Antony J. Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, Remarks on Supporting Tunisia’s Transition
at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Good morning. Thank you all very, very much. Minister Brahim, it is wonderful to see you, to be with you today. Ambassador Gouia, my friend, Minister Muashar, also very good to see you again, and so many friends and colleagues who are here, it is a great privilege to join you this morning.
Let me though, before I get started, just quickly return the favor. We have a big problem, which is that Bill and I have a mutual admiration society, and it is convening today once again briefly. Let me just say this. There is a tendency in global affairs today to prioritize the urgent over the important, to judge by the tweet rather than the fact, to question the value of embassies in an age where social media makes everyone a diplomat.
And in this world where things are moving so quickly and so fast and so much information is coming at you, there are a few individuals, really just a very few, whose character, whose composure, and whose caliber embody the very mission of diplomacy and whose record of leadership remind us of diplomacy’s tremendous relevance to everything we are doing today.
In my experience, Bill Burns embodies exactly that. He is one of those very, very few people. I have a little post-it note on my desk that I inherited from Bill that reads WWBD – What Would Bill Do. I refer to it all too frequently. And I suppose if Bill had to go anywhere after State, we’re particularly grateful that it was here to Carnegie, where he has continued to illuminate the path forward on the most critical issues of our day.
And what brings us together today is exactly that—one of those issues thanks to Bill’s leadership.
So, Bill and the entire Carnegie team, thank you for your work to shape this conversation—to bring so many people around what is a critical issue. Your tireless engagement with the government of Tunisia, with Tunisian civil society, with the international community has shed light on the challenges ahead, the milestones that we have to reach, and the importance of working together to help Tunisia achieve those goals.
Two hundred and seventeen years ago, America, fresh from independence, sent its first-ever Consul across the Atlantic to negotiate peace and secure trade with the Bey of Tunis.
One hundred and fifty-one years ago, a magnificent portrait of the Bey was given to the United States as a kind gesture in a trying time and now hangs with great appreciation in our State Department.
And last year, last May, President Obama welcomed President Caid Essebsi to the Oval Office and hosted the first-ever meeting between a U.S. president and a democratically elected Tunisian president.
Across this long arc of history, both our nations have experienced times of great struggle and setback as we have pursued—forever forward—societies that reflect our principles and actually live our values. Here in the United States, we are reminded almost every day that our journey is still far from complete.
In Tunisia, against the greatest of headwinds, people are proving that no one—no single country, no single culture, no single faith—has a monopoly on the ideals of democracy.
Across the political spectrum, secularists and Islamists, left and right, have come together in common purpose that shows how democratic transitions, while incredibly difficult, can succeed through courageous leadership and national consensus.
In just a few short years, the Tunisian people have negotiated a peaceful transfer of power from a transitional government to a democratically elected coalition government.
They drafted a new inclusive constitution that protects the freedom of assembly, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of religion, upholds human rights, guarantees equality for men and women.
They cast ballots in a free and fair election, choosing from more than 100 political parties. We have just two of them—I can only think 100. Challenging.
They have created space for civil society to flourish. For the second year in a row, Freedom House has categorized Tunisia as “free”—the first Arab country to be recognized in this way.
Last year, when the Nobel Committee awarded a coalition of Tunisian human rights defenders, lawyers, business owners, and labor leaders the highest prize for peace, it was in recognition of the tremendous commitment of the Tunisian people to chisel the fragile foundations of democratic governance out of the rubble of dictatorship and revolution.
I say all this because it is easy and understandable—and we’ll come to it—to get fixated and focused on the challenges, the shortcomings, the deficits, they’re real, they’re deep, and they’re difficult. We’ll talk about them. But it is so important to level-set too, and put into perspective what has been achieved, what Tunisians have achieved in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
It has not been easy, and at times the forces of opposition to progress, opposition to freedom, they have grown perilously strong.
Political leaders were assassinated during the transition, putting at risk the very change for which the Tunisian people had marched in the streets.
Violent extremists too have tried everything they can to prevent Tunisia’s democratic experiment from succeeding.
Last year, as Bill mentioned, I was in Tunisia, and I visited the National Bardo Museum to pay tribute to those, Tunisians and foreigners, who lost their lives in that horrific attack—an attack that stuck at Tunisia’s very history and soul, but actually even more broadly in a sense, at civilization.
