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US Foreign Policy on Transitional Justice and Democratization in Tunisia: Pacted Transition or Democracy Reduction?

Oussema Othmeni

Abstract

The United States of America (US) committed nearly $1.4 billion in foreign assistance to Tunisia in support of its democratic transition and transitional justice process between 2011 and 2020. This paper seeks to identify and assess the ideational frameworks guiding the distribution of US assistance, and influencing US foreign policy behavior, throughout the democratization and transitional justice period in Tunisia. It provides considerable evidence showcasing the existence of two prevalent schools of thought in US policymaking circles: The first school believes that the US invested in the notion of Pacted Transitions, which advocates for rapid transitions through political compromise and power-sharing mechanisms without necessarily promoting grassroots democratic reform. This can indirectly explain the US emphasis on security sector assistance and the relative marginalization of transitional justice objectives mainly in terms of institutional vetting, lustration, and reform. The second school puts forward a Democracy Reduction Critique, arguing instead that US policymakers fell for the electoral democracy fallacy and fetishized the role of civil society. This paper critically accounts for both schools and argues that they represent two sides of the same coin.

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1. Introduction

1In the wake of the 2011 revolution, Tunisia witnessed the emergence of a complex and evolving democratization landscape marked by the rise of various social and political actors. On the one hand, Ennahda emerged as the country’s leading Islamist party and represented a major political force post-revolution, navigating its role as a governing party within an increasingly polarized political landscape. On the other hand, Nidaa Tounes, a secularist party, emerged in response to Ennahda’s rise and reflected Tunisia’s ideological diversity. The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) also played a pivotal role as a powerful civil society organization that advocated for workers’ rights and served as a mediator during periods of political crisis and social instability. During the height of Tunisia’s political transformation, institutions like the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) and the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) were established to oversee electoral processes and address human rights abuses, respectively. Throughout the transition, Tunisia witnessed significant milestones, including adopting a new constitution in 2014, holding free elections, and implementing a peaceful transfer of power. The democratic transition processes witnessed significant challenges, however, revolving around economic stagnation, security concerns, human rights abuses, and increasing institutional corruption. Tensions between political factions also strained the transition process. Tunisia continues to grapple with political uncertainty amidst ongoing debates over governance, economic reforms, and the consolidation of democratic institutions.

  • 1 Office of the Press Secretary. “Statement by the President on Events in Tunisia.” Accessed June 04, (...)
  • 2 Barrack Obama, “Transcript: Obama’s Speech About The Arab World.” Accessed June 04, 2021. https://w (...)

2Throughout the transition period, the United States of America (US) played a crucial role in shaping the country’s transition to democracy in a post-authoritarian and post-conflict setting. The Obama administration, in particular, demonstrated a strong interest in Tunisia’s democratic transition. The White House stated that the US “stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold,” and that “the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard” will forever be remembered.1 Moreover, President Obama himself stated that the American government has “embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.”2 On the one hand, these words reflected a palpable American interest in Tunisia’s democratic transition and played a central role in shaping American foreign policy on Tunisia for the next decade. On the other hand, the Obama administration initially followed a cautious approach to the Tunisian revolution by supporting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime.

  • 3 Barrack Obama, “Transcript: Obama’s Speech About The Arab World.” Accessed June 04, 2021. https://w (...)

3The initial support for the dictatorial regime stemmed from US strategic considerations and a desire to maintain stability in the region. The US viewed the Ben Ali regime as a key ally in promoting counterterrorism efforts and regional stability. It was only after protests intensified, Ben Ali’s regime faced mounting pressure, and the Obama administration faced growing criticism for its perceived hesitancy and inconsistency, that the US shifted its position. This compelled President Obama to openly support Arab reform during his May 2011 speech at the State Department.3 He recognized the legitimacy of pro-democracy movements and reiterated US support for democratic ideals.

  • 4 US Department of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, “U.S. Relations With Tunisia.” Accessed May (...)

4The sudden change in US policy towards Tunisia can be attributed to several factors. For instance, the escalating protests and crackdown on dissent delegitimized US support for Ben Ali’s autocratic rule. Tunisia’s unique position as the birthplace of the ‘Arab Spring’ and a symbol of pro-democracy movements in the region also played an integral role in shaping the administration’s decision to promote Arab reform. Despite having better bilateral relations with other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Tunisia was perceived as a beacon of hope for democratic change and broader political transformation across the region. This perception motivated the US to provide considerable foreign assistance to Tunisia throughout its transitory period. Between 2011 and 2020, the US committed more than $1.4 billion to assist Tunisia in supporting democratic governance, enhancing the security sector, and promoting economic growth. 4

5The US commitment to Tunisia’s transition was also an attempt to avoid potential political instability and social unrest, which could create fertile ground for extremism and terrorism. The protests and conflicts witnessed in countries like Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and, especially, neighboring Libya were accompanied by the proliferation of paramilitary groups and extremist militias. This exacerbated security challenges and threatened regional stability. The Obama administration’s interest in supporting Tunisia’s transition to democracy can be understood within this context. Nevertheless, the administration’s initial support for Ben Ali and subsequent recalibration of policy raises questions about the reliability and credibility of the United States as a regional leader, particularly in promoting democracy and human rights.

