What if an aspiring autocrat held an election and barely anyone showed up? This question looms large following Tunisia’s December 17 parliamentary election. With the electoral commission conceding that no more than 11 percent of registered voters cast ballots in an poll boycotted by all the main parties—and with little reason to expect that these figures will climb much higher for the January 20 second round of elections—it is tempting to conclude that for President Kais Saied the election was a fiasco.
After all, having written a new constitution designed to create a parliament subservient to the president, most autocrats would have worked hard to ensure that a respectable number of voters would show up at on election day. But this would have required a political machine and so such apparatus was created. Yet if the president lacks a clear vision of how to consolidate power, the main obstacle to democracy is not Saied, or even the still incomplete autocratic institutions he has created: rather, it is the disaffection of everyday Tunisians with politics itself. The international community and the US in particular can play its part. But it is ultimately up to the country’s leaders to help the populace to beyond this towering sense of despair and apathy.
Saied’s Strange Thought Process
While many observers have argued that the December 17 election was a humiliation for Saied, it is not obvious that he really cared all that much, or that he has suffered a sense of personal defeat that punctured his considerable ego. In fact, it possible that Saied believed that low voter turnout would only illustrate the people’s contempt for western-style representative democracy.
The problem is that we have little to no idea of what is going on inside Saied’s head. He evinces a strange, if perhaps useful, mix of Machiavellianism and neo-utopian Rousseauism. The former can be seen in his manipulation of identity conflicts pitting secular and Islamist leaders against each other, while the latter is visible in his use of simple religious and culturally conservative themes to inspire support in rural areas, even as he champions a radical, bottom-up politics. This brand of populism seems dominated by a form of magical thinking that is dissociated from hard facts, the most crucial of which is Tunisia’s collapsing economy.
Observers could be forgiven for assuming that with the pending meeting of the IMF’s executive board—whose green light is needed to issue a new $1.9 billion loan for Tunisia—Saied had every reason to take the December 17 election seriously. His failure to do so, or perhaps his inability to present a cogent economic strategy, prompted the IMF to postpone the meeting at a perilous moment for Tunisia. The grim facts speak for themselves: Inflation has climbed to 9.1 percent, unemployment is at 18 percent, and foreign investors are fleeing. This exodus includes Novartis, Bayer, and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as Royal Dutch Shell, whose operations provide 40 percent of the country’s domestic natural gas production. And yet, when Saied was in Washington and was asked by administration officials and members of the Washington Post’s editorial board what steps he envisioned for the economy, he reportedly provided few details, while asserting that he would help small businesses and combat unemployment.
As for his plans for the coming months, Saied is trying to signal optimism, insisting that the next round of voting will demonstrate the people’s commitment to his project. But what is that project? The new parliament, such as it is, will be tasked with passing legislation to create a new, regionally-based second assembly. If this proposed body accords with Saied’s populist vision of a “people-led” democracy, no one (including perhaps the president) appears to know how it will actually work. Ultimately, he is guided by a kind of wishful thinking rather than hard facts.
Saied’s psychology is naturally a serious problem for his own government. Prime Minister Najla Bouden has apparently made some efforts to push for the restructuring of public enterprises. But Saied doesn’t seem at all interested or even supportive. He may be assuming that his best option is to let Bouden take the fall for any backlash against austerity measures. But as the postponement of the IMF’s meeting suggests, without Saied’s clear commitment to the fund’s agreement and a realistic political plan to undergird it, there is no reason to assume that the prime minister has any room for maneuver.
Elite Divides and Popular Disaffection
Given Saied’s limitations, hopes for relieving Tunisia of its troubles will rest on two things. First, on the capacity and the will of political leaders to create an organized alternative outside of, or parallel to, whatever type of parliament emerges in the coming months. And second, on the ability of any such organized alternative and its leaders to muster real popular support.
There are several obstacles in the way of achieving these outcomes. One is enduring tensions between Islamist and secular-oriented political leaders. But ideological polarization endures, as was demonstrated during a November 22 event with former Saied’s growing use of repression has produced a tactical meeting of the minds between opposition leaders over their shared demand for both his resignation and the reinstatement of the previous parliament. And yet there is little love lost when it comes to Ennahda. Thus, the recent arrest of former Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh on what are probably fabricated “terrorism” charges, elicited little protest from secular leaders. If anything, a sparsely attended December 23 protest in front of the Justice Ministry, which was organized and led by Ennahda leaders, underscored the party’s isolation.
