Supporting Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy, Stability, Growth

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Challenges Test Resilience of Society, Political Order

Over the past two years, President Obama has met with King Mohammed VI of Morocco and Habib Essid, the Prime Minister of Tunisia, America’s two strongest allies in North Africa, to support their continuing efforts to build strong democratic institutions and reform their economies. This should come as no surprise, as these countries have many interests and values in common with the US, ranging from regional security and stability to protecting the rights of women and children, promoting regional economic integration, and building strong civil societies.

While Morocco has been able to launch its reforms more quickly than Tunisia and enjoys a stronger internal security apparatus to counter terrorism, both countries are committed to moderate, liberalizing policies as the backbone of their national strategies. Morocco has been active in helping Tunisia in the transition, offering expertise and lessons learned from their own experience. Still, both countries also look for continued support from the US in order to fully achieve their democratic aspirations. Given the challenges in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel, US policy makers are stretched to consistently provide assistance in whatever form to its friends in the region.

Credit: Morocco World News

Credit: Morocco World News

There is much to be gained from combining US efforts with Morocco’s knowledge to support Tunisia in achieving their ambitious vision for the future. US agencies have global experience to share and are able to provide critical funding. Morocco is continually gaining insights in democratization and empowering civil society, while Tunisia shares with both countries a vision of moderation and progress for the region but is still defining its governing dynamics.

First, let’s focus on the needs of Tunisia. The facts are well known: Tunisia is home to the Arab Spring; it is struggling through a transition to a parliamentary democracy that featured assassinations and jockeying between Islamists and secularists to form a working coalition government; and it is now poised at a juncture that threatens its emerging democracy by subjecting it to security measures that could suborn human and civil rights.

As argued in a recent Atlantic Council paper, there is no guarantee whether the future will see either a return to a more autocratic regime or sufficient stabilization of the political and security situation for the government to take steps to solidify its governing role and move aggressively to meet the needs of the country at large. It is these uncertain prospects for Tunisia that prompted the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa to hold a hearing on July 14.

As subcommittee chair Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen commented in scheduling the hearing, “Tunisia’s future is still far from certain, but it remains in the national security interests of the U.S. to see the North African country complete its transition toward democracy and to adequately address the threat it faces from violent and radical extremists, like ISIL and other terror groups. This hearing is an important opportunity to assess Tunisia’s current state of affairs and to identify areas in which the United States can help secure Tunisia’s democratic future.”

Panel Testifying at Hearing, IRI, NDI, WINEP, IFES. Credit IRI

Panel Testifying at Hearing, IRI, NDI, WINEP, IFES. Credit IRI

The expert panel included representatives of US agencies concerned with democracy development—Ambassador Mark Green of the International Republican Institute (IRI); Les Campbell of the National Democratic Institute (NDI); William Sweeney, Jr, from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES); and Aaron Zelin, a terrorism expert from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

The day of the hearing, Ambassador Green, Mr. Campbell, and Mr. Sweeney co-authored a blog in The Hill “Tunisia needs US support for democracy to succeed,” in which they argued that “Tunisia is still in a state of political transition that can be quickly reversed. Difficult problems…are still unresolved and fuel the appeal of extremist groups…Solutions to these problems lie in the delivery of good governance, redress of underdevelopment in certain regions, greater accountability and inclusivity, and increased access to opportunity.”

These messages were reiterated during the hearing, in which three themes emerged. Tunisia has pioneered the development of a moderate, democratic regime in the region, starting with a very difficult political transition since the ouster of President Ben Ali, and is struggling with internal and external forces that could destabilize the country. While security is the most visible concern, the country has yet to implement needed political and economic reforms that reduce the threat of instability due to internal discontent and lack of opportunity. Finally, the US still has a proactive role to play in supporting Tunisia’s road to a stable, secure, prosperous democracy.

What is clear from the remarks of the members of Congress who were present and the expert panel is that Tunisia has emerged from a very difficult period only to face even more challenges due to regional instability in Libya and on the Algerian border, as well as the need to make effective strides in reforming its economy.

So what can be done about this, and, more specifically, is there a way to leverage expertise of Morocco to complement US assistance to Tunisia? Morocco has not been passive in supporting Tunisia. In addition to the training of imams in moderate Islam as part of a common counterterrorism effort, Morocco recently signed eight agreements with Tunisia during a visit between the heads of government. These covered public housing, social development, education, women and children, youth and sports, higher education and scientific research, and technical cooperation in the field of transport.

Members of the committee and the panel noted the importance of US assistance in supporting Tunisia’s transition and security needs. There was also sentiment expressed that regional players like Morocco, which has common interests with Tunisia and the US, can be helpful in enabling regional aspirations for greater stability, security, and prosperity. Progress will require vigilance and commitment from all parties.

