In a region marked by so many acrimonious policy differences among Western governments and think tanks, Tunisia has indeed seemed quite exceptional.
Sure, there have been some quibbles here and there since the country's 2011 revolution - mainly over the best funding levels, the most important issues to prioritize or the degree of support that should be bestowed on the various political actors
But the overall picture has been one of relative consensus among elites: Tunisia is the model success story to come out of the "Arab Spring."
Because it is also, at the end of the day, vital for the security of North Africa, the Mediterranean and Europe in general, its transition to the long-term rationalism of solid democratic governance must be supported and it must succeed.
Unfortunately, the anchors of that consensus may soon unravel.
Despite the passage of a new Constitution, several free and fair elections and a Nobel Prize, Tunisia is desperately struggling to maintain its stability amid economic regression, widening social divisions and repeated ISIS and Al-Qaeda attacks.
As these pressures grow, a crucial blind spot of the past few years will likely emerge: Few outside advocates for the country have proposed specific policies for how the country might fundamentally re-wire itself in order to prevent its own collapse.
If you scratch down to that level - i.e. beyond the mechanics of holding elections and the drafting of new laws - among Tunisians there has long been a robust debate about the best way forward. This is especially true when it comes to the central problem of dealing with the deeply corrupt, anti-reformist "parallel state" that is simultaneously strangling the economy and hobbling the security sector.
One strongly suspects, and hopes, that these sorts of debates will finally bubble to the surface in European and North American capitals as the prospect of yet another failed state on the Mediterranean continues to grow.
For the time being, however, the soft rhetoric of institution and infrastructure-building, good governance and non-confrontational, de jure approaches to reform marches on, couched in the fading hope that it will be enough to hold the line.
Perhaps with this in mind, the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently published several reports and op-eds that both sound the alarm and propose what amounts to a grand bargain to "save" Tunisia.
The main white paper, entitled "Between Peril and Promise: A New Framework for Partnership With Tunisia," provides a clear and compelling review of the many problems that the country now faces from the inside and the outside.
"The situation in Tunisia has become dangerous," the authors warn.
"A combination of internal headwinds and regional whirlwinds are extinguishing Tunisian hopes for a consolidated new social contract...Despite [the] notably broad support and rhetorical consensus, assistance and reforms have failed to materialize in ways visible to ordinary citizens, and Tunisia has continued on a downward economic slide, with social tensions, unrest, and radicalization rising in turn."
Summing up the growing fears of some neighboring states, the report concludes grimly by quoting one senior Tunisian politician who says, "if the world does not reengage now on Tunisia's challenges, by the time international leaders wake up to a crisis, 'We may no longer be here to receive their help.'" In that case, "the ramifications for the spread of extremism, illegal migration to Europe, and Tunisia's vulnerability to shocks from its immediate neighbors, Libya and Algeria, would be swiftly felt."
Carnegie's solution for battling back is, in some ways, a culmination of the wide frustration felt by European and North American policy-makers when it comes to the inability of Tunisians to protect their own country by reforming the de facto power structures that continue to rule and ruin. As one of the white paper authors, Marwan Muasher, writes in an accompanying Op-Ed with Carnegie President William J. Burns:
"Although the revolution upgraded Tunisia's regime hardware from an authoritarian to a democratic government, its operating system -- its state institutions, laws, bureaucracies, courts and police -- remained largely unchanged. These continued to serve their original function: to capture, not disperse, state resources. As a result, despite the best intentions of Tunisia's new leadership, billions of dollars and dozens of projects never got off the ground, sending Tunisians back to the streets. This made it much more difficult for Tunisia's leaders to get public support for necessary, if painful, economic reforms. And it shook international confidence in Tunisia and undermined efforts to generate international support.
"Tunisians themselves hold significant responsibility, as well. Too little was done to uproot corruption, rebuild the brittle machinery of the state, secure gender equity, reach out to traditionally marginalized regions and groups, and make progress on a long list of critical legislative reforms. Unless Tunisians are willing to tackle these [issues] head-on, no level of international support -- and no amount of reassuring gestures -- will make a lasting difference [Emphasis added]."
This is, of course, a stark warning placed in front of Tunisia's political class.
You have admirably changed your "hardware," Carnegie acknowledges. And you have made great strides in the far more difficult task of forging political consensus between Islamists and their opposites. But now you are facing ruin and will have to muster the courage to significantly reform. If you do that, external powers are ready to help you every step of the way. If you don't, they probably won't be able to help much since any investments would just end up being wasted.
To jumpstart matters and avoid this scenario, the three authors of the Carnegie white paper - Marwan Muasher, Marc Pierini and Alexander Djerassi - suggest that Tunisian leaders pursue some quick wins, demonstration projects and clear (though exceedingly modest) reforms, all of which would build confidence for outside backers to get re-involved in a "virtuous cycle."
