The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. presses Tunisia, once a bright spot of Arab Spring, on democracy

Tunisia's President Kais Saied at a news conference after the closing session of the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Tunis on Aug. 28, 2022. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

The Biden administration is pressing Tunisia’s leaders to reverse steps weakening the country’s democracy, exposing friction with a nation once seen as the most promising of those who experienced Arab Spring revolutions.

U.S. officials describe efforts to urge Tunisia to embrace a different political course as President Kais Saied continues to consolidate power more than a decade after Tunisians’ uprising against their then-strongman leader helped touch off revolutions in countries from Syria to Egypt.

A senior State Department official said U.S. officials have expressed their concern about events including a recent constitutional referendum that significantly strengthened the powers of Saied, who took wide-ranging steps to weaken institutional checks and sideline political opponents in 2021 in what critics called a “self-coup.”

The U.S. moves include talks between Saied and Barbara Leaf, the State Department’s top official for the Middle East. During a visit to Tunis last month, Leaf conveyed worries about a new constitutional framework “that weakens Tunisia’s democracy and how crucial going forward an inclusive and transparent reform process is to restore confidence of the Tunisian people,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic discussions.

The public critiques have roiled the U.S.-Tunisian relationship. In July, Saied’s government reacted angrily to a statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken raising questions about a constitutional referendum vote marked by low voter turnout.

“Tunisia has experienced an alarming erosion of democratic norms over the past year and reversed many of the Tunisian people’s hard-won gains since 2011,” Blinken said.

Saied’s government rejected what it called unacceptable “interference in the national internal affairs” following Blinken’s statement and summoned the top official at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis.

Saied’s office said the Tunisian leader pushed back on allegations laid out by Leaf in their meeting and “called on the American authorities to listen to their Tunisian counterparts to find out the reality of the situation,” Middle East Monitor reported.

U.S. officials have sought to forcefully nudge Tunisia while avoiding a total rupture with a nation whose cooperation on counterterrorism is seen as a crucial element of U.S. strategy for North Africa. Tunisia, with a population of nearly 12 million, for its part values U.S. military support and needs America’s backing as it seeks a deal with the International Monetary Fund.

“This partnership is going to be strongest when we have a shared commitment to democratic principles,” the senior official said.

While most Arab Spring revolutions ended in conflict or strengthened autocracy, Tunisia made significant strides to build its democratic process after the 2011 ouster of longtime leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

But public discontent has festered over joblessness and other pocketbook issues. Responding to those frustrations, the steps by Saied, a former constitutional lawyer, have resonated with some Tunisians fed up with the country’s post-revolution path. Others have grown increasingly alarmed.

Sarah Yerke, a former State Department official who is now a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the series of U.S. visits to Tunisia and public statements about its political process had been “effective in that they let Saied know someone is watching.”

“This kind of consistent drumbeat … is preventing him from taking Tunisia down an even further path,” she said, referring to the potential for Saied to take additional steps concentrating power in the Tunisian presidency.

The Biden administration has adopted a more critical stance than its European allies, many of whom are focused on deterring migration via North Africa. Citing Democratic reversals, the Biden administration has proposed a large cut to U.S. military and economic aid to Tunisia.

The senior official said the United States was ready to help Tunisians forge an accountable democracy including free debate, freedoms, and in “establishing checks and balances that are critical to the health of all democracies.”

He declined to characterize Saied’s response to Leaf’s message but said: “Friends need to be able to speak directly to each other."

U.S. officials believe their pressure may be having the effect of heading off even more problematic steps, like a more dramatic crackdown on the media and civil society groups.

On Friday, Tunisia published a new electoral law that reduced the size of the country’s parliament and lessens the role of political parties. But it did not, as some U.S. officials had feared it might, take more worrisome steps like prohibiting candidates affiliated with parties from participating in upcoming legislative elections. Some opposition groups plan to boycott the vote.

The senior official said the Biden administration welcomed the law as a step toward enabling broad participation in the elections.

“An inclusive and transparent reform process is so crucial going forward,” the official said.