  • 5 Daniel Brumberg and Maryam Ben Salem, “Tunisia's Endless Transition?”, Journal of Democracy Vol.31, (...)
  • 6 Christopher Lamont K. and Hannah Pannwitz, “Transitional Justice as Elite Justice? Compromise Justi (...)
  • 7 International Crisis Group, “Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption.” (Brus (...)

6Interestingly, the existing literature on this subject matter portrays a notable gap in its failure to analyze the US approach to Tunisia, between 2011 and 2020, through the lenses of two contrasting schools of thought. These two schools depend on opposing paradigms revolving primarily around the notions of Pacted Transition, which supports rapid transitions through power-sharing mechanisms between old and new elites without equally advocating for grassroots democratic reform, and Democracy Reduction. The first school legitimizes US foreign policy behavior and security-oriented choices by arguing that the US followed a Pacted Transition approach to post-revolution Tunisia. The second school scrutinizes US policies by contending that the focus on securitization reflected a reductionist approach to democratization and resulted in the fetishization of civil society. While much scholarly attention has been devoted to examining US foreign policy in Tunisia, there remains a significant dearth of research that explores foreign policy behavior and its impact on democratization through the above-mentioned schools. For instance, notable works such as “Tunisia’s Endless Transition?” by Daniel Brumberg and Maryam Ben Salem,5 “Transitional Justice as Elite Justice? Compromise Justice and Transition in Tunisia” by Christopher Lamont and Hannah Pannwitz,6 and Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption by the International Crisis Group7 analyze the Tunisian experience from primarily internal lenses. Such analyses tend to neglect the role of the US particularly in relation to its two potentially guiding schools: Pacted Transition and Democracy Reduction.

  • 8 Yahia H. Zoubir, “The US and Tunisia: Model of Stable Relations.” In Handbook of US-Middle East Rel (...)
  • 9 Pietro Marzo, “The International Dimension of Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy: From Consensus Ove (...)

7Both schools can be implemented in analyzing policy behavior to further understand domestic and external motives and outcomes. There are, however, more comprehensive accounts, such as The US and Tunisia: Model of Stable Relations by Yahia H. Zoubir8 and The International Dimension of Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy: From Consensus over Democracy to Competitiveness within Democracy by Pietro Marzo9, that consider the international role, and the US role in particular. Although the literature addressing the role of external actors is expansive, it overlooks the nuanced complexities inherent in the above-mentioned schools of thought in assessing the US role. This research gap hinders the establishment of a comprehensive understanding of the factors at play. It limits scholars’ ability to offer a holistic analysis of the intricacies shaping US foreign policy behavior, which impedes the development of more comprehensive theoretical frameworks and policy recommendations. Addressing this gap would not only enrich scholarly discourse, but would also contribute to a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding.

8To address this gap, this paper relies on primary qualitative data and secondary quantitative data within a mixed methods approach. This approach evaluates US foreign aid, highlights a particular focus on security assistance, and identifies two schools of thought that provide potential explanations for US foreign policy behavior. Accordingly, this paper proceeds by describing the methodology and design followed in achieving this study’s objectives. It then delivers a critical assessment of US foreign assistance to Tunisia during its transition period (2011-2020). Consequently, this paper deals with two schools of thought addressing US foreign policy behavior in this context: Pacted Transition and Democracy Reduction. It provides a critical assessment of both schools before finally arguing that, although they represent opposing perspectives, deeper analysis reveals that they are two sides of the same coin.

2. Methodology: Research Design and Data Collection

  • 10 John W. Creswell, Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches (Califor (...)

9This paper employs a mixed methods research approach that combines primary qualitative data with secondary quantitative data through a concurrent design. Concurrent mixed methods are procedures that converge, merge, and integrate qualitative and quantitative data in an attempt to provide comprehensive, holistic, and overarching analyses addressing a particular research problem.10 This definition highlights the value of complementarity between two datasets in the production of interpretations answering research questions. This section provides a brief description of the data collection methods utilized in this paper within such a framework.

2.1. Quantitative Data

  • 11 US Department of State. 2023. Foreign Assistance Gov. Accessed Jan. 26, 2023. https://www.foreignas (...)