The country should establish "a fast-track mechanism to implement projects aimed at fostering economic and social development and creating jobs," they say. "New procedures for cross-ministerial coordination, procurement, and security for development projects are needed to transform domestic and external financing into concrete results for Tunisians, particularly youth and marginalized communities."
A more inclusive public outreach and dialogue effort might also be necessary, they add, alongside greater support for building up the parliament's capacity (MPs don't even have offices, much less assistants or IT infrastructure) as well as "economic centers of excellence that [would be] established throughout Tunisia to foster decentralization."
Whatever the specific mechanisms end up being, the bottom line remains the same: Tunisians have to start addressing rampant corruption (the grey and black markets are now believed to be greater in size than the formal economy) and they have to take concrete steps to begin to "work around [the] morass." Without such an effort, "no level of international support will make any difference" (the white paper authors are even more strident on this point than in the Carnegie op-ed).
For some, especially Tunisian Nationalists and Leftists, these kinds of dire pronouncements and quid pro quos will undoubtedly rile.
Several Western governments helped build and sustain the inefficient, unjust and corrupt police state that Tunisians were finally able to decapitate in 2011 (although the body lives on). Given this history, those same governments therefore have an obligation, it is argued, to provide a "Marshall Plan" of grants, not interest-bearing loans, to massively stimulate the economy and build up the security sector.
In other words, it's time for the West to pay up, get out of the way and let the Tunisians sort out how and where they want to reform themselves.
While this approach might be more palatable for some Tunisians, it actually suffers from the same problem that hobbles Carnegie's "New Framework for Partnership": The underlying, structural imbalance of weak democratic forces pitted against far stronger, parallel state networks is left largely unaddressed.
Pouring money into a system that has been, and is still, de facto controlled by an iron triangle of business oligarchs, security sector actors and traditional mafias (i.e. the approach preferred by many Nationalists and Leftists) would only inflate the wealth and leverage of those who have long been preponderant.
In fact, the cancer would metastasize at an even faster rate.
Conversely, waiting to provide international aid (Carnegie's approach) until some Tunisian actors succeed in forcing a far stronger side to start reforming itself out of existence - via micro-decentralization programs, "public dialogues" or end-runs around the bureaucracy - is also doomed. After all, Tunisia's parallel state is exceptionally well schooled in the art of co-option, subversion and re-direction, especially in a climate of terrorism and overriding European concerns about refugee flows.
Carnegie's experts, at several points, seem to admit as much when they detail the strength of what is termed a "system" of entrenched interests and injustices:
"Interviews with a wide range of stakeholders confirmed that much of the machinery of the state--its laws, bureaucracies, courts, and police--does not function without the application of significant influence, power, and resources. Under the old regime, the complex and cumbersome state apparatus functioned like a lock--the presidency was the key, capable of unlocking and directing development projects, legal decisions, and access to state resources. Five years after the revolution, the gears of the state's machinery still turn for those with power and connections, but the average Tunisian feels as excluded as ever from access to state institutions, dialogue, and the benefits that should flow from citizenship."
Given this state of affairs - and in the face of a corruption matrix the World Bank says is "asphyxiating" - how could anyone reasonably expect that well-meaning, Tunisian democrats might be able to "focus on the prioritization and procedural changes that could reduce or eliminate the various obstacles to progress that have been blocking Tunisia's path forward?"
As several authors and activists have pointed out - key among them Fadil Aliriza, Monica Marks, Achraf Aouadi and Sami Ben Gharbia - unless confronted by a stronger actor or set of actors, Tunisia's parallel state will strenuously and effectively resist any reforms that threaten it, even though such reforms are vital for the country to protect itself from economic collapse as well as the relentless insurgencies gathering pace all around.
If we finally acknowledge that this is the central problem, the main question policymakers need to urgently answer is how can local, democratic forces be equipped with enough hard power to force through "root and branch" changes?
Unfortunately, to date, there actually hasn't been much work done to map out an answer.
Tens of millions (perhaps hundreds of millions) of dollars have been provided by international NGOs and governments to support women's empowerment, media activism and legal reforms, among other crucial efforts. Far more still is being spent identifying and targeting violent extremists and confronting ISIS at the borders.
But five years on from the revolution, there is still no comprehensive study about one of the main structures that continually subverts so much "good government" work and desperately needed security sector reform - the sprawling ministry of interior.
Tunisians often comment that perhaps a few hundred or as many as a few thousand of their fellow citizens (cops, oligarchs and gangsters, with a sprinkling of politicians) exert a wide, pernicious control over state and society.
Is it true? Who are these people and how do they operate in consort with the several dozen or so key security chiefs that are said to be controlling the sector's decisions?
Most importantly, would destabilizing the top tier of corruption, especially in the interior ministry, really impede the country's ability to protect itself at this crucial moment, as some fear?
Addressing these questions in detail is vital for getting to the next step: Rapidly and responsibly dismantling Tunisia's parallel state.
