22 April 2012

Tunisia: Achievements of the UK Government's Arab Partnership

Some people regard the Arab Spring with fear and consternation. The uncertainty change brings can be unsettling, especially when it is accompanied by a deterioration in security. But in Britain we view the Arab Spring in a strongly positive light. We see it as a long term process of transformation, a process that is essentially about the people of the region demanding their legitimate rights, human dignity and political and economic freedoms. The people have been deprived of these rights for too long. The Arab Spring is an opportunity to redress this imbalance and change societies for the good, which is why we are so supportive of this process.

The path of change is unique in each country of the region, reflecting the different political and social characteristics of each country. There is no one model for the political participation that people demand, and it is for the people of each country in the region to determine their own futures. But while the journey and destination of each country will be distinct, they will have one thing in common. The Arab Spring has shown that there is no contradiction between respect for a country's unique culture and traditions, and the right of its people to participate politically and economically in the life of their country.

The path of change will inevitably be difficult and there will be many challenges to face. There will be setbacks as well as progress in the years ahead. But the enormity of the task only strengthens the case for helping Arab nations to build their institutions, open up their economies and create strong civil society, where such assistance is requested.

These challenges should, however, not blind us to the positive developments we have seen to date, many of which seemed unthinkable two years ago: in Tunisia, the first democratically-elected parliament since the 1950s, with 24% of the seats held by women; in Libya, a new government after forty years of one-man rule; and in Morocco, free elections under a new Constitution and a Prime Minister selected from the largest party in the new parliament. We have made clear that we will work with these new, more representative, legitimate and accountable governments no matter what their political orientation as long as they respect basic democratic principles, reject violence and respect international treaties.

Britain has been honoured to stand with the Arab world and Tunisia as its people head towards their futures. Through our Arab Partnership, Britain has committed £110 million in assistance to the Middle East and North Africa over four years. To date we have supported projects worth £10 million in 11 countries across the region. These projects have included providing support to free and fair elections in Tunisia and Egypt; and working with partners across the region to build transparency and strengthen the rule of law.

In post-revolution Tunisia we have been proud to work with you in support of the October 2011 democratic elections which resulted in a freely elected Constituent Assembly and a coalition government, Our funding provided capacity support to the Electoral Commission. We also delivered voter education in numerous regions across the country to enable voters to understand the process and exercise their new rights. We also provided support to the media commission's drawing up of a legal framework for a newly free media. We have built capacity among some emerging civil society organisations working on political participation and opened up spaces for youth to develop public voice. Finally, we have worked to address some of the economic risks to the political transition, including through provision of microcredit and vocational training.

The work of the Arab Spring will take generations to complete. But Britain is committed to supporting this change in the long-term. This is the least the boldness of your actions deserves.

Irfan Siddiq heads the Arab Partnership a £110 million fund set up by the British government to support successful democratic transitions in Arab countries currently undergoing changes in their governments. He is a career UK Diplomatic Servant.

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