The second obstacle is widespread apathy to politics itself. This sentiment can be partly attributed to the exhaustion of the citizenry in the midst of an economic crisis that has sapped the energy and attention of the poor and of a frayed middle class as well. But the bigger problem is that most Tunisians do not believe that the political institutions established in 2014 have any credibility. This pervasive sense of apathy is underscored in an unreleased poll undertaken by a Tunisia based democracy assistance organization. This detailed poll, which this author has reviewed, shows that the vast majority of Tunisians reject all the existing parties and their leaders including the Islamist oriented Ennahda Party. Saied’s support has dropped some 20 percept over the last year—but he still retains support from some forty percent of the voters.
The UGTT and Prospects for a New National Dialogue
From the start of Saied’s power grab, a stalemated political arena has awaited the decision of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) to break with Saied. With the UGTT being the only national body with the capacity for mass mobilization, its fence-sitting over the last year has deprived the opposition of the ally it needs to pressure Saied. This logjam may have been broken on December 20, when UGTT Chair Noureddine Taboubi stated, “We will not let you [Saied] mess with the country…If you do not understand the message, the people will say their word through peaceful struggle.” Moreover, the UGTT has now demanded that the second round of elections be postponed to “avoid chaos.” But beyond making such demands, the union must still decide how to deploy its national network of local bureaus and leaders.
One scenario that the UGTT’s leaders now appear to be considering is to push for a new national dialogue. Having led “Quartet” of 4 civil society groups that organized 2014 National Dialogue (for which the organizers won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015), the UGTT might seem well positioned to once again play this national role. But it is far from clear that its present leader, Noureddine Taboubi, has the credibility and popularity to lead a national dialogue, one that will surely be opposed by the president and quite possibly ignored by much of the population. Moreover, the union’s opposition to adopting any austerity measures that are part of the IMF plan could also undermine its effort to lead a dialogue.
The Biden Administration’s Struggle
And yet if Taboubi’s current consultations do gain momentum, they might provide the US with a chance to encourage a path forward, one that will be seen as rooted in Tunisia, rather than the product of foreign pressures. But this will not be easy.Inthe lead up to the December 17 vote, the Biden administration tried to signal its concerns about Saied’s autocratic actions. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken took a light touch, reiterating the United States’ “deep commitment to Tunisian democracy and to supporting the aspirations of the Tunisian people for a democratic and prosperous future.” For his part, Saied offered a bizarre review of the US and Tunisian constitutions, while claiming that his drafting of a new constitution this year was necessary because Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution was tailor-made for a “specific group.” In his meeting with the Washington Post’s editorial board, he made this conspiratorial message explicit, saying, “Enemies of democracy in Tunisia.” want to “do everything they can to torpedo the country’s democratic…from within.”
Saied’s paranoia will, of course, complicate any potential US effort to support a process of domestic reconciliation without appearing to twist arms in ways that play into Saied’s hands. Reaching this sweet spot may ultimately prove impossible. But it is worth trying, especially since the confrontational approach advocated by some analysts and former US diplomats could undercut the still fragile efforts to forge a national dialogue. The US and its western allies can and must help. But at the end of the day, only Tunisians can save Tunisia.
This piece has been republished with permission from Arab Center Washington DC.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
8 May 2022, Tunisia, Tunis: Demonstrators take part in a rally at Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis. (Shutterstock/Hasan Mrad)|Islamist Ennahda party supporters wave the national flag during a demonstration against President Kais Saied in the capital Tunis on October 15, 2022. (Shutterstock/ Hasan Mrad)
With no ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas in sight and Houthi forces in Yemen still firing missiles and drones at commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the EU’s efforts at addressing conflict in Gaza and its broader regional ramifications keep flailing.
After weeks of discussions, the EU officially launched its naval operation in the Red Sea on February 19 to protect international commercial shipping from Houthi attacks. The Houthis claim they wantto force a ceasefire in Gaza. Yet, while the ceasefire remains elusive, the attacks impose real costs on EU members: the EU commissioner for economy Paolo Gentiloni recently estimated that the rerouting of shipping from the Red Sea has increased delivery times for shipments between Asia and the EU by 10 to 15 days and the consequent costs by around 400%.