The contrast, our Tunisian friends know this so well and those of you who have had a chance to visit, this is one of the most extraordinary museums in the world. I have rarely been as overwhelmed at the sheer magnificence of what was there as in visiting the Bardo, but when you contrast that with the horror of what took place there.
The time I visited, the bullet holes were still there. In fact, the Director of the Museum was kind enough to give us a tour—actually walked us through the very trajectory that the terrorists had taken that day, and the contrast between the extraordinary beauty of the place and the civilization that it represented and what had happened on that day couldn’t have been stronger. But it was still there. Still standing. And people were there, still coming. And that is what is so important.
But this evil at the heart of the attack on the Bardo Museum, in Sousse, on Ben Guerdane just this past March have raised the specter of the violence that has torn apart other countries in the region.
As of now I think it is fair to say and safe to say that the terrorists and recidivists have failed. Their savagery has only hardened Tunisia’s resolve to meet the ideology of terror with a commitment to the rule of law.
The challenges facing Tunisia are as great as any young democracy must face: challenges of fully eradicating corruption, engaging marginalized populations in its interior region, reducing the weight of bureaucracy, getting people, especially young people, into productive jobs, and translating reforms into tangible results for all Tunisians.
Unless these challenges are met, it is true that the hope and promise of this extraordinary democratic transition is at risk. It is at risk of withering. It is at risk of losing the unique opportunity Tunisians have right now to chart a much brighter future.
I think what Carnegie has done today, Bill, is to put forward an ambitious plan to confront the challenges directly. At the heart of its proposal is a message that could not be more important: the need for the international community and the Tunisian government and people to tackle these challenges together. Both sides have to deliver if we are going to succeed.
As Tunisia’s leaders strengthen their commitment to reform, we will continue to bolster their efforts—helping to fill vital needs, provide critical know-how, and help cushion the near term pain of change, because we know that the decisions that are being made by political leaders are difficult. They are hard. And they sometimes require real risk up front. They sometimes require what seems to be sometimes a step back in being able to deliver for people before you can take a leap forward. And that is hard, hard, hard to do.
We are determined to match Tunisia’s commitment with our own—deepening the political, economic, and security support it needs to make the most of their moment.
First, we are committed to help Tunisians consolidate their democratic gains as the greatest bulwark of long-term growth and stability and an important counterpoint to those who believe that Islam is somehow incompatible with democracy.
In rapid order, Tunisia has worked to improve accountability among security services, combat corruption, and hold the first-ever municipal elections. We have invested in their efforts to reform the security and justice systems—providing safe and effective crowd control training, helping create a prison classification system to properly identify high-risk offenders, inmates with special needs, and low-risk offenders who can be referred to community corrections programs.
Just this past February—February 2—the Tunisian parliament approved amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure that strengthens detainee rights. The new provisions grant suspects the right to a lawyer from the first moment of detention, shorten the maximum time someone can spend in detention without being charged, and invalidate court proceedings if the Code of Criminal Procedure is breached. The reform addresses in part at least concerns over continued allegations of torture and other mistreatment by police. And, of course, what is always critical is the implementation, and we’ll be looking to that and Tunisians will be looking to that, but the legal framework is there, and that is what is so important.
At the same time, we have helped Tunisia’s parliament and parties institutionalize the democratic practices that the nation’s leaders have started—including things like helping Members of Parliament, parliamentary groups and commissions develop ways to solicit input from citizens, document and track citizen requests, and prioritize issues to be debated and addressed through legislation.
Because after all, they are there as representatives of the people, and their job, just as it is here for our legislators, is to try and address the concerns of the people. They need to know them. They need to be responsive to them. And they need to act on them.
On March 11, the Tunisian Parliament passed 123-0 a landmark bill requiring public institutions to publish on their websites reports of oversight bodies, a full budget broken down by regions and municipalities, information concerning public services and contracts. This transparency in government is critical to the credibility of governance, to creating confidence of the citizenry in its elected representatives and the executive branch.
These reform efforts have not only been called for by donors and implemented by government officials. They have been demanded by Tunisian society, itself. Carrying forward their nation’s history of a rich and vibrant civil society, Tunisians are reclaiming space once denied them to actively participate in their nation’s political and economic life.