10In terms of quantitative data, this paper relies on secondary data farmed from the US Department of State’s foreign aid database and the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor. The first source of information provides an official, publicly accessible database that seeks to increase governmental transparency concerning US foreign assistance. It serves as the main hub for budgetary data produced by governmental agencies.11 This paper depends on the Department of State’s foreign aid database to segment American foreign assistance to Tunisia and pinpoint the major sectors that benefited from such assistance. Although the official nature of the Department of State’s foreign aid database significantly increases its credibility and accuracy, this paper opted for the adoption of another source of budgetary information to improve reliability. More precisely, the Security Assistance Monitor provided by the Center for International Policy is also utilized in a complimentary manner, to increase data validity concerning security assistance. Quantitative data triangulation is, therefore, achieved internally through the utilization of governmental and non-governmental sources of information.

  • 12 Security Assistance Monitor, Security Assistance Database. Accessed April 29, 2022. https://securit (...)

11Quantitative data analyses reflect a security-oriented approach to democratic transition in Tunisia, with US security assistance amounting to a total of approximately $132.3 million in 2002-2010 and $866.4 million in 2011-2020.12 This reflects an unprecedented increase during the transitional justice period. Quantitative data also highlight that security sector assistance came in first within the top five most-funded sectors. Security sector assistance exceeded the funding for the next four sectors combined. A more comprehensive quantitative data analysis is provided in the next section.

2.2. Qualitative Data

  • 13 Robert K. Yin, Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods (California: SAGE Publicati (...)

12This paper relies on primary qualitative data gathered from twelve interviews conducted with current and previous government officials, leading scholars, and think-tank personnel. Resorting to interview data in understanding institutional behavior, particularly with regard to the foreign policy establishment, is especially useful, as it provides real-life insights and firsthand experiences. This notion is significantly supported by Robert K. Yin,13 who contends in Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods that interviews can be very efficient in providing answers for the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ that characterize a particular research problem. This approach is useful to this paper as it seeks to elaborate on how the US foreign policy establishment behaved within the Tunisian transitional justice period and, more importantly, why it behaved in the way it did.

13To this end, interviewees were presented with statistical data displaying US foreign assistance trends and were asked to provide their expert opinions on the US approach to democratization in Tunisia and the ideational framework guiding such an approach. Interviews revolved around the centrality of security sector assistance and its impact on democratization and transitional justice. One of the key themes that emerged from the interviews focused on military professionalism and improvements in the security sector in order to ensure stability and address issues related to counterterrorism and border security. Another recurring theme within this context addressed the lack of accountability and reform in the security apparatus, leading to a continued reliance on ongoing financial aid with hope for indirect reform.

14Interviewees also underscored the connection between security and democracy while revealing two different perspectives. The first perspective justified prioritizing securitization as essential for stability and democracy, while the second perspective criticized focusing on short-term securitization over long-term democratization without institutional reform. Deprioritizing vetting and reform raised concerns that extend beyond just the security apparatus, touching upon issues of institutional and political corruption. Interviewees also critically examined the effectiveness of US civil society funding in supporting Tunisia’s democratic transition. These topics are further explored in subsequent sections.

15More importantly, the meaning patterns emerging from the interviews revealed two distinct analyses that reflected the existence of two different schools of thought in appraising and evaluating US foreign policy in this context. The first school of thought embodied more conservative and traditionalist tendencies and justified the US focus on securitization by invoking the notion of Pacted Transitions. Interviewees of this opinion valued political compromise and downplayed the necessity for grassroots and radical institutional reform. The second school of thought portrayed a more revisionist spirit by problematizing the US focus on securitization while invoking notions pertaining to the electoral democracy fallacy, which refers to reducing democratic transition to just elections and transfer of power without equally emphasizing socio-economic complexities. It also touched on the fetishization of civil society, which addresses unrealistic US expectations concerning the role of civil society organizations in guaranteeing the efficiency and success of democratic transition paradigms. Both schools of thought, as well as their underlying assumptions, are tackled more thoroughly in the following sections. This paper argues that the ideological, ideational, and political differences that both perspectives display are marginal when compared to the outcome of US policymaking on Tunisia’s democratic transition. Although both schools depict certain differences in perceiving US foreign policy behavior, the outcome of such behavior remains immutable regardless of such differences.

3. US Foreign Assistance to Tunisia (2011-2020): A Critical Assessment

16This section provides a critical assessment of US foreign aid to Tunisia during its transitional justice and democratic transition period (2011-2020). It segments and deconstructs US foreign assistance to Tunisia and displays the existence of a security-oriented approach. Throughout this approach, the security sector emerged as the number one beneficiary of American foreign aid in the absence of sufficient institutional reform, vetting, lustration, and non-recurrence mechanisms.

  • 14 US Department of State. 2023. Foreign Assistance Gov. Accessed Jan. 26, 2023. https://www.foreignas (...)
  • 15 Security Assistance Monitor, Security Assistance Database. Accessed April 29, 2022. https://securit (...)
  • 16 US Department of State. 2023. Foreign Assistance Gov. Accessed Jan. 26, 2023. https://www.foreignas (...)
  • 17 Ibid.

