Just two months after US President Joe Biden called 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 has become omnipresent. Many claim that a new global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is underway, and demand that everyone take sides. Such talk is dangerous: the scale of the planetary challenges facing humanity does not allow 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 joked, the question remains: How can we support democracy around the world? ?
The answer may be hidden in a small country far from the battlefields of Ukraine: Tunisia.
In December 2010, Tunisian activist Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of resistance, sparking a movement that later became known as the Arab Spring. In a matter of months, people not only in Tunisia but also in Libya, Egypt, and Syria rose up against the authoritarian regimes in their countries. Protests across the Arab world also inspired the Indignados and Occupy movements in the West, promising a global democratic awakening that would reach 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 Gaddafi’s petrodollar administration for two corrupt and competing governments at war with each other. Only the country that triggered the Arab Spring, Tunisia, which in 2011 toppled dictator Ben Ali, supported by France and Italy, remains a democracy to this day. And just barely, it is also experiencing 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 parliament dissolved completely and is now considering banning his political opponents run in future elections.
This was not at all unpredictable. Democracy is based on free and fair elections, on freedom of expression, on respect for the rights of women, minorities and organized labor. On all these accounts, Tunisia had been making uneven but steady progress. But democracies are also built on shared economic prosperity and a belief in improving prospects. In this regard, Tunisia’s achievements have been much less obvious. The Tunisian economy, which remained in a chronic state of crisis for decades due to corruption, patronage and the absence of any form of strategic planning, finally entered a total collapse after the COVID-19 pandemic. With unemployment reaching unprecedented levels and hundreds of thousands of Tunisians struggling to survive below the poverty line, the democratic promises of the 2011 revolution began to lose their appeal.
The European Union, which acted with surprising speed and integrity in defending Ukrainian democracy, could easily have helped its close North African neighbor in its time of dire need. But sadly, he chose to do nothing to help Tunisia anchor its democracy and build a prosperous and open society.
In fact, European capitals did not offer opportunities or support to Tunisians in distress.
Instead, the EU maintained severe visa restrictions and closed Europe’s job market and universities to Tunisian youth. He passed on some leftover doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, but did not even think of including this fragile young democracy in his post-pandemic economic recovery strategy.
However, there is still time for Europe to offer Tunisia a helping hand and show that it can help democratic flourishing not only with tanks and bombs, but also with investments and visas.
And there are plenty of reasons for Europe and the West in general to change course and prioritize their soft power capabilities in their efforts to protect democracies. In the last century, democracy took hold in Europe precisely with this soft power after the Second World War. Through the Marshall Plan, the United States helped both the winners and losers of the war rebuild their economies. This was more than American largesse: it was clear that only a prosperous Europe would be a democratic Europe, and a democratic Europe was in the interest of the US. Subsequently, the EU itself launched a similar campaign for the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, like Poland or Romania, which helped strengthen its young democracies.
At a time when so many seem convinced that we are witnessing a final showdown between the world’s democratic and authoritarian powers, it seems obvious that the West should use its immense soft power to help Tunisia, as well as all other fledgling and fragile countries. . democracies
Surprisingly, only authoritarian China today is using its soft power so ambitiously. His Belt and Road initiative, which is expected to cost more than a trillion dollars, aims to weave a mosaic of friendly states and make the world safe for Chinese authoritarianism. Why isn’t there a similar push to support fragile democracies?
Tunisia needs political and economic support now. And yet, the ambition must be to go beyond previous models of development aid, which are too often shamefully used to back Western-friendly dictators, and institute new structures for shared prosperity.
The EU already has a plan for this. The Union, for example, raised funds for post-pandemic recovery and distributed them equally among all its members, from rich Germany to impoverished Greece. This is a unique joint investment model that is a far cry from the traditional donor-recipient relationship.
This framework of solidarity can be expanded beyond the borders of the EU. Imagine a special international institution uniting rich and poor democracies. Such an institution could take advantage of the credit rating of rich countries to raise cheap funds 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 engage in joint ventures with wealthier nations, not collapse during emergencies like a pandemic and, most importantly, enjoy the benefits of visa-free travel to other prosperous and democratic nations. who participate in the plan.
Such a scheme could be tested in Europe’s neighborhood, from the Western Balkans to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
And Tunisia, a small democracy tied to Europe by geography, history and colonial responsibility, is uniquely positioned 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 conferences, but through genuine economic solidarity, it can show that it is serious about supporting the democratic values it proudly claims to stand for. This would also send the message to the world that democracy remains synonymous with collective flourishing and mutual respect.
If Europe and its allies are serious about supporting democracy around the world, they should put their money where their mouth is.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.