The panel identified security, elections, governance, civil society, and the economy as the most important issues to look at in the next few years. Why shouldn’t Morocco, the US, and Tunisia meet on a regular basis to discuss when and if there is way to leverage each other’s strengths to help create the common vision that is shared by all three nations? If we want to help meet the aspirations of Tunisia, then we should start by working together with our friends in the region to coordinate and maximize our efforts.


When Is the Right Time for Maghreb Integration?

Report from private sector offers recommendations

One of my initial reactions to the US-African Leaders Summit was noticing the seeming lack of integration between North and sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) when it came to the initiatives announced by President Obama. At a time when foreign assistance resources are declining globally and the lack of African cross-border trade and investment remains limited, there seems to be space for more emphasis on enabling the private sector to “grow Africa.” This was a primary message from Miriem Bensalah Chaqroun, President of the Moroccan Federation of Businesses (CGEM), who noted that multilateral and regional

Association of Moroccan Businesses

Association of Moroccan Businesses

organizations agree that this can only be achieved if governments heed the advice of the private sector regarding what needs to be done to free up the growth-promotion environment in Africa. Greatly reducing tariff and non-tariff barriers, promoting transnational infrastructure projects linking markets across borders, and business-labor-capital friendly regulations are some of the more obvious elements in a comprehensive growth strategy. These are among the issues targeted by King Mohammed VI as part of his “economic diplomacy” in Africa, echoing his calls for strengthening North-South ties on the continent.

This line of thinking brought me back to a report issued this past spring “Making the Case for Maghreb Business in Times of Change,” which is a background report and action plan for “A private sector strategy for a Maghreb Initiative of Commerce and Investment (IMCI).” The report highlights that the countries of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) – made up of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia– have very little intra-regional trade, similar to other regions on the continent. In addition, although the AMU countries may have squabbles among the members, as there are in East and Central Africa, the private sectors continue to advance projects for aligning commercial interests across the region.

If it is the common wisdom, documented in multiple studies, that the private sector – formal and informal businesses, labor, and civil society – produces more jobs annually than governments, then there is a compelling logic that the private sector is a central stakeholder in facilitating economic growth.

Enter the Union of Maghreb Employers (UME)

Regardless of political obstacles, employers associations in the AMU have historically been pioneers in promoting inter-Maghreb dialogue for growth. After continued roadblocks due to political conditions, in 2007, CAP (Algeria), LBC (Libya), UNPM (Mauritania), CGEM (Morocco), and UTICA (Tunisia) decided to establish the Maghreb Union of Employers (UME). Its goal is “Creating a predictable and growth-friendly regional business climate that would result in a double benefit: expanding trade and investment inside the Maghreb and promoting stronger economic ties with its neighborhood and global markets.”

Arab Maghreb Union

Arab Maghreb Union

The report, released at its annual meeting in Marrakech, takes into account the impact of the Arab Spring and presents recommendations for strategic steps in meetings the region’s needs for growth, opportunity, and jobs. The report highlights several troubling phenomena: the youth bulge requiring large number of new jobs for entrants into the economy; rapidly growing urbanization that is often unregulated and poorly accommodated; and desertification literally eroding the agricultural sector. These conditions have resulted in a growing informal sector, stagnation in labor productivity, and a mismatch between education and employment opportunities.

Structural Challenges in the Economy

Among the structural issues across the Maghreb, the report notes the “lack of trade complementarity,” in that there is a very low level of intra-regional trade, since most economies of the Maghreb are small markets with limited export diversification. The report also notes that there is “little integration into global production chains limiting the expansion of high value added manufacturing activities.” An associated problem is that trade patterns are largely driven by “proximity.” More that 60 percent of the region’s trade and investment is tied to the EU, and this dependence is a source of economic vulnerability, as was obvious during Europe’s economic downturn. As important when addressing global markets is the “lack of product diversification.” Aside from some progress in Morocco and Tunisia, the Maghreb has not expanded much beyond core commodity exports and some manufacturing of new products to export.

Another area for remediation is the negative impact of tariff and non-tariff barriers, such as excessive delays, paperwork, closures, and customs procedures that raise the cost of business and “limit the competitiveness and quality of products.” These obstacles to the free movement of goods, the lack of free movement of labor and capital, and the lack of cross-border infrastructure to speed shipments and transportation combine to hold back the region’s economic integration, “fragment regional value chains and impedes the diversification of the product base.”

Substantial Recommendations

Tourism driving investment across the region

Tourism driving investment across the region

After presenting a summary of the benefits and rationale for deeper integration, the report breaks out recommendations in three broad areas: connect markets through cross-border private-public partnerships on crucial infrastructure development; dismantle obstacles by identifying a limited number of “pilot sectors” where all five countries can agree on a deeper cooperation agenda; and encourage investment, particularly by ensuring that skilled workers are available to attract foreign and domestic investment. Each area is broken down by timelines and expected results that clearly indicate the intense interest of the private sector in playing a role in furthering economic development in the Maghreb. This report is definitely another tool for the region’s governments by which to develop their national strategies with a “Maghreb dimension.”

Moroccan King Spells out Need for Regional Integration of North Africa

Warns that Regional Development is Only Road to Growth and Stability

Against a backdrop of an uneven recovery in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is reaching out to its neighbors to support its transition to stability. Morocco’s response has been overwhelmingly positive as King Mohammed VI spent three days in Tunisia last week cementing a special relationship with Tunisia. Beyond speeches, there was a bilateral business conference preceding the King’s visit, and he was accompanied by more than 90 companies and 11 ministers to launch 23 bilateral agreements across economic, social, financial, educational, and other sectors.

This can come none too soon for Tunisia as it struggles to attract outlets for its economic development. In a Reuter’s article on the latest Fitch Ratings report on the two countries, the diverging challenges for Morocco and Tunisia were described as reflecting “different developments arising from the political transition in each country and their impact on economic performance.” The article explained:

In Tunisia, the political transition has proved long and difficult with recurrent violence and popular protest. Marked political instability (with four prime ministers in three years) has undermined confidence in the economy and in Tunisia’s ability to reform and finance widening twin deficits.

In contrast, Morocco’s transition to a more open political system was smooth. A new constitution that gave more power to the elected Parliament was adopted in mid-2011. The elections that followed brought to power a coalition dominated by the Parti de la Justice et du Developpement. Social and political stability has allowed the authorities to implement potentially difficult reforms, as illustrated by the gradual increase in subsidised energy prices.

The smoother political transition in Morocco was aided by a tradition of political pluralism, the permanence of the monarchy (with King Mohammed VI seen as a reformer and legitimate among the population), and economic and social reforms started after the accession of the King to the throne in 1999.

A Very Special Relationship

Morocco, Tunisia flags

Morocco and Tunisia model regional cooperation

It is no coincidence that Morocco was the first country visited by Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki when he took office in 2011. This common bond was reinforced in the King’s speech to the National Constituent Assembly in Tunis, when he referred to Tunisia as “my second home, Tunisia, a country bound to the Kingdom of Morocco by many time-honored historical and cultural ties as well as a longstanding friendship and a common destiny.”

The King emphasized human bonds the countries share, “Our common desire to consolidate the bonds of brotherhood and solidarity between our peoples, and to build fruitful cooperation ties, making our relationship a model for the Maghreb.” It is this last point—regional cooperation and integration—which was the key theme of the King’s speech in Tunis. He spoke of the “complementarity of Maghreb countries” that has the potential to undertake vital political, economic, social, and security roles “based on solid bilateral relations between the five Maghreb countries on the one hand, and on integration-oriented projects that enhance the standing and evolution of the Maghreb Union, on the other.”

It was in this context of regional integration based on transnational projects that the King and President presided over the signing of some 23 bilateral agreements, which, according to the Moroccan press, “cover various economic, social and security fields, and open up broad prospects of cooperation for the integration of the Maghreb. They are also marked by a significant openness on new areas of cooperation, including renewable energy, the environment, financial markets, and the promotion of human rights, as well as by the important involvement of the private sector represented by the General Confederation of Moroccan Businesses (CGEM) and the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA).”

Logic of North African Integration

Much has been written about the need for regional integration in North Africa. It has the lowest rate of intra-regional trade in the world (less than 3 percent). Its logistics and commercial ties are subject to political conflicts that undermine opportunities for cross-border economic development. Conscious of these impediments, the King said, “Those who believe a country can single-handedly address development issues and meet the legitimate aspirations of its people are wrong, especially when it comes to meeting the demands of Maghreb youth, who are our greatest asset.” Across the region, youth unemployment averages more than 20 percent, with the majority of the populations under 30 years of age. The King went on to describe the folly of not addressing opportunities from integration.

King Mohammed VI addresses Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly

King Mohammed VI addresses Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly

Those who think a country can deal with security and stability problems on its own are just as wrong. Experience has shown the failure of approaches that exclude others when seeking to address the security threats looming over the region; this is especially true when it comes to the development and security challenges facing the Sahel and Sahara region.

 Wrong, too, are those who think the status quo can be maintained, or who believe that keeping our Greater Maghreb in a state of lethargy can somehow be a fruitful strategy; a case in point is the ongoing closure of borders, which is not only at odds with the Union’s founding charter, but is also inconsistent with the normal course of history and the requirements of geographic complementarity and cohesion. In fact, such a policy is against the very interests of the region’s peoples, who yearn for unity and integration.

 …The Maghreb Union is no longer a mere option or a political luxury; it has become a pressing popular demand and an inevitable strategic goal in the region.

 …Comprehensive development for the benefit of our peoples cannot be achieved [without]… completing the establishment of a Maghreb free-trade zone and building basic infrastructure and communication networks to facilitate the free movement of people, services, goods and capital between the countries of the Great Maghreb.

The success of this commitment to long-term development and progressive economic growth within Morocco and with its neighbors across the Maghreb and Africa is reflected in Morocco’s improving ratings as a regional base for business and investment. Yet achieving progress is not without its challenges. Dependent on imported energy supplies, troubled by slow growth in employment, and experiencing the growing pains of an emerging constitutional democracy, the King is committed to embracing and promoting Morocco’s role as a leader in the maturing of an integrated Maghreb.

Fitch Ratings: Morocco Shows Resilience and Growth since Arab Spring

 Leads in Investments and Economic Indicators in North Africa

A new report from Fitch Ratings offers strong praise for the social and political stability Morocco has demonstrated “since the start of the Arab Spring in early 2011,” comparing it favorably with its neighbors, even the hopeful success story in Tunisia. The report notes: “The smoother political transition in Morocco was aided by a tradition of political pluralism, the permanence of the monarchy (with King Mohammed VI seen as a reformer and legitimate among the population), and economic and social reforms started after the accession of the King to the throne in 1999. Stability in Morocco has supported growing tourist arrivals (which reached 10 million in 2013) and FDI inflows.”

The results confirm that Morocco has moved from a sedentary and often reactive economic player to one that is gaining a global reputation for business savvy. Since the accession of King Mohammed VI, there has been a country-wide campaign to build a stronger, more dynamic domestic economy capable of competing globally. To compensate for its status as the largest energy importer on the continent, Morocco is attracting international consortia to a host of renewable energy projects ranging from solar and wind to improved hydro and even nuclear options.

Morocco's infrastructure supports regional business leadership

Morocco builds infrastructure to support regional business platform

As the Fitch Ratings Report indicates: “Ratings dynamics in Tunisia and Morocco will crucially depend on their ability to narrow twin deficits [budget and current accounts], rebuild policy buffers, implement reforms and accelerate growth. In Morocco, the Stable Outlook anticipates a gradual narrowing of the twin deficits, supported by continuing reforms.”

At the top of the economic reform agenda for Parliament is restructuring the compensation and pension systems, redrawing land management and ownership guidelines, and migrating to more efficient electronic processing of trade-related documents.

With the launch of Casablanca Finance City, expansion of the Tangier-Med Port, and investments in emerging urban and transit centers, Morocco is increasingly attractive for international investments due to its stability, reputable and functioning business infrastructure, and strong ties and good relations throughout the western half of Africa.

The latter was underscored by King Mohammed VI’s four-nation Africa tour earlier this year, where the Moroccan leader presided over the signing of more than 80 agreements across diverse sectors including agriculture, financial services, tourism, transportation, and trade and investment facilitation. Domestically, Morocco continues to introduce and implement legislation that bodes well for its economic future. “Social and political stability has allowed the authorities to implement potentially difficult reforms, as illustrated by the gradual increase in subsidised energy prices,” comments the Fitch Report.

Morocco has energetically revived its reputation as a business crossroads for a market of one billion customers in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Investors and companies will be assured by the assessment of Fitch Ratings and others that Morocco is the place to be to do business throughout the region stretching along the Atlantic coast and into the interior of Africa.


A Tale of Two Cities…well, Actually Three Countries

Finding the Middle Path in Politics is Fraught with Challenges yet Better than No Discourse at All­­­­

When Driss El Yazami, the chairman of Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (CNDH) spoke recently in Washington, DC, he was asked about the so-called Arab Spring and its impact on human rights protections. He was quite candid in his response. “The core issue is about identity; it is about dignity. It is the loss of the connection between one’s identity and one’s dignity that is at the heart of today’s unrest.” He believes that human rights protections derive from the value that governments place on their relationship with their people. Human rights protections are a conscious effort by governments to have a social contract that applies to all people in the country.

This is the rationale behind the CNDH’s campaigns for migrant rights, the end of military trials for civilians, enhanced rights for the mentally ill, and eliminating child labor, to list several of their most recent efforts. And Morocco has earned praise for its continuing human rights reforms, largely as a result of the government adopting CNDH’s recommendations and turning them into legislation. Mr. El Yazami contends that this is the characteristic of democracy that goes beyond elections. It is a space where all opinions can be heard and debated without fear and with respect for differing perspectives and the outcomes of the debate.