17US foreign assistance to Tunisia was dedicated to five major sectors: security, government and civil society, banking and financial services, business and other services, and social infrastructure. Data collection from the Department of State’s foreign aid database confirms that these are the top five sectors of American foreign assistance to Tunisia between 2011 and 2020. However, a more thorough analysis reveals that while the security sector received between $782 million14 and $866 million,15 the other four sectors combined received approximately $748 million.16 This means that US assistance for the security sector exceeded assistance for government and civil society, business, banking, and social infrastructure combined.17 This can be seen in Figure 1, which portrays the distribution of the top US foreign assistance sectors between 2011 and 2020.

18Figure . Distribution of the Top Five Sectors of US Foreign Assistance to Tunisia (2011-20)

  • 18 Former Special Advisor at USIP, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Oct. 28, 2022.

19The only sector that was significantly financed alongside the security sector, although to a lesser extent, was government and civil society. However, the next section of this paper integrates interview data and contends that civil society financing was not conducted efficiently. This is because it resulted in increasing the number of civil society organizations (CSOs) without necessarily increasing the quality of activities provided by such organizations. The American approach to civil society funding prioritized quantity over quality and amounted to what interviewees described as “rent-seeking.”18

  • 19 Security Assistance Monitor, Security Assistance Database. Accessed April 29, 2022. https://securit (...)
  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 US Department of State. 2023. Foreign Assistance Gov. Accessed Jan. 26, 2023. https://www.foreignas (...)

20Moreover, the US focus on securitization after the Tunisian revolution can be seen in the remarkable increase that occurred post-2011. US security assistance to Tunisia amounted to a total of approximately $132.3 million before the revolution and, more precisely, between 2002 and 2010.19 This amount increased more than six times in the next decade and reached an estimated $866.4 million, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.20 The regime change that occurred in 2011 and the emergence of a democratization and transitional justice framework legitimized unprecedented increases in security assistance. This increase occurred within a larger trend that saw US assistance for Tunisia in general increase from $12.3 million on a yearly average (2002-10) to $167 million (2011-2020).21 This general increase in foreign assistance was accompanied by and can be attributed to a significant and unprecedented increase in security sector assistance.

21Accordingly, statistical data gathered from both the US Department of State and the Security Assistance Monitor corroborate the existence of a remarkable emphasis on securitization during Tunisia’s transitional justice and democratic transition period. The focus on security can be understood as a consequence of persistent instability, conflict, and terrorism in the MENA region, particularly in relation to countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and neighboring Libya. For example, the Syrian civil war resulted in widespread violence, millions of refugees, and the rise of extremist groups. During the same period, Iraq continued to grapple with sectarian violence and insurgencies despite efforts to stabilize the country. Yemen’s civil war created a complex humanitarian crisis between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. Libya descended into chaos after 2011, and, more specifically, after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, leading the country into a path of political fragmentation and resulting in the emergence of paramilitary groups and terrorist organizations. In the same vein, Tunisia’s internal security also presented several challenges, such as political assassinations, including the killing of prominent figures like Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. The assault on the US Embassy in 2012, the Bardo Museum attack and the Sousse attacks in 2015, and the presence of terrorist groups—most notably, in the Chaambi mountain region, also reflected vulnerabilities in the security sector. The terrorist assault in Ben Guerdane near the Libyan border in 2016 further highlighted border security challenges. These events can explain the increase in US security assistance to Tunisia.

  • 22 Linda Bishai, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Sept. 30, 2022.

22Although the US emphasis on security assistance to Tunisia can be justified with emerging instability in the region during that period, it can also be problematized, because it occurred in the absence of institutional and structural reform, vetting, and accountability. Interview data showed that although this approach might have aided Tunisia in strengthening its security, it also inadvertently marginalized transitional justice objectives in terms of institutional vetting and reform and negatively impacted the democratization process. The empowerment of the security apparatus without necessarily imposing serious human rights and institutional reform conditions risked jeopardizing democratization efforts while prioritizing immediate security objectives. In this regard, interview data highlighted clearly that the US foreign policy establishment did not efficiently emphasize institutional reform as a prerequisite for security assistance. There was a clear attempt to replace reform with more malleable objectives revolving around the concepts of professionalization and development.22 One interviewee who is familiar with the US security assistance paradigm in relation to Tunisia acknowledged that transitional justice objectives, including institutional reform, were deprioritized by both American and Tunisian policymakers. The interviewee said:

  • 23 Former US government official, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 2022.

There were often excuses to not doing reform now. In early 2011, it was an interim government. In late 2011, it was a constituent assembly. We tried to push for transitional justice, not as a top priority but as a second or third priority. It just did not work because of Tunisian realities. In 2015 and 2016 the big issue was terrorism, not only the top issue but the only issue. US assistance in this regard was a success but it brought with it human rights concerns.23

  • 24 Ibid.

