The Middle East Channel

Are we repeating democracy promotion mistakes in Tunisia?

As soon as mobilization started to sweep across the Arab world in 2011, observers started to make analogies to the wave of 1989 protests that brought down the Soviet Union. But less thought has gone into the "1990 analogy"-- the ways that international efforts to support democracy in the Middle East in 2012 are similar to or different from the efforts that took place in Central and Eastern Europe in 1990. With Egypt's democratic transition in limbo, now is the time for U.S. officials to think critically about what they can realistically do to aid democracy in the Middle East and keep the hopes of the Arab Spring alive. An important part of the calculus must be Tunisia, which is frequently called democracy's "best hope" in the region. Unfortunately, some of the international community's efforts to help Tunisia's transition to democracy already show some disturbing signs of repeating the mistakes of 1990.

Thirty years ago in June, U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivered a landmark speech to the British Parliament that pledged the United States' support to democracy builders around the world. Although Reagan sought to promote democracy in the Soviet Bloc primarily as a strategy for winning the Cold War, democracy assistance has long out-lived its original purpose; it is now a major component of U.S. foreign policy throughout the world. After the end of the Cold War, democracy promotion became, in the words of the current U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, a "world value." But it is more than a rhetorical affirmation or a value commitment: U.S. democracy assistance is now a multi-billion dollar a year industry.

Initially, Reagan's vision was realized when congress established the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), in 1983. According to its website, the NED "is guided by the belief that freedom is a universal human aspiration that can be realized through the development of democratic institutions, procedures, and values." The NED has pursued that mission ever since by offering grants to hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world that it believes will support democratic change. In addition to the NED, U.S. democracy assistance efforts now include substantially larger efforts housed within the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and State Department. Those efforts are implemented in large part by NGOs, including the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House -- organizations that readers may remember from the Egyptian government's crackdown on democracy promotion NGOs earlier in 2012.

The democracy assistance efforts that first flourished in Central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War were plentiful, optimistic, and sometimes counter-productive. They were plentiful because of the political will of the United States and Western European countries to help the transitions They were optimistic thanks to the idealistic young people in the West leading and designing programs to help their counterparts abroad. Democracy assistance today is much more professional, making up a field that I have called the democracy establishment. And finally, the efforts were sometimes demonstrated to be counter-productive, as in research by anthropologist Janine Wedel and others, because civil society organizations overseas became donor-driven in the search for international funding, focusing more on their survival as organizations than on advancing democratic transitions. That proved to be a problem for civil society as the organizations became disconnected from many of the vital concerns of the societies that they meant to represent. Additionally, as they became more focused on their survival, civil society organizations devoted less energy to promoting democratic change and challenging political leaders who were resisting reform.

Similar dynamics seem poised to emerge in 2012 Tunisia. As in 1990, international financial support for the transition in Tunisia is fairly strong. The aid commitments -- including a $100 million cash transfer from the United States government -- appear even stronger when considered in the context of the global financial crisis, which prompted the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to say in 2011 that the Middle East "has chosen a bad time to revolt."

The political will of Western states to support Tunisia's transition -- even if it could at times be backed up with larger financial commitments -- gives some welcome flexibility to democracy assisters on the ground. Flexibility means patient donors, in contrast to the usual clamor for quick, quantitative outputs. One of the main conclusions of a study of democracy assistance in the former Yugoslavia was that the emphasis on quantitative results caused practitioners to "teach to the test" instead of pursuing long-term democratization. In post-revolution Tunisia, donors' political will gives democracy assisters freedom to pursue important projects aiding political parties that may not bear immediate fruit. But how long that donor commitment will last as Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's regime recedes farther into memory is uncertain.

As in 1990, the atmosphere in Tunisia is optimistic. Prior to the revolution, Tunisia received virtually no democracy aid. As a consequence, civil society in Tunisia is younger and less professional than elsewhere in the region (i.e. Jordan). In other countries, professional civil society organizations are continually searching for international funding, leading them to become divorced from the concerns of their societies and to select anodyne programs that are less likely to upset their host governments. As in Eastern Europe, surviving as organizations can come at the expense of democratization. Because Tunisia's civil society is less professional than civil society elsewhere, we see less of that "taming" of democracy assistance, which is generally a good thing.

But the lack of professionalism in Tunisian civil society comes with some downsides. Fewer people are comfortable working with international experts. Foreign NGOs are often viewed suspiciously (Egypt, anyone?), and a lack of familiarity with the "democracy establishment" encourages such suspicion. When I was recently in Tunisia, I talked to local organizations that were (understandably) worried about international actors' motives, leading them to sometimes discount those actors' genuine expertise. Certain areas of democracy promotion, especially electoral assistance, are quite technical fields and international experts have important information about registration, electoral management bodies, and monitoring that transitioning countries need. The lack of professionalism also means that relatively few Tunisian organizations have what it takes to compete successfully for international grants in a marketplace that includes international NGOs with dedicated fundraising staff.

Perhaps the biggest downside is that the lack of professionalism is not likely to last for long, especially given today's global professional field of democracy assistance, something that did not exist in 1990. The appealingly idealistic and non-bureaucratic characteristics of civil society in Tunisia may already be disappearing. How could they not be if local organizations need to develop their capacities in order to compete against international organizations for funding?