Around 40% of the EU’s total trade with the Middle East and Asia passes through the Red Sea.
Protecting that shipping route thus is an important collective economic and security interest for the EU. Yet only four countries — France, Germany, Italy and Belgium — out of the 27 member states have agreed to provide warships for the new operation. Spain, which refrained from using its veto power to block the initiative, nonetheless declined to participate, having expressed concerns from the outset that any armed operation would reduce pressure on Israel to agree to a ceasefire in Gaza.
A bigger question is how effective this new EU operation will be in countering the Houthi threat given its purely defensive mandate to provide “situational awareness, accompany vessels and protect them against possible attacks at sea.” Accordingly, the participating EU warships will be authorized to fire on Houthi targets only if they themselves or commercial vessels they are to protect are attacked. That rules out pre-emptive action against Houthi missile batteries or related targets.
The defensive nature of the operation, however, may not be enough to convince the Houthis to refrain from attacking the European ships. In fact, Houthi leaders warned Italy, one of the new operation’s chief promoters, that it will become “a target if it participates in attacks on the Houthis.”
If this threat comes to fruition, will the EU authorize offensive action against the Houthis, potentially drawing itself into a wider conflict? Will it rely on U.S. hard power for protection given that Washington is already engaged against the Houthis through “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” in which a few EU nations – Denmark, Netherlands and Greece, as well as non-EU NATO members Britain and Norway -- are also participating?
Would such developments not lead to a de facto merging of the U.S. and EU-led operations under Washington’s lead — an outcome Europeans sought to avoid and which is the very reason why they launched their own mission in the first place?
That these are not abstract questions is underscored by the failure, so far, of scores of U.S.- and UK-led strikes to degrade the Houthis’ capabilities to the point where they would no longer pose a significant threat. Indeed, just as the EU announced its mission, the Houthis hit a British cargo ship which was at risk of sinking in the Gulf of Aden in what the Yemeni rebels claimed was their biggest attack yet. The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations confirmed the incident, though it did not name the ship.
Ironically, the safest way for the EU to avoid a direct military engagement with the Houthis, apart from testing their vow to stop attacking shipping if Israel ends its Gaza offensive, would be to reduce the number of targets in the Red Sea by encouraging ships to reroute. But such an outcome would, of course, vindicate the Houthi strategy to impose costs on the Western powers for the failure to stop the war in Gaza.
And that brings us back to the mother of all conflicts in the Middle East: the continuing war in Gaza. The EU’s approach so far has been to delink Gaza from the crisis in the Red Sea and the broader escalation in the region, including clashes between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Yet mounting tensions on that front show that its approach is not working.
Some actors in the EU understand the urgent need for a ceasefire in Gaza as a necessary condition for regional de-escalation. The EU high representative on foreign policy Josep Borrell has been particularly vocal in his criticism of Israel. He suggested limiting arms sales to Tel Aviv on the grounds that such transfers violate EU guidelines that ban sales to countries accused of violations of the international humanitarian law.
A Dutch appeals court recently ordered a halt to exports of F-35 jet parts to Israel on the same grounds. However, it is highly unlikely that the EU as a whole would adopt such a position, given that a number of countries – especially Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary – strongly support Israel.
A stronger point of leverage could be to suspend fully or partially the association agreement between the EU and Israel. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. In 2023, that agreement enabled 46.8 billion euros worth of bilateral trade. The prime ministers of Spain and Ireland, Pedro Sanchez and Leo Varadkar, respectively, asked the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to “urgently review” whether Israel is violating the human rights clauses included in that agreement. On February 19, the Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Albares, insisted that the review should be completed in time for the next EU foreign ministers meeting on March 18.
A full suspension of the agreement seems very unlikely even if the Commission finds Israel to have violated its human rights obligations because that would call for a unanimous decision by all member states. A partial suspension would require a qualified majority: 55% of member states (or 15 out of 27) representing 65% of the EU’s total population.
Notably, the only precedent for taking such an action came in 2011 when the EU suspended an association agreement with Syria in response to mass violations of human rights by the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Meanwhile, the EU proved unable last week to issue even an official appeal to Israel not to follow through with its plans to carry out a ground invasion of Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, which has become the last refuge of nearly a million refugees from elsewhere in the enclave. In the face of a veto threat by Hungary, the other 26 member states instead issued a joint statement warning of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences should Israel move ahead with such an invasion.
