Tunisia is the most compelling success story of the Arab Spring. While Libya remains sharply divided, Syria is mired in civil war, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia crack down on political Islam, the country has become the region's one true free-market democracy in the years since 2011.
But things are getting tougher. Tunisia has been under a state of emergency since a series of major terrorist attacks in 2015, and the economy has slowed to a crawl as tourism and inward investment has slumped. In this environment the country needs all the help it can get — and yet President Donald Trump's proposed cuts to foreign aid budgets would see its bilateral aid cut by as much as 67%.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, the 41-year-old leader tasked one year ago with meeting Tunisia's economic and security challenges, recently visited Washington to make the case for Tunisia as an ally worthy of U.S. support and assistance. I spoke to him about his meetings with the Trump administration, the legacy of the Arab Spring, and Tunisia's most pressing challenges.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
TIME: The Trump administration has talked about reducing foreign aid budgets dramatically, and Tunisia would be among the worse affected. Did you manage to convince the White House that was a bad idea?
Yousseef Chahed: The reduction in foreign aid isn’t targeting Tunisia, and I understand that it’s an overall cut; but I tried to explain to our friends in the U.S. that Tunisia is at the frontline of the fight against terrorism, and the fight against ISIS. Destroying ISIS is also a top priority of the new Trump administration—we’ve realized concrete gains against these groups, and any discontinuation at this moment will send the wrong message to terrorists. It will also create an undue burden on Tunisia. T unisia faces a dual threat – a threat from ISIS in Libya (we have 500 kilometers of shared border with Libya) and also a threat from groups affiliated with Al Qaeda on the border with Algeria. Any funding cuts will make things difficult, especially as we are currently winning this war and don’t want to just stop in the middle. We need to continue the good job. We have not had a major terrorist attacks in Tunisia in the last two years; yes, that’s because we doubled our security and military equipment budgets, but it’s also thanks to international cooperation and U.S. assistance that provided equipment and training to Tunisian security forces, improving our counter terrorism capabilities. So, this moment in time is really crucial, and I hope that the U.S. will continue to help Tunisia in the war against terrorism.
You met with Defense Secretary James Mattis, who publicly supports all of the messages you’ve just suggested, but you had another meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who let’s just say is of a different mindset. Did you feel that difference?
I felt that the number one priority of the U.S. administration is the war against terrorism (and in particular the war against ISIS) and to be honest with you, we’re happy with that because it’s also the focus of our government. We are coming from what we call the Carthage Agreement, that is an agreement between many political parties in Tunisia, with a clear mandate and five objectives, and the number one objective is fighting terrorism. So, I’m happy that the U.S. and Tunisia have the same top priorities, and that we can explain that Tunisia plays a vital role in this war, a war in which the United States needs a reliable and strategic partner. Tunisia has proven to be such a partner.
Saudi Arabia and its allies are currently locked in a seemingly intractable dispute with Qatar. Qatar has been a reasonable supporter of Tunisia over the last couple of years, in part because of the support of the Islamic Ennahda party. How does Tunisia fit in to all of this? Do you feel like a pawn between sides?
We have very good relations with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and all of those countries in general. Diplomatically speaking, we aim to make Tunisia neutral, and that’s why today we’re able to play a role in settling conflicts in the Arab world—we maintain good diplomatic relationships, and we don’t interfere in the conflict. Tunisia is ready to play any role if asked.
I think our world doesn’t need any more fights that will draw attention away from countries fighting terrorism. All these Muslim countries, Arabic countries, were receiving attacks from terrorist groups—they really need to focus on that. And with the pressure on ISIS, it looks like they’re setting up a new base in Libya to direct terror in North Africa and in Europe. I think this is now the main threat in the region. I’ve also heard from a commander in Africa who said instability in North Africa and ISIS in Libya are probably the nearest-term threats to the U.S. and U.S.-interests in the region.
This division is also playing out in Libya, with Qatar backing the U.N-recognized government in Tripoli and the UAE supporting the rebel forces of General Khalifa Haftar. Do you think that those two sides are prepared to be constructive, or not yet?
For us, Libya is a vital place where a solution really needs to be found. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi launched an initiative weeks ago based in the neighboring countries of Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria since we are the ones on the front lines. The idea is to try and have different Libyan parties sitting around the table to find a solution, and we need that solution as soon as possible as the continuation of the Libya situation will contribute to the surge of extremism—and this is an area with weapons, oil, and militias that can be really dangerous for North Africa, for Europe, and for US interests in the region.
Tunisia was the victim of three terrorist attacks in 2015, and the logistics of these attacks were all prepared in Libya. We were attacked again in 2016 by ISIS, but the attack, or what we call the battle of Ben Guerdane in Tunisia’s south, was really the turning point in the war against ISIS since this was the first defeat of ISIS. Thanks to the readiness of Tunisian forces and cooperation with the US, in 48 hours Tunisian security forces won this battle.
Libya is not just a concern from the security side, but from the economics too—the southern region of Tunisia used to trade with Libya a lot. So as we explained to our American friends, we are able to take a role in Libya since we have good relations with all the political parties thanks to President Essebsi’s recent initiative. Based on that, and with U.S. and E.U. involvement, we can find a solution.
I completely understand you need economic and political stability around you to grow, but Tunisia's rate of growth has stalled dramatically even as its democracy has flourished. Can you explain why that is?
