Europe can show it cares for democracy by helping Tunisia

Tunisia’s crisis of democracy could be an opportunity for Europe to show it is serious about supporting the values it says it represents.

Demonstrators hold Tunisian national flags during a protest.
Demonstrators hold Tunisian national flags during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied's seizure of governing powers [Zoubeir Souissi/ Reuters] (Reuters)

Barely two months after US President Joe Biden convened a “democracy summit” to rally the world’s democracies against rising authoritarianism, authoritarian Russia invaded democratic Ukraine.

Since then, talk of a new cold war became ubiquitous. Many claim a new, global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is under way, and demand everyone take a side. Such talk is dangerous – the scale of planetary challenges facing humanity does not afford us the luxury of such ideological fanaticism.

And yet, for all those who believe that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried, as Churchill famously quipped, the question remains: How can we support democracy worldwide?

The answer may be hidden in a small country far away from the battlegrounds of Ukraine: Tunisia.

In December 2010, Tunisian activist Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of resistance and triggered a movement that later came to be known as the Arab Spring. In a matter of months, people not only in Tunisia but Libya, Egypt and Syria revolted against the authoritarian regimes in their countries. The protests across the Arab World also inspired Indignados and Occupy movements in the West, and promised a global democratic reawakening reaching all the way from the Middle East to North America.

Fast forward a decade, and the situation is dire. Egypt has a military regime, Syria – after a decade of civil war – is still ruled by al-Assad, Libya swapped the petrodollar administration of Gaddafi for two corrupt and competing governments at war against each other. Only the country that triggered the Arab Spring, Tunisia, which in 2011 toppled French- and Italian-supported dictator Ben Ali, remains to this day a democracy. And only just – it also is undergoing a slow-motion democratic collapse.

Last summer, following accusations of economic mismanagement, President Kais Saied suspended Tunisia’s parliament and assumed emergency powers. Last month, he dissolved Parliament altogether and is now mulling banning his political opponents from running in future elections.

This was not at all unpredictable. Democracy is premised on free and fair elections, on freedom of speech, on respect for the rights of women, minorities and organised labour. On all these accounts, Tunisia had been making uneven but steady progress. But democracies are also premised on shared economic prosperity and belief in improving prospects. On this account, Tunisia’s achievements have been far less obvious. The Tunisian economy, which remained in a chronic state of crisis for decades due to corruption, clientelism, and the absence of any form of strategic planning, finally went into a complete meltdown after the COVID-19 pandemic. With unemployment reaching unprecedented levels and hundreds of thousands of Tunisians finding themselves struggling to survive below the poverty line, the democratic promises of the 2011 revolution started to lose their allure.

The European Union, which acted with surprising speed and integrity in defending Ukrainian democracy, could have easily helped its close North African neighbour in its time of dire need. But, sadly, it opted to do nothing to help Tunisia anchor its democracy and build a prosperous, open society.

Indeed, European capitals offered no opportunities or support to struggling Tunisians.

On the contrary, the EU kept harsh visa restrictions and closed Europe’s labour market and universities to Tunisian youth. It did pass on some leftover COVID-19 vaccine doses but did not even think of including this fragile young democracy in its post-pandemic economic recovery strategy.

There is, however, still time for Europe to offer a helping hand to Tunisia and show that it can aid democratic flourishing not only with tanks and bombs but with investments and visas.

And there is much reason for Europe and the wider West to change course and give priority to their soft power capabilities in their efforts to protect democracies. In the past century, democracy was entrenched in Europe precisely with such soft power after the second world war. Through the Marshall Plan, the US helped both the victors and the losers of the war to rebuild their economies. This was more than American generosity: It was clear that only a prosperous Europe would be a democratic Europe, and a democratic Europe was in the best interests of the US. The EU itself later set up a similar drive for the former communist countries in Eastern Europe, such as Poland or Romania, which helped strengthen their young democracies.

At a time when so many seem convinced that we are witnessing a final showdown between the democratic and authoritarian powers of the world, it seems obvious that the West should use its immense soft power to help Tunisia – as well as all the other budding and fragile democracies.

Surprisingly, today it is only authoritarian China that is using its soft power in such an ambitious manner. Its Belt and Road Initiative, expected to cost more than one trillion dollars, aims to weave together a patchwork of friendly states and make the world safe for Chinese authoritarianism. Why is there no similar drive for supporting fragile democracies?

Tunisia needs political and economic support now. And yet, the ambition should be to move beyond past models of development aid – too often shamefully used to buttress dictators friendly to the West – and institute new structures for shared prosperity.

The EU already has a blueprint for it. The Union, for example, raised funds for post-pandemic recovery and distributed them equally between all its members, from rich Germany to impoverished Greece. This is a unique model of joint investment that is miles away from the traditional relationship between donor and receiver.

This solidarity framework can expand beyond the borders of the EU. Imagine a special international institution that brought rich and poor democracies together. Such an institution could leverage the credit rating of rich countries to raise funds cheaply on international markets, just as the EU has done with its pandemic bonds. These funds could be used to support economic development and ecological transformation in countries that respect the democratic and social rights of their citizens. Such an arrangement could allow struggling or fragile democracies to partake in joint investments with richer nations, not crumble during emergencies such as a pandemic and, crucially, enjoy the benefits of visa-free travel to other prosperous, democratic nations taking part in the scheme.

Such a scheme could be piloted in Europe’s neighbourhood, from the Western Balkans to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

And Tunisia, a small democracy bound to Europe by geography, history and colonial responsibility, is in a prime position to be the test case for such a policy. If Europe can now move to help Tunisia and save its democracy, not with tanks or lectures but through genuine economic solidarity, it can show that it is serious about supporting the democratic values it proudly claims to represent. This would also send the message to the world that democracy is still synonymous with collective flourishing and mutual respect.

If Europe and its allies are serious about supporting democracy across the globe, they should put their money where their mouth is.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.