Roundtable organised by The Jasmine Foundation: “The role of Arab Diaspora in Democratic Transitions: Political and Economic Challenges”

“The role of Arab Diaspora in Democratic Transitions: Political and Economic Challenges”


Roundtable organised by The Jasmine Foundation for Research and Communication


In partnership with the European Research Council research programme WAFAW (When Authoritarianism Falls in the Arab World)

17 October 2014, Foundouq El-Attarine, Tunis


The Jasmine Foundation for Research and Communication held a roundtable on “The role of Arab Diaspora in Democratic Transitions: Political and Economic Challenges” on Friday 17th October in Tunis in partnership with the European Research Council research programme WAFAW (When Authoritarianism Falls in the Arab World).


The roundtable, held in the atmospheric setting of Foundouk El-Attarine in the heart of the Medina, brought together researchers, civil society actors, political figures, entrepreneurs and officials from Tunisia, France and Arab countries to discuss the real challenges faced by members of Arab diaspora, and particularly the Tunisian diaspora, in contributing to the democratic transition in their countries of origin.


The programme was structured along two themed sessions: first the role played by diaspora actors in representative institutions, chaired by Dr. Vincent Geisser of the WAFAW programme. The second, chaired by Professor Hassan Boubakri of Sousse University, focused on the role of diaspora in meeting economic challenges.


Below are summaries of the contributions:


Introduction by the organisers, Jasmine Foundation and WAFAW


Dr. Tasnim Chirchi, Director, Jasmine Foundation


Today’s roundtable seeks to bring together key actors in the political, economic and civil society domains together with researchers to examine the topic of the return of diaspora to Arab countries following the Arab revolutions, and the challenges diaspora face. The discussion seeks to explore exchanges between two spaces – the national community, as lived, imagined and recreated, and the space of exile and emigration.


The Jasmine Foundation is directly concerned by this subject, first on the personal level as many of our members are former members of the diaspora, and on the professional level, as our mission is to mobilise the knowledge and expertise of Tunisians, wherever they are, to contribute to the consolidation of the democratic transition.


Dr. Francois Burgat, Lead Researcher, WAFAW programme


I came here because what is unfolding in Tunisia is very interesting for many of us. All those who are interested in this region are examining Tunisia and expecting a great deal from it. There are some who have the perception that the Southern shores of the Mediterranean harbour only terrorists, extremists, fundamentalists and radicals. The actions of terrorist groups such as ISIS have given space to our radicals and extremists in which to breathe in recent weeks, and to conclude that their expectations have been fulfilled. Tunisia is the antidote to the obsession with ISIS. We need Tunisia to continue this exceptionally positive role. In the coming weeks, the verdict of the elections must be respected by all, whatever the outcome, and Tunisians will enter world history.


Session One: Political Role – What Place for Diaspora Actors in Representative Institutions?


Dr. Vincent Geisser, President of the Centre for International Migration Studies (CIEMI, Paris)


The diaspora, in countries of migration and exile, has undergone dynamics of assimilation and integration into host societies. A key question today, is how can we explain the choice of many of them to return to a country that had been reduced to a memory, associated only with holidays, tourism, family visits and annual trips? How did this will to contribute, this passion and engagement in the country of origin develop? The revolution did not invent anything new in this regard – many members of diaspora were already engaged in their country of origin before the revolution. However, the Tunisian revolution and protests in the Arab world clearly had an accelerating and motivating effect on the engagement of diaspora in their countries of origin. A revolution was also experienced in the diaspora – exiled Tunisians and bi-nationals who are becoming more and more part of the picture, demanding to be recognised simply as Tunisians, full stop.


Dr. Mohamed Cherif, consultant engineer, EPOS Health Management, Tunisian democracy activist in Germany


I received a scholarship to study civil engineering in Germany at the Technische Hochschule in Aachen. I was active in the German-Tunisian student diaspora and established the Tunisian-German Students’ Association to give professional and academic support to Tunisian students in Germany. We had some problems – in 1988 the ambassador cut our scholarships for four months.


As an engineer, I specialised in waste management, authoring a book on Tunisia’s waste management policy. At the time, the environment was a taboo subject in Tunisia. My book was very critical of the waste management system put in place by the Tunisian state, which was very ineffective and badly managed – as we can see now with the current problems concerning waste. We sought to engage constructively with the Tunisian administration to improve the system – we formed an international non-governmental organization, the Euro-Arab International Conference on the Environment, and worked with the Order of Tunisian Engineers to create proposals for improving the system. We worked with the German organisation for international cooperation, GIZ, which approached us and other actors to create the “Pool d’Entreprises Tunisie-Maghreb”. We worked on many waste projects in the Maghreb and advised governments, who were requesting our technical assistance. Our civil society work also involved raising money and organising trainings for local authority officials from the Maghreb and bringing them to Germany to receive training by German local officials and managers.


As a consultant with the European Investment Bank, I worked on many projects in the health sector such as the construction of 17 hospitals in Morocco. I approached the Tunisian Minister of Health to try to convince him to undertake projects to improve and renovate hospitals in Tunisia – at the time there was no unified agency to coordinate the management of the maintenance, construction and renovation of hospitals. Another challenge is the Law on the Public Market in Tunisia, which slows down many projects. We had some notable successes in working with the Tunisian state, such as our 2-year project to produce sectorial guides for hospitals in Tunisia. Thanks to this hard work and cooperation, we now have a unified guidance document on how to construct hospitals in Tunisia according to international standards.


We are continuing to promote the contribution of diaspora to development in Tunisia, particularly their technical expertise. We created a foundation for Tunisian experts in Germany, in cooperation with the Tunisian Ministry for Higher Education, which we hope will be another vehicle for the transfer of the considerable competences and expertise of Tunisian diaspora to Tunisia’s development.


Alaa Chehabi, Co-Founder, Bahrain Watch, Researcher


I was studying in Sweden when the Tunisian revolution happened, and when protests broke out in Bahrain shortly after. I made a choice to engage in the struggle for justice in Bahrain.


Migration and exile evoke many questions of identity and citizenship – British Muslim, Shia Arab – yet all these dissipated the moment I stood on the streets of Bahrain in the protests. All the labels were meaningless. It is solidarity that defines who you are. Exile is a political project.


I appreciate the research and studies on the experiences and contributions of diaspora, but it is impossible to fully capture this deep human exhilaration that was felt across the Arab world following the uprisings, which I could feel when I spoke to a Syrian, Egyptian or Yemeni.


We look up to the Tunisian transition as the best example that we have of democratic change. We have moved from unity to fragmentation, from peaceful moments to violence, from hope to despair. But our stories are not finished – the novelty of the 2011 activism is coming to an end and we find ourselves staring into the mouth of the lion as war looms. It is clear that we are on a long, difficult path to reform.


The counterrevolution in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, seeks to make the revolutions fail because a successful model will challenge their hegemony. My family had their citizenship revoked for seeking peaceful change in Bahrain. The situation in our countries gives us one of only three choices: silence, repression or exile.


However, the struggle continues to create what Ernest Gellner calls a “political roof” under which people can stand united. This is what Tunisians are doing, and in a couple of weeks you will form this political roof. We are all stakeholders in your experience. All exiles feel they are stakeholders in your experience.


In relation to the interaction between the diaspora and the national community, my view is that exiles are complementary and a back-up to the domestic movement – there is no tension between the two.


Zied Miled, Head of the Electoral Campaign of Dr. Moncef Marzouki (President of the Tunisian Republic)


I am the child of emigrants who died abroad, and who was traumatised by the utilitarian vision of the emigrant. This vision of the emigrant as a mere economic contributor has always disturbed me. Today, we still do not possess sufficient knowledge and understanding of the transition and of diaspora, and it is good to see this topic has begun to interest researchers.


Tunisians resident abroad are now a question of national preoccupation – questions around their political and social weight, their economic weight and their diplomatic dimension. There are several changes and mutations – new generations with “double belonging”, change of demographic profile, change in social and political belonging, and a crisis of confidence in political actors before and after the revolution.


Tunisians resident abroad demand a rupture with clientelism and co-optation by the regime. They demand the promotion of meritocracy and participation in the political, social and cultural space. After the revolution, Tunisians resident abroad demonstrated a strong participation in elections, through voting and presenting candidates – in fact, the head of the former ISIE (the Independent Higher Council for Elections) was a member of the diaspora.


Now what is the result? The diaspora issue continues to be treated superficially. We have to create spaces for genuine participation in active diplomacy. Tunisians resident abroad can have a strong contribution in terms of economic diplomacy – we are a network of ambassadors and diplomats at the service of Tunisia. If we have this cooperative approach, the diaspora will not be a problem or a challenge but a solution.


Mehrezia Labidi, Vice-President, Tunisian National Constituent Assembly


I am part of the generation who emigrated from Tunisia to pursue their studies. During this period, Tunisians abroad were already preparing for the democratic transition, through their work with associations in human rights and charitable work, gaining valuable experience in civil society and building solidarity. Together, we worked in associations such as Solidarité Tunisienne and Tunisiens des Deux Rives and a panoply of associations to make people around the world aware that in Tunisia, human rights were being violated. We worked with the World Organisation Against Torture, Amnesty International, journalists, publishers – I remember there was a publishing house our President Dr. Moncef Marzouki worked with to publish books on what was happening. There was a news website called Tunis News, whose founder worked day and night to collect and publish news on what was really happening in Tunisia at a time when information was scarce. I believe all this was preparation of the spirit of revolution.


In the historic 2011 elections, voting began outside Tunisia three days before voting day inside Tunisia. Seeing the long lines of Tunisian voters queuing to vote in polling stations around the world was very encouraging for Tunisians inside.


After the elections, we had to craft a new political culture of dialogue – at first it was very difficult. I was a member of an Assembly where we were all there to serve Tunisia, but there was no dialogue at first. We had to build it from scratch, and my experience abroad helped me greatly. What was revolutionary for me was to experience the big change in attitudes – the 18 of us representing Tunisians abroad, there was something common among us, a common feeling that we had to make Tunisians’ voices heard and show that they were Tunisian citizens like others. We drew on our common experiences to build a dialogue. This joint effort added to the process of constructing democracy.


During the constitutional debates in front of the entire Tunisian nation, we showed Tunisians abroad that we could all work together, regardless of differences. We held 16 public meetings to discuss the constitution with Tunisians abroad and their contributions enriched the content of the constitution. I am proud that thanks to the diaspora, we now have an article in our Constitution that states that Tunisia is a country of asylum for political refugees and that it is forbidden to extradite political refugees. This was in recognition of those countries that had been a refuge for Tunisians in their struggle. Articles on the environment, child rights, article 49 setting limitations on restrictions to rights – the diaspora participated strongly in the articulation of all these articles.


What was interesting is that all 18 of the deputies representing Tunisians abroad voted in the same way on the constitutional articles relating to rights and freedoms. There is a democratic culture that can be carried by Tunisians abroad to those in Tunisia. I have had the experience of being “the other”, of being in a foreign country where your common belonging is based on a feeling of citizenship. Therefore, there is a familiarity with these concepts of citizenship, what it means to be an active citizen.


For me, it was very difficult to vote on the article on bi-nationals standing for presidency. I was astonished by the tone of debate about whether Tunisian bi-nationals should be allowed to stand for presidency, and it shows there is still work to do.


Many Tunisians resident abroad contacted me during this transitional period to say, we have projects and ideas, we want to help, we want to propose solutions. I will never forget that Tunisian associations outside Tunisia contributed more ambulances to hospitals in Tunisia since the revolution than the state did. I will never forget the diaspora associations that equipped entire schools and hospitals. The diaspora is a dynamic force, a contributor of new ideas and solutions. Before the revolution, they were marginalised and discouraged from contributing because of the repressive police state, clientelism and corruption – ‘diaspora’ engagement with the Tunisian state was limited to social services at the consulate. Now they demand equal participation and the valorisation of their contribution on economic, social and political levels.


The question is now, how to translate this energy into equal participation and fair representation?


Elyes Ghanmi, former official at the European Parliament, diplomatic advisor to Mustapha Ben Jaafar, President of the National Constituent Assembly


I get the feeling that the debate on the diaspora has been polluted by the question of allegiance. To be bi-national is to have another experience that can add richness – we are enriched by another experience. Nationality is simply a juridical status that indicates a sociological fact of having lived elsewhere. Tunisia must benefit from this experience and the diversity of Tunisians resident abroad.


Nadia Tarhouni, President, UniT


I am the child of a Tunisian father and French mother – from a young age, I knew the constant movement of aller-retour between two spaces, which continues to this day. I am part of the UniT network, which is an association of Tunisians based in Paris, which brings together Tunisians of all backgrounds to discuss topics relating to Tunisia. The richness of this experience is the diversity of views and the fact that all can participate, regardless of political or other affiliation. It is very valuable to have such spaces in Tunisian society. It is very important also to have a constant exchange between Tunisian civil society activists in Tunisia and outside, and to build relationships based on confidence, which Ben Ali worked to restrict and divide.


Session Two: Investing – The Role of Diaspora Actors in National and International Economic Challenges


Introduction, Professor Hassan Bokhari, University of Sousse, Member of Migrinter Network


Mohamed Malouche, Founder and President, Tunisian American Young Professionals (TAYP)


After the revolution, a group of Tunisian professionals living in the United States and I founded the Tunisian American Young Professionals organisation, a non-profit association to increase economic ties, cooperation and exchanges between Tunisia and the United States. TAYP seeks to be a link between Tunisia and the US – for Tunisian entrepreneurs who want to do business with companies in the United States and for American entrepreneurs who want to invest in Tunisia. TAYP is active in promoting Tunisia’s image as a great place to invest for North American businesses and investors.


Tunisia needs a new governance of expertise, skills and investment. To create economic prosperity, we have to differentiate Tunisia – we call ourselves the gateway to Africa, but so do Morocco, Egypt and Turkey. We need to be smarter in identifying what Tunisia has that can appeal to different types of investors.


For example, Tunisians who have lived in the United States know the mentality of American investors – their primary concerns are risk, transparency, fair dispute resolution mechanisms, mechanisms to control risk. We have to talk to them openly about how they can minimise their risks. After the revolution, we have many gains, one of which is the emergence of big NGOs who are doing great work as watchdogs. This is very important for investors to know. Tunisia is in the middle of developing a unique model, based on trade-offs and dialogue – we are in the process of transforming cultures.


Hichem Zebidi, Expert in International Finance, Innovator in the Banking Sector


Before the revolution, the context was very restrictive on the level of political and economic activity. It is true that there is a deterioration of the economic situation today but the economic situation for entrepreneurs and businessmen before revolution was far from ideal – it was very difficult to do business if you did not have the contacts of X or Y. These were very difficult circumstances to accept for entrepreneurs and investors.


When the revolution happened I was working in an investment bank in London. The prospect of change in the business environment and being able to contribute to Tunisia’s prosperity attracted me to return to Tunisia and set up a commercial bank. My concern is how to transform Tunisia into a hub of high-quality financial services. Despite what we see on television, the working conditions in Tunisia are good, business is growing and the economic situation is improving.


Dr. Khalil Amiri, Former Advisor to the Secretary of State for Migration and Tunisians Abroad, Vice-Dean, Mediterranean School of Business


Economic success is critically in consolidating democracy. Numerous studies show this, and I would recommend the recent publication, Pathways to Freedom, which identifies this as an important factor in democratisation. The majority of businessmen who enjoyed success under Ben Ali are evidently not happy to see their privileges eliminated and to see the business environment change after the revolution. There is a gradual change in the economic governance framework in Tunisia since the revolution. The diaspora can contribute to it, through their networks and their experience of freedom and good governance, having lived in countries where a certain level of economic governance and equality of opportunity exists. They have also had the opportunity to evaluate Tunisia from a distance, which can help in identifying areas and opportunities for reform. They expect efficient public services and equal access to economic opportunities. It is very important for diaspora to participate because they are a factor that strengthens good economic governance, which in turn can strengthen democratic consolidation.