Starting in 2011, we spent the next five years trying to build democratic institutions, and we succeeded in that. But of course we had to pay for this—in the last five years, Tunisia has been growing at about 1 percent. And this created high levels of unemployment: about fifteen percent. This is our challenge now after being successful in building this democracy.
Democracy is already well-established in Tunisia by now. In a few weeks, we’ll have our constitutional court, another tool of democracy. We had a fair and free election in 2014. In 2011 we had political parties, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of economic initiative. All this exists in Tunisia now; now the challenge is to work on the economic side in order to reinforce this democracy and bring it into the club of developed democracies like the U.S. and Europe.
We’re working on that. For 2017, we anticipate 2.5 percent growth, which is not enough, but coming from one percent last year and 0.7 in 2015, it’s good progress. And tourism is back; almost all of the European countries have lifted their travel ban on Tunisia so lots of tourists are coming from France and from Europe. This is very positive for a country like Tunisia where tourism is seven or eight percent of GDP. We expect a good agricultural season, and we also have some foreign direct investment coming back.
Part of the reason I came is to ask our friends from the U.S. to come and invest in Tunisia. The political costs were high for the last five years, but this was the cost of democracy. Just six years ago, we were living under one man and his dictatorship. Now, you can do anything you want in Tunisia. And despite the costs to our economy, Tunisia remained competitive—we continued to be one of the top exporters of the African continent. With qualified man power and more foreign direct investment, more than 3,000 European companies are invested in Tunisia. Now the goal is to focus on production, productivity, enabling investors to come invest in Tunisia.
Why do you think Tunisia has been the only successful democratic transition in the Middle East and North Africa?
Tunisia invested early on in education, in youth, and in women; that’s probably why the experience succeeded in Tunisia. Women really are equal to men in Tunisia, so their participation was crucial; we have a vibrant civil society that also participated. Then you have a level of education in Tunisia that permitted dialogue and consensus between different political parties. Also, the basics of the economy are important—Tunisia’s economy is diversified, it doesn’t just depend on oil. As a country, we export manufactured goods, textiles, agricultural products, and tourism, etc… so it’s a diversified economy that’s showed resilience the last five years.
Now we are targeting a high level of growth. We can reach double-digit growth in Tunisia if we implement some reforms. Our government is now backing reforms of the Tunisian banking system, the taxation system, and the healthcare system among others. But pressure from the IMF and the costs of fighting the war against terrorism continue to weigh on our country. For example, we’ve almost doubled our expenditure for military equipment over the last five years—these are the costs of democratic transition. And all this happened just one hour away from Rome and Marseille—which is yet another reason why western countries need to support Tunisia.
I keep saying to people “you don’t have a new democracy born every year in the world.” Tunisia’s democracy is well-established, and there’s no going back now. Tunisians are proud of our achievements and we’ll work to keep them.
I think the United States needs to help Tunisia, not only because it is the unique democracy in the region, but because any instability in North Africa will directly impact U.S. interests, as well as the interests of U.S. allies. Yes, we are aligned on the war against terror, but as a democracy of course we share common values. This is an important part of our relationship with the United States and Europe. That’s why we’re being attacked by ISIS—because ISIS rejects this kind of social living. What is happening in France, in the U.K., in Germany; those are democratic countries that will remain under threat if we don’t finish the job with ISIS and with these terrorist groups.
Is there anything that Tunisia can do to proactively work and engage with young people around the Middle East and North Africa?
Having Tunisia as a democratic model is important for youth in the region. Fighting ISIS doesn’t just mean taking a military approach; we’ve also developed another approach focused on youth, education, and culture that helps explain why these young people are being attracted by ISIS. There is a failure of different models around the world, which explain why all those young people are brainwashed immediately by ISIS and join these groups. We are developing a comprehensive national strategy in Tunisia based on four pillars: prevention, protection, persecution, and response. We need to work on the roots of the terrorism phenomenon which are poverty, education, low levels of qualification, jobs creation, etc… Different ministries in Tunisia are working with youths to help prevent extremism taking root at a very young age. And attracting people in the social sphere and offering them jobs, offering them what we call the ‘social lift’, seems to be working.
The New York Times recently ran a piece on Tunisians setting themselves on fire, just like Mohammed Bouazizi did before the revolution of 2011. Have you been surprised with the demonstrations that are happening now in Tunisia, even all these years later?
No, I can’t say I’m really surprised. Revolution brings huge expectations, and sixty-six governments before us did not manage those expectations well. That’s why this government is now trying to use a clear message to the people, explaining to them what are the possibilities in this country, what are our abilities, and what people can expect from us and what they cannot. The 2011 revolution was done for freedom, dignity, and jobs. We can say today that freedom is here, which is very important, but jobs are not here. Now we need to renew with production, we need to produce, and the country needs to get back to work. I hope we increase the level of growth with reforms to about six or seven percent growth. This will really help these young people who are facing difficulties. As I was saying—to reinforce democracy, we need to work on the economic side, and part of that is international cooperation through foreign direct investment.
It seems like the other challenge internally is that corruption levels are so high. What are you doing about it?
Yes, fighting corruption is a top priority. First, corruption is a threat to democracy; second, there is a clear link today between corruption, smuggling activities, and terrorism; third, corruption prevents us from achieving equal opportunities and a transparent market. We are really working hard to create an attractive business environment in Tunisia, so fighting corruption is crucial. After the revolution, corruption really increased in Tunisia… but we know that to attract global investors, we have to fight it. So that’s what we’ve been doing, and we’ll continue to fight corruption until the end.