But here too, not much work has been done to sketch out options even though several approaches are available.
Perhaps, the most ambitious and comprehensive one would be the creation of a supra national, International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC) that would function in a similar manner to the International Criminal Court (ICC). As one proponent has put it: "Like the ICC, an IACC would operate on the principle of complementarity, meaning that only officials from those countries unable or unwilling to prosecute grand corruption properly would be subject to prosecution. This would give many nations a significant incentive to strengthen and demonstrate their capacity to combat grand corruption."
But cobbling together broad international support for an IACC would undoubtedly take time and face numerous obstacles.
A better alternative, then, for the vast majority of Tunisians who desperately want to see an end to the corruption of the parallel state, as well as for regional peace and security, may be an ad-hoc U.N. investigation, combined with the threat of a hybrid (Tunisian-UN) tribunal should Tunisia prove itself unable to prosecute the handful of top-level networks identified by the investigation.
Such an effort would send a powerful message to all Tunisians that the era of elite impunity is over. The culture of corruption/crony protectionism and the inefficiency and injustice it breeds has become an existential threat to Tunisia and to "frontline" states in the region.
While some Tunisians (and international actors) will undoubtedly object to the notion of a UN investigation and a possible hybrid tribunal, the key aspect for obtaining wide consent is that any "naming, shaming and sanctioning" process is undertaken in concert with the legitimate, elected representatives of Tunisia. This would mean Tunisian democrats would finally have the hard-power leverage to press forward reforms that they haven't had since the revolution's heady early days.
For its part, the parallel state would surely fight back against such a multi-pronged, internationally supported effort. It might begin by trying to exercise its influence through the Nidaa Tounes party that holds the presidency and that is routinely castigated by its opponents as being a kind of "ex-regime" front. In reality, however, a number of Nidaa MPs (and some of those who have broken away from the party) have strong opposition and human rights bona fides built up over the last few decades. Many would be ideologically receptive to the idea of rationalizing Tunisia's regime by ending the monopolization of the economy and its dependency on the police-mafia anchor.
Furthermore, unlike in Egypt, Iraq, or Lebanon, the Tunisian parallel state possesses few levers of hard power to disrupt its own decapitation. Fortunately, there are no private militias in Tunisia and only minimal capabilities (at least for now) that could be used to apply pressure. Most importantly though, external actors, whose unflinching support would be vital, have few stress points that could be threatened in their effort to aid Tunisian democrats.
Strangely, despite these unique circumstances and the obvious urgency of the situation, the search for more robust approaches to stem Tunisia's decline doesn't seem to be particularly of the moment in New York, Washington, Brussels, or any Mediterranean capital.
Carnegie, for its part, prefers to stop just short, hoping that the dangling of carrots will be enough to encourage Tunisians to use whatever sticks they can muster up themselves in the reform fight.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) has also largely shied away from the task at hand, espousing a non-confrontational approach even as the situation deteriorates further. Last summer, for example, it extensively outlined how "a dysfunctional internal security apparatus" in Tunisia was failing and had to be "thorough(ly) reformed": "Without an Internal Security Force (ISF) reform that would allow for the formulation of a holistic security strategy, Tunisia will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis as its regional environment deteriorates and political and social tensions increase, at the risk of sinking into chaos or a return to dictatorship."
Brushing aside the full implications of its own dire predictions, however, ICG then went on to propose more of the same remedies that might have made sense in the 2011-2013 period: The parallel state, and especially its manifestations in the security sector, needs to be brought into the democratic process since "a head-on fight between the ISF and the political class is a dead end." Rather than "impos(ing) their vision on the Internal Security Forces," the report asserted, Tunisia's leaders needed to somehow "channel the ISF's desire for independence," cooperate with it and offer "encourage(ment)."
Doubling down on the approach, ICG released a report earlier this month that proposed several ways to rescue the embattled transitional justice effort.
"It would be better," the report's authors said, "for the government to support a law regularizing under certain conditions the status of Tunisians implicated in [past] corruption and tax evasion. Instead of entering into conciliation procedures that could create new opportunities for cronyism and blackmail, these Tunisians would have to entrust the inventory of their assets to certified public accountants, who would be held responsible for any false declarations, as a basis for a tax assessment and back payment."
Although ideas like this, and other efforts to "find a middle ground," may seem like a sensible way to head off the full-scale assault of the past two years against anti-corruption efforts and transitional justice as a whole, the problem is that the very idea of compromise for the upper echelons of graft is unworkable since any meaningful accounting would dangerously expose the parallel state as it currently operates, threatening their whole enterprise.
Given all of this, it is high time to recognize the situation as it. There may be a rare chance to build a robust, non-corrupt democracy in the Middle East. But a "head on fight" led by Tunisians that aims to dismantle their country's de facto triangle of power--the police, their associated business elites, and the mafia--is the only credible way to move forward.
It also might be the only way left to prevent yet another disaster in a region that can't bear much more.