In Tunisia, I met a phenomenal group of young Tunisians at the American Corner, a cultural center sponsored by the U.S. NGO AMIDEAST and funded in part by the United States Embassy in Tunis. I told them how impressed I was with many of the local organizations that I had visited, especially compared to elsewhere in the region. Many of them wanted me to shed that optimism. They told me about NGOs they knew that were scrambling for any and all international funds -- organizational missions be damned.

In other words, Tunisia seems poised to experience the same downsides of democracy assistance from 1990. Is there any way out? If donors' political will remains strong, then organizations will have less need to fight for funding and become driven by donors. And if donors maintain strong monitoring systems --including a local presence in Tunisia and giving aid through fewer intermediary organizations -- then overseas NGOs will have less opportunity to design programs that help them survive but don't necessarily help democratization.

If Tunisia is democracy's best hope in the Middle East, then the international community needs to get those things right. Research shows that having democratic neighbors makes a country more likely to democratize. In other words, the benefits for the efforts of the international community's effective support of Tunisia's democratic transition could be extensive for the Middle East.

Sarah Bush is a Research Fellow in the International Security Program in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and is writing a book about democracy promotion. Her recent research in Tunisia was supported by a grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science. Her website is and she tweets at @sarahsunnbush.


The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s new president challenges the military by reconvening parliament

Security forces allowed members of parliament (MPs) to enter Egypt's parliament building on Monday after they had been blocked for nearly a month. MPs are set to convene for a general session on Tuesday after newly elected President Mohamed Morsi called for parliament to be reinstated. This move directly challenges a ruling made just before presidential elections by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament, deeming it unconstitutional. Morsi's provocation of the ruling military council was surprising. He said, "The military wants to create a state within a state, keep legislative power and include articles in the future constitution that protects it. That won't do: either we confront it now or we've failed." However, it is unclear if Morsi has the power to overturn the SCAF ruling. The Supreme Constitutional Court called for an emergency meeting and the military council met immediately after Sunday's announcement.


International envoy Kofi Annan has met in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in efforts to restart his unsuccessful peace process. Annan said the talks with Assad were "very candid and constructive." Annan told reporters the two had agreed on an approach that he plans to discuss with the armed opposition. Syria's foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi "reassured Annan of Syria's commitment to implement the 6-point peace plan." About the plan, Assad said, "The main obstacle (is) that many countries don't want (it) to succeed. So they offer political support and they still send armaments and send money to terrorists in Syria." In an interview on German television, Assad said he would remain in office insisting he maintained public support. He continued, claiming deaths of government supporters and the military exceeds that of civilians. Conversely, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon estimated the death toll to have reached 17,000 in a report released last week.


  • Former National Transitional Council head Mahmoud Jibril called for a grand coalition government after his National Forces Alliance took an early lead in Libya's elections.  
  • South Sudan marks its first anniversary of independence, but the young country continues to face serious challenges as the conflict with Sudan persists.
  • Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, sons of overthrown leader Hosni Mubarak, face new graft charges after previous corruption charges were thrown out by an Egyptian court.
  • Saudi Arabian security forces shot and killed at least two protesters in the country's largest demonstration in months.

Arguments & Analysis

'Islamists in a Changing Middle East' (Marc Lynch, Project on Middle East Political Science and Foreign Policy)

"The election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt has sharpened the focus on the role of Islamist movements in a rapidly changing Arab world. Social and political movements based on a political reading of Islam have for decades been among the largest, best organized and most effective forces in many Arab countries. Since the Arab uprisings, they have faced new opportunities and challenges -- from elections in Tunisia and Egypt to fighting in Syria and Libya. Who are these Islamists? What do they want? How do they fit within the political arenas in which they operate?"

Creating lasting security in Sudan' (Moez Ali, OpenDemocracy)

"Some sceptics have claimed that it is necessary for the current regime to be in power because of the security situation on the ground. They claim that if the regime falls there would be no guarantee that the rebels from the aforementioned areas wouldn't march into Khartoum and claim the throne. Another security issue is the proliferation of arms around the country. However rather than guaranteeing security, the current regime has long been the cause of the country's insecurity."

Top Ten Surprises on Libya's Election Day' (Juan Cole, Informed Comment)

"Most Western reporting on Libya is colored by what is in my view a combination of extreme pessimism and sensationalism. It has been suggested that because most reporters don't stay there for that long, many don't have a sense of proportion. It is frustrating to have faction-fighting in distant Kufra in the far south color our image of the whole country. Tripoli, a major city of over 2.2 million (think Houston), is not like little distant Kufra, population 60,000 (think Broken Arrow, OK)!In the run-up to the elections held on Saturday, a lot of the headlines read ‘Libya votes, on the brink' or had ‘Chaos' in the title. But actually, as the Libya Herald reports, the election went very, very well (which did not surprise me after my visit to three major cities there in May-June). The NYT post-election headline of ‘Libyans risk violence to vote' is frankly ridiculous; in most of the country that simply was not true, though it was true in parts of Benghazi...In Tripoli, the election was described as a big family wedding, with lots of loud celebration and tears of joy."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey