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The presidential election and the future of US-Tunisian relations

The oppressed people of Tunisia have long envied western democracy. Now that they've regained their freedom and had their own democratic elections, do Tunisians cast a more critical look on the American vote?

In a small café in Tunis, Mohamed Agerbi, a young activist, is sitting with two friends. They drink coffee and watch President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney debate about US foreign policy. “Romney does not even have a clear foreign policy," Agrebi tells his friend. "He shifted his speech to talk about economy instead. I doubt that he will win the elections”.

The third and final debate between Obama and Romney took place in Boca Raton, Florida on 22 October, and was moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News. The debate was dedicated to foreign policy; however, at times it shifted toward domestic issues. To Agrebi and many other Tunisians, Obama is Tunisia’s safer choice; a Republican victory would be a small disaster. Nobody in the MENA region doubts that Romney's tough stances on foreign policy would soon plunge the US into yet another war, somewhere in the Muslim world. Agrebi agrees: “Obama needs to win the elections. We do not have another choice. Even though I disagree with Obama on certain points, I think Romney's foreign policy has to be avoided at all costs.” It seems that Obama’s policy is generally accepted by Tunisians who fear that a Romney victory may affect US-Arab relations. “It seems that Romney favors former president George W. Bush’s policies. One of his top foreign policy advisor is Meghan O’Sullivan, who has previously been Bush’s special assistant and deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan,” asserted Agrebi. There is no doubt that Obama’s administration has shown support for Tunisia’s democratic transition. In a speech in May 2011 on US policy toward the Middle East, President Obama called on the United States “to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.”

In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in protest of poverty and harsh life conditions. His action sparked a massive anti-government protest that eventually led the longtime dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country and find refuge in Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s popular uprising inspired reform and opposition movements throughout the region and resulted in what later became known as the Arab Spring. Last October, Tunisia had its first democratic elections, ending with the victory of Islamist party Ennahda which has been ruling the country in coalition with two other center-left parties since then.

For many years now, Tunisians who have long been deprived of freedom and democracy have been following what was happening in the west and how these democratic countries were handling their own elections. Ahmed Ounais, a political analyst and former Foreign Affairs minister believes that Obama’s win is in Tunisia’s best interest. “If Tunisians had the right to vote in the US presidential elections, they would choose Obama,” he said. In his 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama called for improved mutual understanding and relations between the Islamic world and the west. For Ounais, Obama’s address shows a great appreciation of Islamic civilization and the Muslim world that other presidents failed to achieve. Ounais further evoked the contradicting views the two candidates had on the attacks on US embassies in September (allegedly as a response to "Innocence of Muslims", a US-produced movie that mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohamed). In the last debate, Romney said that America was “going to have to put in place a very comprehensive strategy to help the world of Islam…reject this radical violent extremism.” Meanwhile, Obama maintained that the people who attacked the US embassy in Tunis did not represent Tunisians and were merely a minority.

However, to many others an Obama or Romney victory would not make any difference. “They are the two sides of the same coin,” Yosra Hosni describes them. For her, nothing will change since they are both “a puppet” of the same people. “They are just a puppet of the Zionist scheme against Arabs and the Palestinian cause". This conspirationist view is fostered by Tunisia's broad support for the Palestinian cause. Some political factions have even demanded that Ennahda, the ruling Islamic party in Tunisia, should insert a provision in the country's penal code criminalizing any attempt to normalize the relation with Israel. Obama, in the same inaugural speech in Cairo, vowed his support for the creation of a Palestinian state and his desire to revive peace talks with Israel. “Any president expressing support for the creation of a Palestinian state will get the support of Arabs in general,” said Ounais. However, in the last debate, President Obama stressed the importance of having Israel as a strong ally to the U.S. and stated that any threat to Israel security was a threat against the US itself.

In the end, Tunisians do not really care whether Obama or Romney wins. All they worry about is a steady job and decent life. Tunisia still has a long way to go and a lot to overcome during this transitional period. A year has passed since Tunisia had its first democratic elections. But will Tunisia succeed in implementing policies that respect its citizens and provide a fair and decent life for all? 

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here. 


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