Just a few weeks after being elected head of Tunisia's interim government, Mehdi Jomaa's warm welcome in Washington has caused quite a bit of controversy. Jomaa is not a well-known figure in the world, or even locally. He was elected for a period of transition not expected to exceed one year, and won the election after a number of celebrities had been excluded from the election, the neutrality of their nominations being called into question.
Jomaa’s placement has inspired profound optimism among Tunisians who have grown weary of the politicians that have dominated the political scene since the revolution, which has really not been a success except for the ratifying of a constitution. Social reforms — the main reason behind the revolution — are still pending. Actually, the poor have become poorer and the rich richer because of the weakness of the nation in its ignorance of the factors that play into bankruptcy. There’s no question that the constitution was a great achievement, but so far the unemployed and desperate have not reaped any benefits.
Jomaa has also received a warm welcome from the wider world, as he was elected immediately following the issuing of the constitution, which brought back hope to the forgotten democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring. Now, it’s a bit unusual for the president of the most powerful nation in the world, along with his vice president, Joe Biden, to change his work schedule to host the head of the Tunisian government. They spent a relatively long time together; from the pictures, it looks like Obama was joking around with Jomaa and treating him very warmly, somewhat outside the bounds of standard protocol. Additionally, the Tunisian delegation became acquainted with international financial institutions as well as the largest U.S. companies, like Google and Microsoft.
Soon after these facts and photos surfaced, the very Arab conspiracy theorists who are obsessed with the United States and the West in general came up with two different ideas as to what was going on. Some cannot believe that an unknown person could suddenly become prime minister and achieve such worldwide glamor: The West must have been behind his rise to power, and today they're celebrating because their plan worked. Some have even gone on to suggest that the United States has thus sealed the fate of Tunisia, that there will be no election at the end of the year, and that Jomaa will remain in power for years to come.
Others judge this as the end of the country's problems. As long as Obama has been an ally, the security and economic woes that kept Tunisians up at night since the beginning of the revolution have dissipated. Washington's lifting of the travel ban on citizens traveling to Tunisia and offering loan guarantees has been enough for the economy to recover and for prosperity to prevail.
But the truth is actually much simpler. If Tunisians hadn't come to their senses, they would have gone on chasing delusions, leading to the further deterioration of their nation and to greater despair.
First, Tunisia is thankful for the support from America. But this doesn't mean that America will solve its problems, or that Obama starts his day reading reports about how it’s doing. Washington has offered what it was able to offer: loan guarantees, lifting the travel ban for its citizens, and urging international institutions to offer more loans and security coordination to combat terrorism. But issues of economic, political and social reform remain the responsibility of Tunisians themselves, and they alone are able to deal with it. Otherwise, the foreign support will ultimately be of no benefit.
Second, Obama has benefited from Tunisia just as Tunisia has benefited from him. For instance, Obama welcomed Mehdi Jomaa on the eve of the presidential election in Afghanistan. This kind of thing doesn't mean anything to Tunisians, but it means a lot to American public opinion and to those who voted for Obama. Tunisia has marketed an American model for a political transition capable of succeeding, thanks to American support. This all gets Americans to look past the botched U.S.-backed transitions in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama, then, appears as a successful president — the exact opposite of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama supported the democratic transition of Tunisia and enabled Afghanistan to run its own election, despite the Taliban opposition and the collapse of the Karzai era (which has been associated with Republicans). Afghanistan would hopefully conduct a lawful election, as would Iraq at the end of this month (more positive light on Obama-era American foreign policy).
But this is a tree obscuring a forest. The forest is the fate of all the other Arab countries whose revolutions are sliding toward destruction, and the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq being overshadowed by the complete collapse of the two countries since American military involvement in the Republican era. Tunisians must remember that if American support was the only thing that mattered, then Afghanistan and Iraq would be the most prosperous and democratic nations in the region.
Third, even if there is financial support from Western governments or international institutions, it is still associated with a liberal economic mantra which demands structural reforms on the part of the benefiting countries. This would mean a complete overthrow of economic policy. The policy has been, until now, a lax policy in which Tunisia has benefited from savings and has reached a high limit of debt. Now it wants to reduce public spending, rethink the support of basic supplies, freeze or lower wages, etc. How will the people take this? The revolutionary narrative for the past three years has been that the previous corrupt regime held onto its wealth, and that all that was needed was for honest heroes to seize the riches and distribute them among the people. The Robin Hood story is the biggest lie to the governments of the revolution. But can the people wake up to the painful realization that they must put in hard work and sacrifice without reigniting the flames of violent protest and returning the country to square one?
Fourth, the civil opposition must not be so misled by Washington's abdication toward Islamists; American support was not the only thing that mattered in past elections, and the results of the elections just show where the money is. American policy is always pragmatic and volatile. If interests cross again, the same thing would happen — just as we expected from the defeat of the civil parties in the 2011 election. We should expect the same thing if things remain as they are now: the same methods, faces and speeches that have previously led the march toward defeat.