23American policymakers often found excuses to deprioritize reform; in the immediate aftermath of the revolution there was no clear Tunisian counterpart, and afterwards, the focus was more on security than anything else. There is also a clear acknowledgment, reflected in the quote above, that transitional justice was never perceived as a top priority and that security assistance, although necessary, brought with it human rights concerns. A critical assessment of this view reveals the existence of an inefficient policy approach, considering that a focus on transitional justice would have created a prioritization of institutional reform, which would have, in turn, minimized potential human rights abuses as a potential consequence of increasing security assistance. The US approach, according to this interviewee, downplayed transitional justice “as second or third priority” and then increased security assistance in the absence of institutional reform.24 A side effect of this approach was an increase in human rights concerns, due to the empowerment of an unreformed security apparatus.

  • 25 Former State Department Official, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Sept. 27, 2022.
  • 26 Christopher Lamont, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Oct. 26, 2022.

24In addition, direct institutional reform was deprioritized and marginalized in favor of indirect reform. Personnel vetting and lustration, otherwise the disqualification of individuals associated with abuses of power and human rights violations under the previous regime, as well as anti-corruption measures were consequently sidelined. Interview data reflected a reliance on the notion of ‘indirect reform’ whereby international donors, including the US, believed that the flow of assistance would indirectly result in improving institutional practices. For instance, a former US Department of State official asserted in their interview that there were concerns about aiding unreformed institutions, particularly in the security sector, but that the official reasons for continuing US assistance revolved around counterterrorism and a belief that “maybe they will improve with our assistance. Maybe our assistance will be an incentive to change.”25 The absence of a policy approach that prioritizes direct institutional reform, vetting, lustration, and accountability can, therefore, be attributed to a focus on securitization. The same interviewee asserted that instability in Libya provided American policymakers with enough reasons to focus US assistance on internal and regional security while downplaying internal socio-economic issues. Interviewees considered this approach a “distortion that harmed the US ability to be credible and effective on transitional justice.”26

25Accordingly, American foreign assistance to Tunisia during its transitional justice period reflects a clear focus on securitization. Interview data showed that the US focus on the security sector in the absence of institutional reform presented a problematic aspect in terms of democracy promotion, human rights protection, accountability, and vetting. But it also showed that the prioritization of security can be a rational approach within the context of a Pacted Transition—particularly in light of regional instability. The next section of this paper provides a thorough analysis of two schools of thought that attempt to grapple with this issue. While the first school believes that securitization is necessary for Pacted Transitions, the second school rejects such claims as reductionist and argues, instead, that the focus on security is but a symptom of an inefficient US approach.

4. Pacted Transition Vs. Democracy Reduction: Beyond the Dichotomy

26Interview data reveals the existence of two schools of thought in analyzing US foreign policy behavior throughout Tunisia’s democratic transition and transitional justice period. This section provides a comprehensive description and analysis of both schools while critically assessing their underlying interpretations and assumptions. Data analysis reflects that both schools represent two sides of the same coin, hence transcending their seemingly dichotomous nature.

  • 27 Gennadii Iakovlev, “Preconditions for Pacted Transitions from Authoritarian Rule,” European Politic (...)
  • 28 Terry Karl, “Getting to Democracy: A Research Perspective, Plenary Session II,” The Transition to D (...)

27The first school of thought maintains that the US followed an approach that adhered to the notion of a Pacted Transition in dealing with democratization and transitional justice in Tunisia, which explains the focus on securitization at the expense of socio-political and economic issues. Pacted Transitions refer to a particular form of democratic transition that emerged in the early wave of regime change studies in the late 1980s and 1990s, often described as “transitology.”27 It argues in favor of democratic transition through the establishment of a political framework that primarily enables power-sharing and political bargaining between old and new elites. It does not necessarily advocate for empowering grassroots democratic movements that seek to radically reform or completely obliterate previous institutional paradigms. Pacted Transitions represent an alternative to bottom-up democratization. The latter supports grassroots movements that reject political compromises with members of a weakened authoritarian regime and opt instead for a complete rupture with previous institutions. The Pacted Transition terminology reflects a clear mode of operation; the term ‘Pacted’ refers to the practice of establishing ‘pacts,’ or bargains, between domestic elites and organizations that, ideally, pave the path for a relatively rapid and stable democratic transition. These pacts can be divided into four major types: military/civilian, political, socio-economic, and religious or ethnic.28 For instance, the Tunisian Carthage Pact of 2016 as well as the 2013 National Dialogue represented political and socio-economic agreements between old and new political and social actors in the post-revolution scene.

28Interviewees who subscribe to the first school of thought argue that the Tunisian democratic transition occurred within a Pacted Transitions framework supported by the US. This explains the focus on securitization at the expense of institutional reform and other transitional justice objectives. They contend that the US approach did not prioritize reform and vetting because it sought a stable environment whereby political elites agreed on how to move forward through political bargaining that did not necessarily support accountability and reform. This can be seen in the 2013 National Dialogue, which epitomized the essence of Pacted Transitions through a model of political negotiation and compromise amidst a period of political upheaval. This dialogue earned international recognition with the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, as it brought together political parties, civil society organizations, and labor unions to navigate Tunisia’s post-revolutionary challenges. It exemplified a consensual approach to political change depending primarily on power-sharing arrangements.

