The President of Tunisia, Kais Saied. Photo: Hussein Eddeb via shutterstock.com
Tunisia tests the Biden administration’s democratic resolve

President Kais Saied may lean toward regional autocrats to help relieve ongoing health and economic crises, complicating relations with the United States.

One week after Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended parliament and selectively invoked the “emergency” powers set out in Article 80 of the 2014 constitution, nearly 400 of his citizens were rescued from overcrowded boats headed towards Europe. Beyond the humanitarian aspect represented by this dramatic event lies a wider strategic dimension: the struggle to chart its fragile democratic institutions carries security implications for Tunisia, for its Maghreb neighbors, for Western Europe and for the United States. 

It was surely with these concerns in mind that Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan held a one-hour phone discussion with Saied. The official summary of the July 31 call — during which Sullivan highlighted the “critical need for Tunisian leaders to outline a swift return to Tunisia’s democratic path” — suggests that the White House is trying to strike a balance between prodding Kais to avoid a slippery slope into autocracy and not appearing to intervene in Tunisia’s politics. As it struggles to find this sweet spot, the White House must grapple with a political arena that is gripped by intensifying internal conflicts. These divisions could hinder — or be magnified by —  the most well-meaning U.S. efforts to play a constructive role in helping Tunisia avoid the abyss. 

Tunisian realities loom large

One of these divisions is the gulf between Tunisians who favor keeping religion a safe distance from politics and those who favor a more “Islamist” agenda. This complex divide exists in tandem with long-standing geographic, ideological, social, and economic cleavages. But it has been a key factor in the birth and evolution of decade-old Tunisia’s consensus-based political system, which was designed to compel groups and leaders who distrusted each other to share power. Speaker of the Parliament and co-founder of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party Rached Ghannouchi now faces his worst nightmare — that Saied will impose a presidential system that will ban Ennahda. This scenario cannot be realized without a strong dose of repression, thus ensuring that whatever system emerges will be tilted towards some version of authoritarianism.

How to exercise U.S. influence in a manner that will help Tunisia avoid this scenario is a tricky if basic question. The administration’s focus — echoed by the European Union — on encouraging Saied to allow parliament to reconvene is a good start. But Washington cannot push for reconvening a parliament as a mere preclude to emasculating the assembly by banishing its largest party. The Biden White House must find some way to speak up for the basic norm of political inclusion while avoiding the appearance that it is speaking for any one party, not least of which is Ennahda.

This will not be an easy task given the fact that many parties and leaders, such as Abir Moussi’s Free Destourian Party, favor banning Ennahda and shifting to a presidential system that will subordinate the parliament to the executive. But other leaders have criticized Saied’s suspension of the parliament, while hinting that they might favor clipping Ennahda’s wings. These divergences suggest a still fluid domestic debate, one that could open space for Washington and its European allies to continue pushing for reconvening parliament.

As the Biden administration makes this case, it will also contend with an array of liberal and leftist forces that have variously signaled qualified support for Saied’s actions in the name of resisting the “condescending, neocolonial tone” of foreign “interventionism.” The president and his allies have manipulated such sentiments to portray Ennahda leaders as mere stooges of U.S. influence. A familiar strategy in the autocrat’s handbook, this strategy poses a challenge not only for the Biden administration, but for also international NGOs that have criticized Saied’s actions.

Still, it appears that Saied does not want to be seen in Washington as just another autocrat. He signaled as much during his bizarre meeting with New York Times correspondent Vivian Vee, during which he quoted from and praised the U.S. Constitution but without a translator, thus underscoring, as Vee helpfully noted, that she was just being used as a prop. But even as it telegraphed the president’s personal authority, this orchestrated encounter also could offer the Biden administration, European governments, and Western-based NGOs a chance to hold Saied to his word and prod him towards engaging with his opponents.

Still, the window for fostering a peaceful solution will not remain open very long. Under pressure from his own rivals in Ennahda, Ghannouchi has backed away from his earlier failed bid to mobilize his supporters in the street. Instead, he has called for a national dialogue. But if many secular-oriented leaders and groups press to exclude Ennahda, the chances that its followers will mobilize against Saied could grow, thus opening the possibility of counter protests and a wider civil conflict. The prospects for avoiding this scenario may ultimately depend on the Tunisian General Labor Union, which could use the threat to mobilize its own followers to counter Ennahda, a move that might have the implicit support of the security apparatus. With the clock ticking, the Biden administration needs to encourage calls for an inclusive dialogue, offer its backing for an effective economic reform package, and work with the EU to speed up deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines.

The regional/global nexus

Tunisia’s political crisis is largely a product of two overlapping factors: rampant corruption and the failure of its leaders to agree on a plan for reforming an economy mired in crisis. Prime Minister Mechichi’s government had promised to enact a series of measures in return for an IMF loan of some $4 billion. But given the near collapse of the health system amid the escalating COVID crisis, it hesitated. Saied will be even more guarded, as he cannot accept the IMF’s terms without risking a popular backlash. Adhering to his populist impulses, he is now trying to find an alternative to the IMF, or at least new financial sources to cushion reforms. While he has made the fight against corruption his number one slogan, he has proposed giving several hundred businessmen accused of corruption amnesty if they repatriate $4.8 billion that they “looted” from Tunisia. 

Given the prospects for such a deal are nearly zero, he may turn to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both of which have thrown their support behind Saied. They would surely be pleased to incorporate Tunisia into their anti-Islamist, anti-democracy, and counterrevolutionary alliance. But, apart from the perils (and humiliation) of becoming a mere client of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, or Doha, Gulf funding will not ease Tunisia’s plight and could very well increase corruption unless it is somehow integrated into a wider and more coherent economic reform plan (for which recipients of UAE and Saudi largesse are not well known). But such a prospect may not dissuade Saied, who has admitted that, prior to July 25, he had received help from “sister” Arab countries.

With all the good cheer coming from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Cairo as well, the Biden administration must find a way to prod Saied to avoid autocracy, even as it maintains close ties to Arab states that are backing him. This is not a sign of U.S. “hypocrisy.” Rather, it underscores the trade-offs the White House faces as it balances security and principle in a region ruled by strongmen, most of whom would be happy to see Tunisia’s democratic experiment fail.

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