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The US can no longer ignore Tunisia’s fight for democracy

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“We’re like North Korea now,” a Tunisian friend told me recently, half-joking and half-serious. “Kim Jong-un is the only other one in the world who controls all three branches of government.”  

Earlier that same day, Tunisian President Kais Saied issued a decree replacing the Supreme Judicial Council and giving him the authority to fire judges. Saied assumed all legislative powers in his decree, which gave an official veneer to a July power grab in which he suspended parliament and fired the prime minister.   

Saied’s authoritarian lurch reminds me of my time in Tunisia as the U.S. ambassador. When I arrived there in September 2009, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had ruled his country with an iron fist for nearly 22 years. Sixteen months later, protests in the name of “work, freedom and national dignity” toppled his regime. Successive governments failed to reduce the high unemployment rate, which — together with declining economic standards overall — fed a pervasive sense that the revolution was a failure and led to widespread disillusionment with politics in general.  

The governing elite’s inability to improve economic prospects for the average citizen explains why Saied’s actions initially garnered widespread public support. The Economist reported that polls of Tunisians from 2018 and 2019 showed 55 percent said, “a democratic government was one that ‘ensured job opportunities for all.’ Just 10 percent cited free and fair elections.”   

Saied’s so-called roadmap for 2022 includes online consultations that have attracted little interest and less participation, a referendum on a new Constitution on July 25 — Tunisia’s Republic Day and the anniversary of the day he seized additional powers — and parliamentary elections by the end of the year. Notably missing is any mention of plans to address the nation’s economic problems.       

It is important to underscore that only Tunisians can fix their country’s problems. At the same time, traditional friends can help. The United States is well-placed to do so. It has been a steadfast supporter of the post-Ben Ali transition and is not tainted by a colonial history in North Africa or by being motivated by commercial interests. Aiding Tunisia is consistent with the U.S. commitment to supporting democracy and the investment of over $1 billion in assistance to the nation since 2016. 

Two principles should guide the U.S. approach to Tunisia in the wake of Saied’s power grab.  First, the Biden administration should resist the temptation to cut off bilateral assistance. The administration’s request for assistance to Tunisia for this fiscal year was only $197.1 million. Tunisia’s needs are far greater, so freezing or ending U.S. assistance is highly unlikely to change Saied’s calculus. Moreover, U.S. assistance is designed to meet the needs of the Tunisian people by focusing on security, good governance and economic growth. Reducing assistance does not help the Tunisian people or promote U.S. interests. 

The administration should also base its Tunisia policy on the paramount importance of the rule of law. The United States should use its influence in international financial institutions (notably the International Monetary Fund as it considers a bail-out package for Tunisia) to incorporate this principle in any future multilateral assistance program.   

The United States and other friends of democracy in Tunisia should make it clear that loans will not be forthcoming until there is a clear and accelerated timeline for a return to the constitutional order. Any large assistance program will require an economic reform plan, which should have demonstrable buy-in from parliament and key players such as the labor union and the Tunisian equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, two of the four organizations in the National Dialogue Quartet that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.

The United States should take specific steps to encourage a return to the rule of law and to address Tunisia’s economic woes:

  • Invite U.S. and Tunisian private sector representatives — but not Tunisian government officials — to a meeting of the U.S.-Tunisia Joint Economic Commission (JEC). The meeting should build on proposals raised at the February 2020 JEC meeting on increasing U.S. investment in Tunisia.

  • Fund and implement programs designed to expand commercial lending to Tunisian small and medium enterprises (such as the one launched on Feb. 17) to promote private sector job creation.

  • Continue to speak out against Saied’s unconstitutional actions, as State Department spokesman Ned Price did at the start of a daily briefing last month.

  • Discourage other world leaders from expressing their support for Saied’s disregard of the constitution, as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi did in  August and again as recently as last month.

  • Use the confirmation hearing for the next U.S. ambassador to Tunisia to amplify U.S. support for the rule of law and for the Tunisian people.  (President Joe Biden nominated Donald Blome, the current U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, to be the next ambassador to Pakistan, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of that nomination in January. The nomination of a successor in Tunisia is long overdue, a prolonged gap would not serve U.S. interests.)

In his opening remarks at the Summit for Democracy, President Biden said that “we have to stand for justice and the rule of law.”  He quoted the late Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) who said “democracy is not a state, it is an act.”  

The United States needs to stand for the rule of law in Tunisia and act. Tunisians deserve no less. 

Gordon Gray is a professor of practice at Penn State’s School of International Affairs. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Center for American Progress and at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. He was a career Foreign Service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring and as deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.  Follow him on Twitter: @AmbGordonGray. 

Tags Joe Biden John Lewis Kais Saied Kim Jong-un Tunisia Tunisian revolution Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

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