29The 2013 National Dialogue paved the path for an independent government tasked with organizing the country’s first post-revolutionary parliamentary and presidential elections. In addition, the Carthage Pact of 2016 reflected a transitory approach that significantly adhered to Pacted Transitions. It addressed the country’s socio-economic challenges and political tensions and brought together various political parties, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders to forge a consensus on key issues revolving around economic development, security measures, corruption, and democratic governance. The pact was an exercise in political compromise that received significant US encouragement. In this vein, in an interview with a former State Department official and US diplomat who was personally involved in fostering Tunisian-American bilateral relations, the interviewee asserted:

  • 29 Former US government official, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 2022.

There is a whole range of US academics who are advancing an idea that grew out of the failure of the Egyptian revolution and the coup of 2013, it is that what really matters is not democratic revolution but total democratic revolution. If it is not the whole revolution, it does not matter. . . All of this comes out of Marxism. But they do not understand the notion of Pacted Transitions: It means the elites and other influential players and political actors, such as Nidaa, UGTT, ex-RCD, all those people had to agree on the rules of the game. This was represented by the Carthage Pact.29

  • 30 Ibid.
  • 31 Ibid.

30Proponents of this view insist that the US sought to encourage a form of Pacted Transition while prioritizing security and stability. The desire for deeply rooted reforms, they assert, was incoherent and incompatible with the notion of a Pacted Transition, which sought to proceed through preserving the existing order while trying to incrementally promote democratic practices where possible. The quote above not only reflect a rejection of “total democratic revolution,” but also explicitly links this idea to Marxism in a prototypically conservative discursive attempt to downplay and marginalize Marxism’s importance for leftist/revolutionary thought.30 It does, however, provide an accurate description of a Pacted Transition in the Tunisian context, whereby integral political actors, including the country’s largest union and ruling parties, adopted different forms of political compromise. The success of the National Dialogue and the Carthage Pact provided further validation for an American approach that focused on securitization while supporting a Pacted Transition. Interview data also showed that proponents of this school believed that the difficulties and crises that occurred within the transitional justice period in Tunisia were normal in any transitory context,31 and the US needed, therefore, to focus on security.

31This belief resulted in an American emphasis on elections, the peaceful transfer of power, and civil society activism as central metrics that reflected a successful democratization process in Tunisia within a Pacted Transition framework, hence justifying the focus on security. The existence of the above-mentioned elements created a confirmation bias within the US foreign policy establishment. The US approach appeared to be successfully supporting democratization, considering that it resulted in elections, in a constant power transition, and in a more integral role of CSOs in the Tunisian political scene. Tunisia was treated as an exceptional case in post-Arab Spring democratization, and the idea of a successful Pacted Transition seemed increasingly accurate.

32On the other hand, the second school of thought that emerged throughout the interviews argues instead that the focus on elections, a peaceful transfer of power, and civil society activism reflects a reductionist approach to democratic transition. This school not only problematizes the notion of a successful Pacted Transition, but also contends that the US fell for the electoral democracy fallacy. This fallacy scrutinizes the belief that the existence of arguably free and fair elections, combined with a peaceful transition of power, automatically results in successful democratization. Jillian Schwedler, former chair of the board of directors of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) in the US, stated:

  • 32 Jillian Schwedler, panel discussion, Washington, D.C., Sept. 9, 2022.

American political science is obsessed with the democratization question; it gets reduced to elections and rotation of power and that is just an overly simplistic framework and I think that the Tunisia case is particularly illustrative of this. . . The problem is that there is so much of this in political science, and Washington, that is their starting framework.32

  • 33 Ibid.

33Proponents of this school contend that the US followed a reductionist approach that inadvertently marginalized integral socio-economic complexities and transitional justice objectives in Tunisia while justifying a focus on security. The idea that the democratic transition process in Tunisia was successful because of elections and a peaceful transfer of power overshadowed socio-economic struggles and undermined transitional justice objectives, particularly in terms of judicial accountability, institutional reform, and personnel vetting and lustration. Schwedler even argued that there were efforts to persuade policymakers to adopt a more comprehensive approach, but that such efforts were often challenged, stating, “We can say all day this is not a great metric to understand what’s happening in Tunisia, and they’re [policymakers in Washington, D.C.] going to say: Yea but is it a democracy?”.33 Accordingly, the electoral democracy fallacy produced a reductionist approach to democratization and indirectly justified the focus on securitization. This is because other integral issues appeared as either inconsequential or less impactful within a seemingly successful Pacted Transition.

