In December 2019, the U.S. Congress took an important step in recognizing the importance of preventing global violence and extremism when it passed the Global Fragility Act (“Act”) as part of larger government funding legislation. The Center for Strategic Studies on Tunisia thereafter conducted a comprehensive assessment of the Act and the efforts leading up to its enactment, including those of the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States.
Among other things, the Act highlights how good governance and empowering marginalized groups can help reduce fragility and its underlying causes, and outlines a central role for the United States to play in developing a strategy to achieve that objective.
As positive as passage of the Act may have been, however, more can and must be done to help fragile nations that, without adequate support, are at risk of regressing away from democracy and toward a dark future clouded by economic upheaval, social turmoil, and violent extremism.
Tunisia is a prime example of a nation that should be a priority for a comprehensive strategy designed to reduce global fragility. The birthplace of the Arab Spring ten years ago, Tunisia is the Arab world’s sole democracy and home to an open society, inclusive approach, and traditional embrace of Western values. Tunisia’s rich culture includes a historic political role for women in balancing the spread of political Islam outside elected institutions and an apolitical military that has served to protect continuity of the state. It is a stark contrast to the Middle East-North Africa region in which it resides, which has otherwise generally been known as a place for chaos and unrest.
Tragically, warning signs are flashing that Tunisia’s status as free and democratic, as well as its potential for becoming a prosperous nation could be in jeopardy. Unemployment and other regional disparities between the capital, coastal areas and the rest of the country are vast and contribute to weakened governance over vast parts of the country, suicide attempt rates among the country’s youth have been on the rise along with alarming school drop-out rates, public sentiment about the United States has turned increasingly negative, a growing gap has emerged in terms of Western influence on educational and cultural systems in Tunisia, and anti-Western forces and nations like China are increasingly exerting their sway in the region. Fueling the fires, a resurgence in COVID-19 cases is creating additional economic, social, and security headwinds and a vacuum that those who have sinister motives will surely seek to take advantage of.
As the U.S. government takes steps to implement the new global fragility initiative, the State Department recently provided an update in which it noted that the government is in the process of identifying priority countries and regions in need of assistance based on criteria included in the Act, including through the use of indicators based on various global fragility lists.
In reality, however, numbers do not always tell the full story. Left to the whim of third party rankings that may not accurately capture nations’ fragility and importance to the United States, America risks leaving behind Tunisia and its status as a gateway to freedom and opportunity throughout the region, in contravention of the Act’s goals to support U.S. national security interests and assist those countries and regions best equipped to successfully reduce fragility and prevent the spread of extremism and violence.
Given Tunisia’s history and geostrategic importance to the United States and the Western world — and the high cost of failing to act — Tunisia must be a centerpiece of America’s global fragility strategy and efforts to prevent more extremism in the broader region. As U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member and Act co-sponsor Michael McCaul noted, the Act “confronts these threats by targeting the root causes of fragility such as extreme poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and weak governance.” With a poverty rate exceeding 15%, one of the highest unemployment rates for young people in the world and 40% of those unemployed holding a college degree, and disturbing trends with regard to rising corruption, Tunisia is a showcase example of a fragile nation.
To address Tunisia’s root causes of fragility and reverse the trend, the U.S. should strengthen efforts to curb growing anti-Americanism and advance American values inside Tunisia, better understand the correlation between anti-Americanism and extremism, provide economic assistance to Tunisia’s interior and southern regions to stem the rise of the informal shadow economy that is being supported by neighboring countries, support women’s rights and reforms at the highest levels of the country’s political and legal institutions, and help bolster a values-based military throughout the country that steers clear of interference with the economy.
Notably, in a prior historical context, the United States provided over $13 billion in aid over five years to support the Marshall Plan (an estimated $135 billion in 2018 dollars) in support of Western Europe’s stabilization and future following World War II.  Although the Act passed in 2019 provides for $1.15 billion over five years, the effort needed to prevent violence and extremism and stabilize countries with ongoing conflicts around the world will require more resources if it is to be effective with lasting positive impacts.
With Tunisia’s youth dropping out of school at an increasingly alarming rate and struggling to find basic necessities like food and clothes, a growing number of disaffected young Tunisians are increasingly being exposed to the risk of radicalization by extremists who wait in the wings both within and outside the country to prey on them. Left unchecked, today’s challenges to peace and prosperity around the world in places like Tunisia could wreak destruction just as significant as that suffered during World War II, and with the advent of international terrorism, rogue states, and the advancement of conventional and unconventional warfare technologies, possibly even greater.
Tunisia today represents both an opportunity and a risk for American interests that requires action. Congress and the Executive Branch should work together to make whatever changes are necessary to ensure flexibility to include Tunisia in U.S. efforts to reduce global fragility and secure the resources needed to do so. Safeguarding the country’s long-term success as a prosperous democracy through its inclusion in the U.S. global fragility initiative is key to curbing violence and extremism and reinforcing prevention efforts in the region and around the world and would achieve maximum impact. The stakes are enormously high for neighboring Europe, the Middle East-North Africa region, and global stability, and the time to act is now.
To find out more about CSST’s analysis of the Fragility Act, please contact us using this link.
 https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.1524.ZS?locations=TN&most_recent_value_desc=true and https://theforum.erf.org.eg/2019/05/07/unemployment-tunisia-high-among-women-youth/
 https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/marshall-plan and https://www.cfr.org/blog/it-takes-more-money-make-marshall-plan#:~:text=The%20Marshall%20Plan%2C%20the%20historic,%24135%20billion%20in%20today’s%20money.