On Dec. 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi staged a desperate protest against corrupt local officials by setting himself on fire. The act helped trigger a revolution in his country and a wave of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. The consequences of his actions were complex, but his demands were simple: He wanted to earn a good living, start a business and be treated with dignity.
Bouazizi’s story reminds us that the roots of extraordinary political upheaval in what came to be known as the Arab Spring were fundamentally about economic freedom. Creating opportunity for young people besieged by high unemployment is a challenge that must be addressed head-on by governments in the region. The United States will continue to serve as a partner in that effort, through both our government and our private sector.
To this end, the two of us were honored to travel to Tunis last week to participate in the Investment and Entrepreneurship Conference, convened by Partners for a New Beginning and the American Chamber of Commerce in Tunisia. There the Department of Commerce announced that it has chosen Tunisia to pilot an initiative, Regional Investments to Support Entrepreneurship (RISE).
This program comes at an important moment for the country where the Arab Spring began. Over the last four years, Tunisia has undergone a historic transition from dictatorship to democracy. Its leaders have ratified a progressive constitution, the Tunisian people have voted in free and fair parliamentary elections, and the country’s first democratically elected president has been inaugurated. In addition, Tunisia’s legislators have formed a coalition government based on consensus and inclusion.
However, this progress will not be enough to fulfill the promise of Tunisia’s democratic revolution. To succeed, democracies have to deliver prosperity, because while people want to vote, they also want to be able to provide for their families. In a country where three-quarters of the unemployed are age 15 to 30, promoting economic growth must become a top priority for the new Tunisian government.
The next chapter in Tunisia’s story must advance tough economic reforms that will attract investment. Tunisia needs jobs, and to secure them, it must create an environment that is attractive to domestic and foreign companies. It must signal that the country is open for business. To do this, its investment code must be streamlined, simplified and clarified to facilitate more private-sector growth and competition. Tunisia’s banking system is burdened by too many nonperforming loans and would benefit from comprehensive reform. It also needs a transparent, reliable and modern tax and customs structure as well as a public-private partnership law to reduce red tape for international investors and help attract private capital for needed infrastructure projects.
As we assist Tunisia in undertaking difficult and complicated reforms, the United States must continue to be a strong economic partner. The U.S. government has already provided loan guarantees of $1 billion and a cash transfer of $100 million to the Tunisian government. At last week’s conference, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. announced the creation of a $37.5 million lending facility for small and medium-size enterprises, which will focus on the franchising sector and partner with three Tunisian banks.
This financial assistance is important, but the true potential of our partnership will be realized only if we can leverage the capacity of U.S. businesses to help create jobs and encourage innovation. Through the RISE initiative, the public and private sectors will work together to increase training, mentoring and access to finance for entrepreneurs; support the development of business incubators and accelerators for Tunisian entrepreneurs; and encourage economic reforms that improve the commercial environment. We hope it will serve as a model for enhanced cooperation between the Department of State, the Department of Commerce, nonprofit groups and businesses.
The message this initiative and others send is clear: The United States is Tunisia’s partner as it works to transform its economy to meet the aspirations of all of Tunisia’s citizens.
It is strongly in America’s interest to see Tunisia’s pluralist, democratic approach to government succeed. We know from experience that economic stagnation and hopelessness can sow the seeds of radicalization — while economic prosperity can strengthen the forces of moderation and progress.
This is Tunisia’s moment. And if its leaders seize it, the country can be a model of peace and prosperity not only for North Africa but for the entire world.