Keeping Faith with Tunisia

In the past few months, Tunisia has garnered extensive praise from the international community for its “National Dialogue,” which weathered a very difficult drafting of a constitution and installation of a transitional technocrat government leading to presidential and parliamentary elections in late 2014. The contentious constitutional process avoided the poor outcomes that have plagued Egypt and Libya where significant disagreements have produced unsatisfactory conclusions. It should not be taken for granted, however, that the transitional success of the National Dialogue means that there is unity in Tunisia’s political landscape.

Human rights advocates are concerned that political expediency will mar steps needed to genuinely move Tunisia forward. As Yasmine Ryan writes, “…ignoring deep structural inequalities will only lead to further instability. Add to this the desperate need for major reforms to the judiciary, security forces, the education system, and decentralization, among others—and Tunisia’s challenges can sometimes seem insurmountable.” And the questions of national identity and defining with some precision the relationship between the state and religion continue to be unresolved, promising more contentious maneuvering as the elections approach.

Amna Guellali, director of Human Rights Watch for Tunisia and Algeria, remarked in an article in World Policy Journal  that contradictions and vague definitions in the constitution “could have grave consequences for the country.” It is in this gap between the constitution and how the enabling legislation is drafted, finalized, and implemented that human rights protections face their greatest challenges. One compelling example is the potential contradictions in the role of the government as “the guardian of religion” and “protector of the sacred,” while also ensuring “liberty of conscience.” Given that the first article of the new constitution states that Tunisia’s religion is Islam, there are understandable concerns about how this will play out. Without a national independent body akin to CNDH that can shed light on inclusive steps towards real democracy, the task of defenders of human rights is more difficult as the economic and social development needs of Tunisia will dominate the agenda of any incoming leadership.

And In Algeria, the Same may not Hold

It is difficult to have a forward-looking discussion about human rights reforms in a country    with such an opaque political process. John Entelis, writing in Muftah, notes “Riots and protests have been a regular feature of Algerian political life” and mentions that critics have pointed out that there is no timeline for implementing reforms announced since 2011. Some see reforms as a mouse caught “between the president’s office and the military-industrial complex, between executive authority and the country’s powerful intelligence services.”

The run-up to the presidential election this week has seen the withdrawal of candidates, boycott calls from Islamic and leftist parties, and the virtual campaign for Bouteflika’s re-election run by surrogates who are assuring Algerians that reform is his priority – once he is returned to office. “One pro-government politician went so far as to declare, ‘I will vote for him [Bouteflika] dead or alive because he has done so much for the country.’”

How much-needed human and social development challenges will be addressed after the elections has yet to be discussed. “It is a testament to the extreme disconnect between the country’s formal political structure and its civil society that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Algerians have been completely unaffected by the virtual absence of presidential authority…” With the debate yet to begin on a new constitutional amendment providing for the office of Vice-President and the installation of that person, human rights has little visibility within the debate over the new power balance that will emerge with Bouteflika’s departure. As James D. Le Sueur wrote in a monograph for the German Marshall Fund, “Politically, Algeria has managed to weather the storm brought on by the Arab Spring through swift and deliberate police presence meant to suppress real calls for reform.” It is hard to imagine a meaningful national dialogue in Algeria on identity and dignity emerging any time soon.

Unclear Prognosis for Human Rights in the Maghreb

Laudatory as the results of the Tunisian National Dialogue are, its new constitution exemplifies the challenge of closing the space between values and politics. As Tunisians prepare for end-of-year elections, the priority given to human rights may become clearer as candidates address voters concerns about social and economic inequalities. Morocco has its plate full with recommendations from the CNDH as well as judicial reforms, a new civil society framework, and reducing economic disparities to address through the end of this year. In Algeria as well as Libya, where basic rule of law has yet to be established, internal dissensions, power moves among various players, and uncertainty among the populace as to their countries’ future stability will have a major impact on the importance given to human rights under new governments. It will be a long year ahead.

Middle East economic reform requires robust and constructive citizen participation

A great deal of hand wringing goes on as bad news continues to drown out progress in the transitions going on in the Middle East and North Africa. From Egypt and Syria to Libya and Yemen, nay-sayers and pundits readily point out that there are few short-term solutions that don’t require some pain in the process of moving forward. As national identities crumble under the assault of religious and partisan appeals, it is problematic to come up with short-term remedies that don’t have long-term consequences for the political and economic health of the countries.

It seems to me that, aside from Tunisia at the best of times, which is not often enough, there is a failure by governments in transition to sustain effective messaging that people can understand on how the government is going to concretely tackle unemployment and corruption. Blaming the IMF for subsidy reforms is not a credible strategy for laying the groundwork for other steps that must be taken to reduce public debt incurred as a result of inflated bureaucracies, inefficient labor regulations, and insufficient investment capital available for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Even Morocco’s parliament is encountering problems passing needed reforms to reduce expenditures and stimulate sustainable economic growth.

The challenges in the Maghreb are enormous, and yet citizens are rarely being mobilized to take part in economic development. Rather, they are pulled in different directions by political forces more concerned with scoring points and securing power than contributing to a way forward that is balanced, equitable, and contributes to necessary long-term changes.

Considering the options

Outside organizations are working in the MENA to provide mechanisms to bridge the messaging gap between governments and citizens. The George C. Marshall Foundation in cooperation with the Stimson Center and L’Insitut Arabe des Chefs d’Enterprises recently held a conference in Tunis that “brought together business people, academicians, policy planners and other thought leaders for a day and a half discussion on regional economic integration in the Maghreb…” The purpose of the conference was to determine how the action principles behind the success of the Marshall Plan in rebuilding Europe “might best be applied to contemporary situations where economic reconstruction or mass relief is needed.” One of its principal tenets seemed quite relevant to my thinking about the challenge of promoting both top-down and grassroots support for economic reform, “Political leadership and elements of self-sacrifice and determination are essential to the success of aid programs.”

In the US, Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, built around the message “the economy, stupid,” illustrated how critical it is to capture the public’s imagination and involvement in a dialogue about progress that has consequences beyond slogans. Similarly, the pressures of trying to reverse decades of economic and political mismanagement have resulted in a credibility barrier, especially for the transitional governments in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. As is evident from the competing demonstrations in those countries, evolving a consensus on key solutions without some parties feeling marginalized is an overwhelming challenge at times.

 Reaching the people

A key lesson in “participatory democracy” that seems to have emerged from the trials of the transitional governments is that the process of engaging citizens effectively in participatory and respectful politics is daunting under the best of circumstances. Their previous experiences with the former governments in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt in particular have not given people a sense of national citizenship that transcends more particular allegiances. To help address this “communications gap,” the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has launched a series of civic engagement programs in the Maghreb to enable youth, civil society, and advocacy organizations to more effectively engage in the political process.

The World Bank Institute (WBI) along with the World Bank Middle East and North Africa (MENA) recently “brought together government officials and civil society practitioners from Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia to discuss how citizen engagement can contribute to more informed policies; how to develop codes of practice for public consultations; and how to use online tools to facilitate consultations.” The program aims to enable governments to “make informed decisions while creating public trust” by ensuring that the voices of those most impacted by the policy have been heard and addressed. Moreover, the program supports an inclusive process to ensure that the right players are involved, recognizing that public consultations can be critical “since the government may not have all the solutions at hand.”

This program complements others in the region such as the National Dialogue on Civil Society in Morocco focusing on how more inclusive and transparent communications between governments and citizens can reduce conflict and promote consensus around key development and governance issues. An essential element is training trainers in both government agencies and NGOs on the principles of public consultations as a tool for civic engagement.

While these efforts may be small steps in terms of bringing governments and citizens together, they are critical for directing “street” energy into advocacy tools using social media and other outreach technology and e-government programs to provide better access for people and greater knowledge and awareness for public officials. For the international donor community, there is a lesson here from the Marshall Foundation’s tenets: “Any successful aid program must be driven by the country and not imposed by outside countries or institutions.” When people speak as part of a respectful dialogue and government listens and acts to credibly engage its citizens, the street will return to being a thoroughfare rather than an avenue of protest and disorder.

From winning to working: challenges of moving beyond the Arab uprisings

I must admit that sometimes I am a bit confused by how some very good people frame their analyses of MENA issues. A recent case in point is a blog by Frederic Hof, one of my favorite writers on the Levant. He writes that the major question for the Arabs is “what will follow the Ottoman system as the true source of political legitimacy? The emerging answer is that for governments to be legitimate, they must ultimately derive their powers from the consent of the governed. This, in my view, is the meaning of the Arab Spring.”

Well, historical antecedents aside…that is a useful, as yet un-validated, position. He goes on to write, “Since the downfall of the four hundred-year empire only ninety years ago, Arabs have struggled to find the location of the stabilizing political legitimacy that once resided in the system of the Sultan-Caliph. Legitimacy has nothing to do with whether people approve or disapprove of the performance of a particular leader or government. It has everything to do with the right of a government to govern, whether it does so well or poorly. It is the system that is important; not the person.”

To speak of the Ottoman system or any of its predecessors as having the “right” to govern the Arab lands any more than other colonial powers turns history a bit on its head. However, his point that “it is the system that is important” is a hypothesis worth testing under the current tempest of transitions in the MENA region.

Perhaps the first consideration is where political legitimacy resides. Since the only clear example of retained legitimacy in North Africa after the Arab uprisings is Morocco, which was not ruled by the Ottomans and certainly did not cede legitimacy to the French and Spanish occupations, the legitimacy question is more applicable to Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. None of these countries yet has a constitution as the basis for governing, and so the jury is still out on the “system” of governance. In the contestation between Islamic parties and their “secular” counterparts, it is unclear where the mantle of leadership will be awarded by “the consent of the governed.” Those who are not fans of the Islamic government in Egypt should as well be concerned about the “tyranny of the majority” from the left or the right.

In a recent Viewpoints paper produced by the Wilson Center, Marina Ottaway analyzes the steps secular parties can take to be more competitive in Tunisia and Egypt. Her central theme is that “the secular opposition…has been unable to develop a clear message, build viable political parties, or overcome its fragmentation.” It is a telling assessment when combined with a recent remark by an Arab head of state visiting Washington, DC, who said that “there is no Arabic or Hebrew word for strategy,” focusing on the need for Arab countries to consult more seriously on complex issues such as Syria and the peace process.

While it may be that political leadership in these countries is still in flux, the bottom line, according to Ottaway is, “The transitions that started with the 2011 uprisings will not lead to a democratic outcome unless a better balance is established between Islamist and secular forces…The real issue is that democracy does not depend on the behavior of one party or faction, but on a pluralistic and balanced political spectrum. And that balance must be established in the electoral arena.” [emphasis added] And here is the challenge of history: How do societies wherein political, religious, ethnic, and socio-economic differences have been exploited for generations regard others as fellow seekers for justice and equality? How do elections, which historically have been engineered to satisfy narrowly defined constituencies, all at once become an expression of the will of the people, of “the consent of the governed?” How do issues of emerging political identities avoid being strapped with religious or personality-driven labels that stereotype their agendas before they are subject to the realities of the political marketplace of negotiation?

Ottaway offers several prescriptions to secular parties on how to capture the high ground in the political landscape: develop a clear message; develop an organization; and unite their leadership. She points out that the Islamic parties in Egypt and Tunisia have yet to articulate clear economic platforms that define their actions for governing. The secular parties “have also failed so far to suggest their own remedies in a way designed to gain broad support.” Let me suggest that perhaps this is an area where the Morocco experience may be helpful. The government’s economic plans are well articulated and targeted but have foundered in winning Parliamentary approval. At least the people know what they voted for, even if it has not yet been delivered.

Ottoway believes that the lack of cohesive secular political parties reflects, in many ways, the “social distance that separates the secular leadership from much of the population.” Again, when I look at Morocco, where the PJD and Istiqlal parties have maintained solid support among their members, they stand in contrast to less cohesive parties elsewhere. As Ottaway remarks, “….they need to decide that the non-glamorous task of building machines is worth the effort and they do not appear to have done so thus far.” This is a lesson across the Maghreb where public patience should not be taken for granted.

Finally, there is the issue of leadership, where “Individuals who in theory share the same ideals of a democratic country that protects human rights and individual freedoms, respects diversity, and takes its place among modern nations are showing little inclination to work together for the common goal.” It is counterintuitive for politicians, who seek the limelight to illuminate their positions, to defer to others and trust in coalition-building in which they are not prominently featured. Many people in the region have long lamented the lack of an Arab Nelson Mandela, but hand-wringing does not enlarge the capacity for thoughtful and effective leadership in the region.

As the Arab peoples embark on perhaps their first realistic opportunity in modern times to own their political legitimacy, the first step may be to actually build a consensus of the governed rather than proclaiming their differences.

Moving Maghreb Economic Integration Forward – Hopefully

Blog: Beating the drum for regional integration–again

This past week, yet another regional conference was held promoting economic integration in the Maghreb/North Africa. Despite all of the splintering tendencies emerging from the Arab uprisings, there is still a strong pull among leaders for greater cooperation and coordination that goes beyond security arrangements to attack the root causes of economic stagnation.

The twin economic shocks of the Arab uprisings driving away tourists and potential investors and the decline of customer markets in Europe have greatly affected rates of growth throughout the Maghreb. Greater economic cooperation, particularly to access new markets and achieve greater economies of scale, would appear to be obvious, but then intraregional politics excels at obfuscation, not innovation.

At the 4th Paris Economic Forum – Casablanca Round, Tunisia’s former finance minister, Jaloul Ayed said that the lack of a working Maghreb Union linking Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya is costing each country between two and three percentage points of growth. “I stress once again the absolute need for the Maghreb Union… a Union which would facilitate shared prosperity for all peoples in the region.”