Following the revolution I returned to Tunisia and worked as an advisor at the Office for Tunisians Abroad. We worked to identify and address the priorities of the Tunisian diaspora. We elaborated a new strategy for Tunisians abroad in which many actors participated, including representatives from civil society, trade unions and employers. We spent a great deal of time on examining and identifying targets and objectives, to ensure we had a clear strategy and goals.


We found that a common complaint among our diaspora was lack of access to information, so we gathered all relevant laws, procedures, opportunities for investment, on one website, to serve as a point of reference for Tunisians abroad. There were many complaints about the complexity of Tunisian administrative procedures, so we worked to create a single “counter” where Tunisians abroad could complete all their procedures.


A classical indicator of the economic participation of diaspora to their countries of origin is remittances. In Tunisia, remittances contribute nearly 5% of Gross Domestic Product. This is far lower than similar countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Laos where remittances reach 30-40%. However, high remittance rates are not an indicator of a strong economy. In many successful economies with large diaspora, such as Turkey, we find that remittance rates are quite low. This is because where a country experiences real economic growth, the diaspora do not just send money back, they invest it in the country of origin to help develop their economy. These countries managed to create a welcoming investment climate for diaspora and mobilise their resources.


In fact, remittances can create a vicious cycle – the majority of funds are spent on land or commodities, which contributes to raising inflation, creating a housing boom and generating low-skilled labour. When you have an economy focused on low-skilled labour, those with high education and expertise leave because the economy cannot create the right jobs for them. Tunisia has an average net emigration of 16,000 per year.


The Mediterranean School of Business is an English-language private university in Tunis. It is an example of how to create highly skilled jobs in Tunisia, and how to attract diaspora and their skills back to our economy. In fact, 80% of the professors at the university are Tunisians who have returned from residing abroad. It has been cited by the Financial Times as a model to follow, and is an example of how we can create spaces for diaspora to contribute their skills and expertise and enrich the economy. However, such efforts need to be accompanied by an improvement in the quality of services in order to enable the growth of new sectors and existing sectors such as tourism.


Elyes Jeribi, Tunisian-French entrepreneur, Founder of LINKAO


I am a product of this country, of Metlaoui on the eastern coast of Tunisia, a town that is a symbol of economic failure. I studied in Metlaoui, Jem, and Sfax and experienced life in many different parts of this country. I received a scholarship to complete my studies in France – from the day that I left Tunisia, I immediately began to think about how I could return to this country and serve it.


I remember when I was at l’ecole polytechnique, a Tunisian military attaché visited us to give a speech. When we asked him what could be the contribution of Tunisians abroad to Tunisia, he said, “why would you want to return Tunisia? Stay here and send money back”. To me, sending remittances is a sign of the poverty and backwardness of a country and its inability to attract the competences and skills it needs, rather than remittances.


Tunisia is in the middle of the world, strategically located between Europe and Africa. Geographically, it is a hub, a crossing point. Historically, Tunisia has always been a country of passage, of mixing, a meeting place of cultures.


The diaspora is an open population that has attachments in different places. It can be a bridge, a strategic pillar for putting in place a strategy to make Tunisia a real hub.


As an entrepreneur, in my own way I am working to change our country’s model of development. With strategic vision, Tunisia can be a real platform of human resources. We have many Tunisians resident abroad who are ready to invest. They want to benefit Tunisia with their success and be involved in Tunisia’s success. What we need is an incubator, an investment vehicle that targets investments from Tunisia’s diaspora into specific, visible, concrete projects in Tunisia, which can inspire their confidence and their contribution to Tunisia’s development.

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