In both 2011 and 2014, more than three thousand trained and certified Tunisian election observers fanned out across the nation to send real-time reports and show skeptics what an open, free, fair, and competitive election in an Arab country looks like.
And more recently, new civil society organizations have formed to prevent the spread of violent extremism and stop the recruitment, radicalization, and mobilization of young people as agents of terror. There is real movement in this area, and we are working to support it.
Second, we are helping deliver on the promises of the revolution by improving the daily lives of Tunisians. The pressure on Tunisia’s young democracy to meet the economic expectations of its citizens, to move the economy forward is simply extraordinary, especially given all that we know about the link between jobs and security.
Over a third of Tunisians are under 25 years old. And Tunisians between the ages of 15 and 30 comprise of only one-third the labor force, but three-quarters of the unemployed. The outlook for employment remains challenging, but we’re focused on helping this cohort emerge as an engine for progress rather than become a recruitment pool for violent extremists.
There is, of course, no grievance so bitter, no disadvantage so deep that it ever justifies terrorism, but unemployment, marginalization, and hopelessness can sow the seeds of radicalization, just as education, opportunity, and good governance can form the roots of sustainable, inclusive prosperity. We have to address these environmental issues that put communities and people more at risk of going the wrong way and conversely actually strengthening their resilience and making it less likely.
With our technical assistance and support, Tunisia’s leaders are enacting tough economic reforms and working to create an environment in which business can thrive. I have had the opportunity to talk to the Minister about this in the past. There is a very strong reform agenda, but again I want to emphasize, we know how difficult it is—inherently these are challenging political decisions, and it is very difficult in any political system, including our own, to recognize and act on the need for short-term pain in order to get longer-term gain, but that is the challenge before Tunisia.
Late last year, Parliament adopted the Competition and Prices Law to reduce barriers to investment, while closing some of the loopholes that allowed companies to use political influence to secure a monopoly or fix prices. And the new Public Private Partnership law will allow for quicker and greater mobilization of capital into public projects, especially for badly needed infrastructure.
We have extended almost one billion dollars in loan guarantees to help the Tunisian government gain affordable financing. And with $60 million in seed funding from the U.S., the Tunisian American Enterprise Fund is ramping up its investments in small businesses, like an IT firm in Sousse, a textile company in Mandouba, and ceramics shop in Nabeul. These small and medium sized enterprises are truly engines for growth and employment, and we have a very strong incentive in helping create an environment and helping give them any additional resources they need to try and take off.
But it is not enough to help established businesses grow. We also want young people to start them. We want to help Tunisia foster an innovation ecosystem that allows new ventures to flourish and entrepreneurs to fail and try again on the road to success.
Parenthetically, it is one of the most interesting cultural challenges that we see around the world—one of the things that people look to the United States for is this entrepreneurial and innovative capacity, and one of the hallmarks of that capacity, as all of you know, is actually a willingness to fail and indeed if you are successful and you haven’t failed once people look at you a little suspiciously.
But we have a system that allows for people to fail, and not be out of the game. Bankruptcy, for example, is absolutely critical, so there are a series of laws that need to be taken into account to create a system in which people can take risks and not literally worry about losing their shirt or their roof over their head, and at the same time there is a cultural dynamic to all this in getting people to recognize that it is okay to fail, that that may be the road ultimately to succeeding.
That is why we have helped the government make it easier for new businesses to register and access financing. We’ve expanded our exchange programs for students and increased our support for entrepreneurs. The Thomas Jefferson Scholarship Program. The Fulbright Tunisia Tech+ Scholars. Through those programs, nearly 500 Tunisians have qualified to study at universities and community colleges across the United States. Through USAID, we are training the next generation of Tunisian youth with the skills they need in math, science, and engineering to compete in a high-tech marketplace.
But for growth to stick, for unemployment to come down, Tunisia has to continue pursuing and implementing significant reforms, including revisions to its investment code, banking sector, and tax and customs administration—all of which, if done successfully, will attract more investments and facilitate entrepreneurship and job growth.
Third and in parallel with our political and economic partnerships, we are deepening the security cooperation in a way that protects our citizens and strengthens Tunisia’s capability to defeat those who threaten its freedom and security.
