Back when then-Vice President Joe Biden hosted then-Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi at his Washington home in 2015, the American “underscored the importance the United States places on ensuring that democracy succeeds in Tunisia.” Now, the current Tunisian president is testing Biden’s commitment to that promise. So far, indications are that the White House is wary of getting deeply involved in Tunisia’s spiraling democratic crisis.
Events are unfolding rapidly in Tunis, where President Kais Saied has declared a state of emergency, dismissed the prime minister, frozen the parliament for 30 days and deployed the military to bar them from the building. Tunisian police stormed the headquarters of the news organization Al Jazeera. Protesters looted the offices of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which holds a plurality in the parliamentary assembly. Assembly speaker and Ennahda party head Rachid Ghannouchi led a sit-in outside the parliament building Monday, rejecting the president’s moves as unconstitutional and insisting the assembly was still in session.
“We call on President Saied to stop this attempted coup and ask all our friends inside and outside to support the people of Tunisia in resisting the forces of dictatorship and tyranny,” Ghannouchi told my Post colleagues.
The White House and State Department issued statements Monday that were carefully crafted to avoid taking sides. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States was “concerned about the developments in Tunisia.” She said that administration officials were in touch with Tunisian leaders “to learn more about the situation, urge calm and support Tunisian efforts to move forward in line with democratic principles.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price issued a similar statement. “The United States will continue to stand on the side of Tunisia’s democracy,” it said — entirely sidestepping the question of which party the Biden administration believes represents the democratic cause. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “encouraged President Saied to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia . . . noting that the United States would continue to monitor the situation and stay engaged,” the State Department said in a Monday readout of their phone call.
“This falls very short of what I would hope to see from the United States government,” said Sarah Yerkes, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who also served in the State Department and at the Pentagon. “It is clear that U.S. officials are playing it safe and waiting to see how things unfold before making any strong statements.”
Psaki also said the Biden administration would not be able to make a determination whether Saied’s actions constitute a “coup” until or unless the State Department’s legal team reviews the situation. That could be a difficult call to make, considering that Tunisia’s constitutional court, which is meant to adjudicate such matters, hasn’t even been seated yet.
Meanwhile, the power grab by Saied could be just the beginning. U.S. lawmakers and experts who oppose his actions argue that the Biden administration’s refusal to clearly call out Saied’s authoritarian moves will embolden him. That, in turn, will undermine the forces inside the country who are defending the constitutional separation of powers that has so far preserved Tunisia’s 10-year experiment with democratic governance.
“This is the place where the Arab world’s movement to representative government and democracy began, and it’s clear to me indecisiveness in the face of aggression is just going to destroy this movement,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told me in an interview. “The United States and the Western democracies need to be all in, on the ground in Tunisia, stopping this before it gets out of hand.”
Without a robust U.S.-led diplomatic initiative, pro-democracy leaders in the region such as Ghannouchi will be left to fend for themselves, Graham said. That would send a clear signal to all other would-be coup plotters that they need not fear resistance or reprisal from Washington.
Several administration sources told me they were waiting to see how the very fluid situation plays out and hoping to work with Saied rather than alienate him. The Biden team seems to be following the playbook of the Obama administration, which preferred to deliver tough messages in private and believed that public threats were counterproductive. But that didn’t work in Egypt in 2013, when Abdel Fatah al-Sissi staged a military coup and the United States avoided action until it was too late.
The good news now is that it’s not too late in Tunisia. There is still time for the United States and other Western governments to convince Saied that pressing forward with an authoritarian power grab will not turn out well for him. The United States has significant leverage at its disposal — above all, economic aid, including a recently signed $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation compact.
If the United States declines to lead on this issue, that vacuum will likely be filled by Gulf states that support the coup, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These governments have been funding — in cahoots with Russia — a Libyan war criminal’s attack on the U.N.-endorsed government in Tripoli, right next door to Tunisia. These regimes fear what a healthy, functioning democracy in the Arab world might mean for their own dictatorial holds on power.
“If the United States and European Union don’t really step up and give a red light to a coup, these countries will come in and make sure the coup happens, if they aren’t already involved,” said Sharan Grewal, a professor at the College of William & Mary and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The U.S., under this administration should be out there vocally making clear that we support Tunisia’s democracy and that we will do what we can to support those actors who are trying to keep it on track.”
Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Middle East and North Africa subcommittee and the head of the Republican Study Committee’s foreign affairs task force, wrote a letter to Blinken on Monday asking him why the Biden administration won’t publicly condemn Saied’s authoritarian power grab and whether the Biden team is willing to work with Congress to put pressure on Saied.
“If Tunisian democracy were to fall apart, if would not only threaten U.S. security and economic partnerships in North Africa, but also provide an argument for authoritarian forces in the region, especially Salafi terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, that democracy is a failed system of government,” Wilson wrote. “Refusing to act in Tunisia will lead to devastating consequences which will not only destabilize Tunisia but could also lead to further destabilization of North Africa.”
As president, Biden often preaches about the grand struggle between democracy and autocracy as the most important fight of the modern age. But his administration seems either unwilling or unable to do much as democracies around the world fall on his watch. In Tunisia, time is running out for the United States to act.