisi in what seems a forgone conclusion. Tunisia is also preparing for elections later this year, but there, the competition will be stiff. In Egypt, politicians never agreed on the rules of the game. Egypt’s Islamists, unlike those of Tunisia, sought to consolidate their grip on power. Egyptians responded by taking to the streets and the country’s military intervened to remove Egypt’s first democratically elected leader by force.
  • Tunisia bridges the Islamist-secular divide through politics as Egypt remains mired in increasingly violent polarization. Tunisia provides a refreshing example of a country where Islamists and non-Islamists are largely settling their differences through politics. Egyptian leaders in Islamist and non-Islamist movements alike could learn from the Tunisian experience as Egypt sees sharp divides.
  • Tunisia’s security institutions stay above the fray as Egypt’s dominate the political landscape. Tunisia’s military ignored pressure to interfere in the political process and rightly made the decision to remain on the sidelines. Having thrown the Muslim Brotherhood out, the Egyptian military now owns its country’s social and economic problems.
  • Both Egypt and Tunisia face daunting economic challenges. The economic conditions that led to the 2011 revolutions in both countries persist. Tunisia’s unemployment rate is higher than that of Egypt’s. Tunisia’s GDP growth slowed at the end of last year. An attempt by the Tunisian government to lift subsidies in January was met with rioting. Prime Minister Jomaa says his government will need to borrow $7.5 billion to cover the country’s deficit. Egypt’s public sector is being kept afloat by generous aid from Gulf countries. But this money will not flow indefinitely and Egypt’s economic prospects are made bleaker by the security situation. These economic challenges will continue to drive instability in both countries. Alarmingly, political leaders in both Cairo and Tunis are short on real policy prescriptions to overcome these challenges and jumpstart growth.
  • Both Egypt and Tunisia face real threats from terrorism and extremist ideologies. Egypt’s mismanaged political process and heavy-handed security approach has led to the deaths of thousands. Radical groups like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis see an opportunity to recruit more youth to join its jihad against the Egyptian government. Thus far, terrorism in Egypt has claimed the lives of nearly 500 civilians, police, and military personnel. The scale of the problem is much smaller in Tunisia, but Salafi Jihadis there have established a foothold through the work of Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST). That group is held responsible for political assassinations and violence that threatened to derail Tunisia’s transition.
  • Egypt remains a key strategic partner for the United States. But relations between Washington and Cairo have grown cold as old allies reevaluate what they can expect from each other. Tunisia is a country ready to welcome greater U.S. engagement and one where the investment would have a real impact. In the tough neighborhood of North Africa, Tunisia is an important partner for the United States in countering terrorism and violent extremism. By helping Tunisia, the United States would send a message in the region and show how it rewards and recognizes countries that remain on a non-violent political track.

    Hardin Lang is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, focusing on multilateral affairs, Middle East policy, and the role of Islamists in the region. Mokhtar Awad is a Research Associate at CAP focusing on Islamist groups, Middle Eastern politics, and U.S. foreign policy toward the region.