His remarks were echoed by Morocco’s finance minister, Nizar Baraka, who noted that in order to “seize opportunities in a time of crisis, efforts needed to be pooled at the regional level. The democratic enthusiasm in the region should be harnessed and consolidated as democracy can only be meaningful if it translates into job creation, the restoration of social mobility, and improvements in citizens’ lives.” Minister Baraka, who was named by The Banker as the “best Minister of Finance in the Middle East” and “Minister of Finance 2012-Global Award,” speaks from hard fought experience in steering fiscal policy through the turbulence that has buffeted Morocco over the past two years. “This is why, for us, economic integration is essential and could be achieved through a cross-Maghreb growth pact with a shared ambition and a unifying aim: shared prosperity for all and the creation of a society of trust in North Africa,” he said. Baraka added that a competitive bloc needed to be created, so that it could position itself as a partner to the European Union.

While the economic benefits from a robust Maghreb Union may be somewhat obvious, as important in the long run is the positive impact on job creation, foreign direct investment, coordination of commercial regimes across borders, and the strengthening of the productive capacities of small, medium, and large enterprises at various stages of the value chain through competition, integration, and greater focus on competitive advantages. It would also have a salubrious impact on workforces throughout the region, focusing skills and capacity-building within competitive sectors to increase available pools of talent. All of this would engender greater regional stability to complement what is happening in the security realm.

Former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn spoke about Morocco’s economic potential as well as the difficulties facing the region. “We have moments in history where we must make difficult decisions that allow us to locate and seize the positive,” Moroccan daily L’Economiste quoted Strauss-Khan as saying. A sharp warning was given by Claire Spencer, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the UK think tank Chatham House. She pointed out that about 75 percent of the region’s population falls between 18 and 30, which provides challenges and opportunities for the region’s economic recovery as there is an accessible workforce in the Maghreb that is well positioned to provide growing services to its neighbors in Europe whose populations are ageing. The countries of the Maghreb must make full use of this asset, Spencer said, adding that it was essential for the aspirations of the youth to be realized.

One of the commentators at the conference, economist Mehdi Zariri, highlighted the fact that the countries of the Maghreb are experiencing the same social and economic problems and must therefore come together to establish common strategies. “It’s vital to capitalize on the ways in which the economies of Maghreb nations complement one another, as they could form a strong economic unit in Africa,” he said.

It is this historic regional complementarity that holds the greatest promise for spearheading the economic growth critical to meeting the needs of the restive populations. Moving beyond rhetoric to concrete agreements that result in regional projects across key sectors—IT, transportation, value-added agricultural products, banking, specialty manufacturing, and renewable energies—is energizing private sectors to challenge business practices that under serve the needs of the Maghreb. The drums are beating.

"Business as usual" means lost opportunity in Maghreb

“Business as usual” means lost opportunity in Maghreb

We know there’s a deficit in private sector investment the Maghreb. Will the newly launched AMU investment fund make a difference?

US-backed program hopes to build youth employment opportunities

At Marrakech, the US and its regional partners are hosting the second “US-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference”to build the capacity of local entrepreneurs to meet demands for economic growth and jobs. And by ‘local’, they mean the countries of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. With more than 400 people in attendance beginning on January 17, there is very strong interest to see if private sector values can emerge from people whose talents have often been submerged or limited within state-driven economic models of the past.

Before the conference started, there was a series of 11 “workshops” on topics ranging from a Startup Boot Camp and Becoming an Angel Investor to Venture Capital Best Practices and an Introduction to Google Advertising Networks & Tools. The organizers realized that the attendees needed fewer presentations and more hands-on opportunities to acquire skills to maximize their experience here.

The illluminati have arrived: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute; Mostafa Terrab of OCP – the world’s largest producer of phosphates, based in Morocco; Ambassador Stuart Eisenstat; four former US Ambassadors to Morocco; brilliant economist Hernando de Soto; US Assistant Secretary of State Jose Fernandez; and the newly installed Moroccan Minister of Economy and Finance, Nizar Baraka.

Among the other 50 presenters and panelists are the three winners of last year’s TechTown incubator competition from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Whew. All of this before we even talk about how this is part of the US strategy to assist countries respond to economic issues by accelerating private-public sector partnerships to tackle employment and business development concerns to achieve specific and measurable results. While some have expressed concern about the costs of putting on such a conference, at the same time it brings home the message that probably the best tools that America has to convey to the Arab peoples are those same tools that helped the US become the world’s leading economy.

It all begins with instilling a set of operational principles about work, its value, its role in society, and the necessity of retooling throughout one’s life to respond to the shifting demands of the global economy. It also emphasizes the importance of recognizing and nurturing skills in everyone, not selecting out those who don’t meet certain social or ethno-cultural criteria. So this program is about giving people choices…about options for personal and professional growth, for understanding that job creation is as much about dignity as it is about compensation, and for integrating young people into economies in transition. BTW, the assumption is that this time governments are listening…

This article was originally published on Morocco on the Move.