This past September, Tunisia joined more than 60 other nations in the Global Counter-ISIL or Counter-Daesh Coalition. We are consulting closely about the danger posed by regional instability, especially in neighboring Libya, where a real and effective government of national unity is urgently needed and is now starting to take root. Our cooperation with Tunisia has never been more important in this area, as we work to stop the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters traveling to and from Iraq and Syria, as well as to Libya.
The United States has been working to double our security assistance, which has already enabled the Tunisians to acquire badly needed equipment, including night vision goggles, body armor, armored vehicles. More importantly, it has provided training to help modernize Tunisia’s police, its national guard, its military into modern forces that capable of defeating threats while also respecting the rule of law.
To this end, we have helped improve the way their forces engage with communities, especially those in the interior and the south, and helped them develop more effective tools for gathering evidence so the practice of torture is fully excised.
Ultimately, Tunisians know that the reflex to meet extremism with extremism only provokes a dangerous spiral of grievance and repression.
The stakes today could not be any higher.
Across the region, governments are confronting the very same questions as Tunisia—questions of stability and security, of rights and freedoms—without always understanding the answer. The fundamental truth that we recognize and that we grapple with too is that there is no choice between the protection of our citizens and the preservation of our values. It cannot be either-or. It must be both.
Over the long-term, we believe from our own experience but also from the experience of countries around the world that democracy serves as the strongest defense against violent extremism and radicalization precisely because it gives all people the opportunity to express their rights, pursue their ambitions, and redress their grievances peacefully.
In the short-term what is required is tremendous patience, perseverance, and engagement.
As Carnegie’s report emphasizes, we have to do our part to help the Tunisian people actually see the dividends of democracy. We have to prioritize the coordination of our assistance and ensure it is delivered to the parts of Tunisian society that need it the most.
Now the experts say on average, successful transitions from dictatorship to full democracy with rule of law take somewhere between 15 or 20 years in the best of circumstances. Fifteen to 20 years in the best of circumstances.
For Tunisia, it’s been five years. So we need to put our expectations in line with the reality of the difficulty and the duration of these transitions.
No country can serve as the perfect model for another and there are no guarantees, but Tunisia’s early experiences—against a backdrop of regional chaos and violence—teach us of the importance prioritizing the interests and investing in the human capital of our citizens.
No organization has been a stronger voice for this message than al-Bawsala, an organization that I know is well known to pretty much all of you in this room.
Set up in the months after Tunisia’s first parliamentary elections by talented young Tunisians, al-Bawsala dedicated itself to helping its fellow citizens see inside their political process for the very first time and as a result feel some ownership for that process and some ownership for the direction of their country. In 2013, the French paper Le Monde nicknamed this young transparency team “les incorruptibles.”
Not long ago, the organization’s founder and president Amira Yahyaoui explained it this way: “My biggest frustration,” she said, “is that each time I had to explain why we should vote for independence of the judiciary, why we should vote for gender equality. Each time, I never had an example from the region. There was no precedent in the region—there is no precedence in any country that looks like us. I think what Tunisia did is that tomorrow a Libyan NGO, or a Yemeni NGO, or a Syrian NGO can point to Tunisia and say, ‘Put it in our constitution too.’ ” That is what they did. That is incredibly powerful, and it is more needed than it has ever been.
Young Tunisians like Amira have propelled their nation into courageous but also uncharted lands, where it must now stay the course. That really is the hard part. We know there are going to be hard days ahead. We know there are going to be setbacks. We know there are going to be sacrifices. It is easy to say that at a distance of an ocean, but it is so much harder for our Tunisians friends to live that every single day, but to keep standing and keep moving forward.
But as Tunisians seek to build the Arab world’s newest democracy, they do have the support of friends all over the world, especially in the United States and significantly right here in this room. The Carnegie report emphasizes how important it is for all of us to work together, to combine our capacities and insights to ensure we are maximizing the potential of our partnerships. That is very powerful too.
So I really wanted this opportunity to come and pay respect to our Tunisian friends, and to pay respect to the tremendous work that Carnegie has done trying to marshal some of the thinking and the energy and commitment that exists here in the United States and around the world for Tunisia. So to our Tunisian friends and to Carnegie, thank you for all that you have done to help Tunisia usher in a future that its people have fought for and a future that they deserve—one of peace, one of prosperity, one of security, of democracy for every single Tunisian.
Thank you very, very much.