Notably, however, Hungary was isolated in its opposition to the appeal as Germany and other member states that have traditionally been reluctant to criticize Israel’s conduct of war were on board. That is a step forward, but it’s too little and it comes too late. As long as the EU keeps avoiding imposing real consequences on Israel for its conduct, it will keep losing influence in the Middle East.
keep readingShow less
Mike Shoemaker VP F35 customer programs, FMS, Domestic and Partners talks during the inauguration ceremony of Sabca's new production hall for the horizontal tailplane of the F-35 fighter aircraft, in Lummen, Thursday 10 March 2022. T BELGA PHOTO JOHN THYS.
Instead of reevaluating its maximalist national security strategy, the Biden administration is doubling down. It is proposing a generation of investment to expand an arms industry that, overall, fails to meet cost, schedule, and performance standards. And if its strategy is any indication, the administration has no vision for how to eventually reduce U.S. military industrial capacity.
When the Cold War ended, the national security budget shrank. Then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and deputy William Perry convened industry leaders to encourage their consolidation in a meeting that later became known as the “Last Supper.” Arms makers were to join forces or go out of business. So they ended up downsizing from over 50 prime contractors to just five. And while contractors needed to pare down their industrial capacity, unchecked consolidation created the monopolistic defense sector we have now — one that depends heavily on government contracts and enjoys significant freedom to set prices.
In the decades since, contractors have leveraged their growing economic power to pave inroads on Capitol Hill. They have solidified their economic influence to stave off the political potential for future national security cuts, regardless of their performance or the geopolitical environment.
Growing the military industrial base over the course of a generation would only further empower arms makers in our economy, deepening the ditch the United States has dug itself into for decades by continually increasing national security spending — and by doling about half of it out to contractors. The U.S. spends more on national security than the next 10 countries combined, outpacing China alone by over 30%.
Ironically, the administration acknowledges in the strategy that “America’s economic security and national security are mutually reinforcing,” stating that “the nation’s military strength depends in part on our overall economic strength.” The strategy further states that optimizing the nation’s defense needs typically requires tradeoffs between “cost, speed, and scale.” It doesn’t mention quality of industrial output — arguably the biggest tradeoff the U.S. government has made in military procurement.
Consider, for instance, the B-2 bomber, the F-35 fighter jet, the Littoral Combat Ship, the V-22 Osprey, and many other examples of acquisition failures that have spanned decades. More recently, the Government Accountability Office has reported that while the number of major defense acquisition programs has fallen, both costs and average delivery time have risen.
So what is the military really getting from more and more national security spending? Less for more: Fewer weapons than it asked for, usually late and over budget, and, much of the time, dysfunctional. Acquisition failures are a major reason the Congressional Budget Office projects that operations and maintenance spending will significantly exceed the rate of inflation for the next decade — a considerable budgeting issue for a military that seemingly has no plans to reduce either its force structure or its industrial capacity. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Biden’s new National Defense Industrial Strategy specifically states there is a need for the U.S. to “move aggressively toward innovative, next-generation capabilities while continuing to upgrade and produce, in significant volumes, conventional weapons systems already in the force.” Ironically, the military has spent over two decades developing the F-35, next-generation technology that the Pentagon still hasn’t greenlit for full-rate production.
Throwing more money at an industrial base comprised of businesses too big to fail won’t increase the quantity or quality of its output. But that’s exactly what the strategy urges. One of the priorities is to “institutionalize supply chain resilience.” It’s an important goal, but one the administration proposes the Pentagon tackle, in part by investing in “spare production capacity,” what the strategy defines as “excess capacity a company or organization maintains beyond its current production needs.”
But building factories to sit empty is not supply chain resilience. It’s wasting money on unnecessary infrastructure, creating a profit motive for arms makers to make more weapons. And for an industry constantly sounding the alarm about the need for consistent “demand signals” from Congress, the Pentagon’s plans to invest a generation of U.S. taxpayer money in “spare production capacity” sounds a lot like throwing the demand-supply principle out the window. In that case, the U.S. might as well consider nationalizing the defense industry, which already lacks competition and relies almost entirely on the government. Why not eliminate the profit motive? It’s not like making money drives contractors to produce quality products on time or within budget.
Besides supply chain resilience, another priority laid out in this strategy is “flexible acquisition.” The stated goal is to reduce costs and development times while increasing scalability. In pursuit of that goal, the administration proposes “a flexible requirements process” for multiyear contracts, and the expansion of multiyear contracting writ large. It reasons that as priorities shift in an “evolving threat environment,” so too should contractors’ deliverables. But pairing flexible requirements with an increasing number of multiyear contracts is a recipe for disaster.
Before Russia attacked Ukraine, multiyear contracts were relatively rare — limited to major aircraft and ships. The Congressional Research Service notes that estimated savings on these programs have historically fallen within the range of 5% — 10%. But those are estimates, and they may not apply to other munitions now produced under multiyear contracts. The report also confirms that actual savings are “difficult to observe,” in part because the Pentagon does not track the cost performance of multiyear contracts.
Just because multiyear contracting is more common doesn’t mean it’s cheaper. And while the Pentagon argues that multiyear contracts give contractors the so-called demand signal they need to ramp up production, contractors don’t usually spend their extra money on identifying efficiencies or making capital investments to increase output at a lower cost — and the Pentagon isn’t checking.
The strategy also proposes “aggressive expansion of production capacity.” It notes that during peacetime, weapons acquisition tends to focus on “greater efficiency, cost effectiveness, transparency, and accountability.” Taking caution not to assert that the United States is in wartime, the strategy contrasts peacetime acquisition policy with “today’s threat environment,” calling for “crisis period acquisition policy” that revitalizes the industrial base and shifts focus from efficiency and effectiveness to ensuring that military contractors are “better resourced.” But contractors don’t have a resource problem, and “crisis acquisition policy” puts the United States on a “permanent war footing.”
Lawmakers must challenge the administration’s maximalist national security strategy by interrogating its push to expand military industrial capacity so drastically. It’s critical that they do, not only because the U.S. is limited in what it can produce and provide to other countries but also because arms industry greed is boundless — and without off-ramps or constraints, the U.S. government may find in 20 or 30 years that it’s in a ditch it can’t get out of.
keep readingShow less
Israeli soldiers operate next to the UNRWA headquarters, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the Gaza Strip, February 8, 2024. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
The U.S. intelligence community has found Israel’s claims that employees of a U.N. aid agency took part in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack to be plausible, but it cannot conclude more definitively because it has not been able to independently verify the charges, according to new reporting from the Wall Street Journal.
The Israeli government charged last month that 12 staffers at the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) — which facilitates humanitarian aid to Palestinains throughout the region — either participated or assisted in the Hamas-led atrocities and that others have close ties to the terror group.
UNRWA fired the 12 employees and donor counties, including the United States, have since paused funding, moves that have increasingly become more controversial as the Israeli government has yet to provide clear evidence for its claims. The agency says it will soon run out of money amid the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
According to the Journal, the U.S.’s National Intelligence Council assessed with “low confidence” that a small group of UNRWA staffers participated in the attack. The intel assessment, the Journal reports, “doesn’t dispute Israel’s allegations of links between some staff at Unrwa and militant groups” and that, according to U.S. officials, “Israel hadn’t shared the raw intelligence behind its assessments with the U.S., limiting their ability to reach clearer conclusions.”
"This assessment casts further significant doubt on the veracity of Israel's claims against UNRWA, which remain allegations without confirmed substantiating evidence,” Chris Gunness, a former UNRWA spokesman and now Director of the Myanmar Accountability Project, told RS. "If Israel has allegations against UNRWA, it should hand them over to the internal and external investigations currently underway: one by the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight and the other headed by a former French minister. Only when the information has been authoritatively assessed should anyone draw conclusions.”
For years, factions on the right in Israel, along with their supporters in the United States, have been working to close down UNRWA with the apparent belief that the U.N. agency lends credibility to Palestinians' assertions of ownership over land Palestinians argue was taken by Israel. UNRWA also regularly submits a roster containing the names of its staff to the Israeli government, which in turn signs off.
“Those donors who based their decisions to defund UNRWA on unconfirmed information should restore funding and only take a decision when they have a proper understanding of what took place,” Gunness added.