  • 34 US Department of State. 2023. Foreign Assistance Gov. Accessed Jan. 26, 2023. https://www.foreignas (...)
  • 35 Sabina Henneberg, “Civil Society in Tunisia: Resetting Expectations” (Policy Notes) (Washington, D. (...)
  • 36 Centre d’Information, de Formation, d’Etude et de Documentation sur les Associations, Tableau Génér (...)

34Moreover, proponents of this school further criticize the utilization of civil society activism as a metric for a successful democratic transition. Interviewees criticized what they perceived as the US fetishization of CSOs as entities that can address transitional justice objectives within a Pacted Transition framework. Government and civil society was the second most funded sector between 2011 and 2020, receiving approximately $592 million.34 However, the outcome of this approach can be seen in the fact that, by 2023, only 300 to 400 CSOs were active in Tunisia35 out of 24,729 registered organizations.36 This provides sufficient evidence that the focus on civil society resulted in increasing quantity over quality, which also reflects a larger issue, described in the interviews as ‘rent-seeking.’ Rent-seeking refers to activities conducted by CSOs mainly to achieve economic gain or personal privileges. In Tunisia’s context and with respect to US financing, rent-seeking is the practice of acquiring grants and funding without actually implementing effective programs.

  • 37 Former Special Advisor at USIP, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Oct. 28, 2022.
  • 38 Ibid.
  • 39 Henneberg, “Civil Society in Tunisia”.
  • 40 Ibid.

35The presence of rent-seeking practices within CSOs is perceived as a major obstacle that diminishes their ability to advance democratic governance and social development. Rent-seeking mainly involves seeking personal gain or financial advantages through misusing public resources, which diminishes resources intended for societal goals. This pattern often includes nepotism, cronyism, and corruption, as individuals within these organizations prioritize personal interests or partisan agendas over the broader public good. Such behavior obstructs endeavors to address urgent socio-economic challenges and foster transparency and accountability. Indeed, in an interview with a former Special Adviser at the US Institute of Peace, the interviewee admitted that “The US invested in a certain notion of democratic change that turned out to be dysfunctional” because it “romanticized civil society institutions which were more concerned with funding and rent-seeking.”37 The US hoped that “The 2014 system and the Carthage Agreement could sustain democratic development.”38 Moreover, a recent study by the Washington Institute, titled Civil Society in Tunisia: Resetting Expectations, also argues that Western support for the creation and activity of CSOs “neglects a genuine grassroots development of civic engagement.”39 It also contends that “Western donors have not succeeded in supporting productive forms of civic engagement.”40

  • 41 Ibid.

36The report further highlights the idea that “Civil society development cannot come at the expense of other democratic institutions,”41 which is one of the main arguments of the second school of thought. It contends that promoting civil society in the absence of deep structural reform can prove inefficient. Such reflections, alongside rent-seeking concerns, sufficiently summarize the second school’s criticism towards the US reliance on civil society within a Pacted Transition framework. Their main argument is that the increase in funding and the CSO boom cannot serve as a significant metric reflecting a successful democratic transition. On the contrary, the United States’ focus on civil society reflected a reductionist approach to democratization that ultimately proved inefficient.

37The outcome of the US approach to democratization in Tunisia remains the same, however, regardless of ideational analysis. The Tunisian democratization process culminated in a dysfunctional political system, an increase in institutional corruption, an unprecedented economic decline, an unparalleled illegal immigration crisis, and the entrenchment of political and institutional impunity. The focus on securitization in the absence of institutional reform resulted in empowering an unreformed security apparatus, increasing human rights concerns, and undermining legal accountability. Moreover, the recommendations of the Truth and Dignity Commission were marginalized. Although such outcomes primarily reflect the failure of domestic stakeholders, they also highlight inefficient policies by external actors. The outcome of internal and external policies was a presidential decree on July 25, 2021, removing the prime minister and freezing parliamentary work.

38This decree increased executive power and relied on Article 80 of the 2014 Tunisian Constitution to argue that the country was in imminent danger. The fact that political institutions were too polarized and ineffective in addressing the coronavirus crisis and potential economic collapse provided popular support for the adoption of such exceptional measures. The marginalization of transitional justice reform and the focus on power rotation and elections as central benchmarks for successful democratization paved the path for political, social, and economic decline in Tunisia. The absence of non-recurrence mechanisms and the fetishization of civil society resulted in a dysfunctional transition. This outcome remains immutable regardless of whether the US approach adhered to the first or second school of thought within its foreign policy endeavors.

5. Conclusion

39This paper has tackled two schools of thought that attempt to explain US foreign policy behavior in the context of the Tunisian democratic transition. The data used in introducing and critically assessing these two schools is primary data and presents an original addition to existing literature. This paper first dealt with a conservative and traditionalist school arguing that the foreign policy establishment believed in the notion of Pacted Transitions. Therefore, the US focused on securitization while encouraging political compromise between old and new elites. Radical democratic reform and grassroots democratization were not prioritized. This paper then introduced a revisionist school problematizing the reliance on Pacted Transitions. This school argued instead that the US fell for the electoral democracy fallacy and fetishized the role of civil society in supporting transitional justice and democratization. Both perspectives, although embodying different ideational and ideological characteristics, reflect an inefficient US policymaking approach with regard to democracy promotion in post-revolution Tunisia.

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Notes

1 Office of the Press Secretary. “Statement by the President on Events in Tunisia.” Accessed June 04, 2021. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/14/statement-president-events-tunisia.

2 Barrack Obama, “Transcript: Obama’s Speech About The Arab World.” Accessed June 04, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2011/05/19/136466323/transcript-obamas-speech-about-the-arab-world.

3 Barrack Obama, “Transcript: Obama’s Speech About The Arab World.” Accessed June 04, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2011/05/19/136466323/transcript-obamas-speech-about-the-arab-world.

4 US Department of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, “U.S. Relations With Tunisia.” Accessed May 03, 2021. https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-tunisia.

5 Daniel Brumberg and Maryam Ben Salem, “Tunisia's Endless Transition?”, Journal of Democracy Vol.31, No.2 (2020): 110-124.

6 Christopher Lamont K. and Hannah Pannwitz, “Transitional Justice as Elite Justice? Compromise Justice and Transition in Tunisia,” Global Policy Vol.7, No.2 (2016): 278-281.

7 International Crisis Group, “Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption.” (Brussels: 2016).

8 Yahia H. Zoubir, “The US and Tunisia: Model of Stable Relations.” In Handbook of US-Middle East Relations (London: Routledge, 2014), 249-261.

9 Pietro Marzo, “The International Dimension of Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy: From Consensus Over Democracy to Competitiveness Within Democracy” (PhD Thesis, Laval University, 2020)

10 John W. Creswell, Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches (California: SAGE Publications, 2009).

11 US Department of State. 2023. Foreign Assistance Gov. Accessed Jan. 26, 2023. https://www.foreignassistance.gov/.

12 Security Assistance Monitor, Security Assistance Database. Accessed April 29, 2022. https://securityassistance.org/security-sector-assistance/.

13 Robert K. Yin, Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods (California: SAGE Publications, 2018).

14 US Department of State. 2023. Foreign Assistance Gov. Accessed Jan. 26, 2023. https://www.foreignassistance.gov/.

15 Security Assistance Monitor, Security Assistance Database. Accessed April 29, 2022. https://securityassistance.org/security-sector-assistance/.

16 US Department of State. 2023. Foreign Assistance Gov. Accessed Jan. 26, 2023. https://www.foreignassistance.gov/.

17 Ibid.

18 Former Special Advisor at USIP, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Oct. 28, 2022.

19 Security Assistance Monitor, Security Assistance Database. Accessed April 29, 2022. https://securityassistance.org/security-sector-assistance/.

20 Ibid.

21 US Department of State. 2023. Foreign Assistance Gov. Accessed Jan. 26, 2023. https://www.foreignassistance.gov/.

22 Linda Bishai, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Sept. 30, 2022.

23 Former US government official, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 2022.

24 Ibid.

25 Former State Department Official, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Sept. 27, 2022.

26 Christopher Lamont, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Oct. 26, 2022.

27 Gennadii Iakovlev, “Preconditions for Pacted Transitions from Authoritarian Rule,” European Political Science Review Vol.15, No.2 (2023): 254-271.

28 Terry Karl, “Getting to Democracy: A Research Perspective, Plenary Session II,” The Transition to Democracy (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 1999), 29-40.

29 Former US government official, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 2022.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Jillian Schwedler, panel discussion, Washington, D.C., Sept. 9, 2022.

33 Ibid.

34 US Department of State. 2023. Foreign Assistance Gov. Accessed Jan. 26, 2023. https://www.foreignassistance.gov/.

35 Sabina Henneberg, “Civil Society in Tunisia: Resetting Expectations” (Policy Notes) (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2023).

36 Centre d’Information, de Formation, d’Etude et de Documentation sur les Associations, Tableau Général des Associations. Accessed Feb. 14, 2023. http://www.ifeda.org.tn/stats/francais.pdf.

37 Former Special Advisor at USIP, personal interview, Washington, D.C., Oct. 28, 2022.

38 Ibid.

39 Henneberg, “Civil Society in Tunisia”.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

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References

Electronic reference

Oussema Othmeni, US Foreign Policy on Transitional Justice and Democratization in Tunisia: Pacted Transition or Democracy Reduction?European journal of American studies [Online], 19-2 | 2024, Online since 07 June 2024, connection on 24 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/21883

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About the author

Oussema Othmeni

Oussema Othmeni is a Teaching Assistant of American Studies at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Sousse, Tunisia. He holds a Ph.D. in American Studies with a focus on US Foreign Policy and an M.A. in American Cultural Studies from the same University. He was a Fulbright Doctoral Scholar at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and he is currently the Secretary General of the Tunisian Association for American Cultural Studies. 

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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