The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tunisia’s democracy is disappearing before our eyes

A man shouts during a demonstration marking the ninth anniversary of the assassination of leftist opposition leader Chokri Belaid in Tunis on Feb. 2. (Mohamed Messara/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

While we are distracted by the looming war in Europe, the “genocide Olympics” in China and the never-ending pandemic, the last hope for a successful Arab democracy in the Middle East is fading. Tunisia, the only real success story from the Arab Spring, is slipping into the autocratic abyss — and the United States is nowhere to be seen.

Last July, When President Kais Saied sacked the prime minister, dissolved the parliament and turned the military on his political opponents, the international community generally expressed cautious optimism that Saied would quickly hand back the power he had just grabbed. Despite warnings that he was perpetrating a “self-coup,” the Biden administration decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Nearly seven months later, there’s no room left for such wishful thinking. Saied has extended his 30-day state of emergency repeatedly. He took over control of the courts, which sentenced former president Moncef Marzouki to four years in prison in December. He had plainclothes police arrest a former justice minister, part of his clampdown on the main opposition party Ennahdha and all other political opposition.

Amnesty International recently reported that the Tunisian military, controlled by Saied, now routinely tries, convicts and punishes civilians, including political activists and journalists, as part of the president’s crackdown on dissent and free speech. Saied’s self-appointed ministers ordered police forces to shut down the government’s anti-corruption authority. Saied has effectively consolidated total power over the government and dismantled Tunisia’s messy but functioning system based on political inclusion and checks and balances.

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When Saied rolled out his new “political roadmap” in December, the State Department made encouraging noises. Left out were the details that the president plans to personally choose the officials who will write the new constitution, which will lay out the ground rules for elections scheduled for December. If he’s not yet a dictator with total power over the government, he’s well on his way.

“Tunisia was the place where the Arab Spring started and stood as proof that democracy could succeed, even in a country with a significant Islamist constituency,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who traveled to Tunisia and met with Saied in September, told me. “And now we’re left scrambling with a quasi-dictator and real uncertainty as to which way this country is heading.”

Murphy said it’s time to signal to Saied and the rest of his country that the U.S. relationship with Tunisia will suffer greatly if the president doesn’t change course. Saied’s moves were enormously popular among Tunisians last year, but that popularity is fading steadily as citizens realize that Saied’s drastic moves are not resulting in the end of their economic crisis, as he had promised. This gives the United States some leverage and an opportunity, Murphy said.

A multibillion-dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund and a $500 million infrastructure grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation to Tunisia are both stalled. The State Department is holding back some military support funds, and Congress is threatening to reduce or cancel U.S. economic assistance to Tunisia unless conditions improve.

“People love him because he’s promised not just to root out corruption, but to turn around the economy,” Murphy said. “He can’t do that without the West.”

Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), support sanctions on Tunisian officials who participate in the crackdowns. “Unfortunately, the administration has not taken this issue seriously, even in some cases praising Saied, despite claiming to support a pro-democracy agenda,” Wilson told me. Sanctions might turn Saied even more against Washington rather than persuade him to abandon his march toward autocracy. But the U.S. government’s response in Tunisia is not just about Tunisia.

There’s growing belief throughout the Middle East that the Biden administration wasn’t serious when it came into office promising to put human rights at the center of its foreign policy agenda and preaching about the struggle between democracies and autocracies. President Biden’s team has largely looked the other way as Arab autocrats in places such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates disregard all international concerns about their own human rights abuses.

“We are seeing an approach that privileges security concerns so far above and beyond human rights, they’re not even in the same room anymore,” said Sarah Holewinski, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “Unfortunately it looks an awful lot like rolling out the red carpet to dictators and giving human rights a seat somewhere in the overflow room.”

Tunisia is an important security partner. But history shows that autocratic dictatorships over the long term breed more instability and extremism, and therefore make much worse security partners than even messy democracies.

There’s understandable fatigue in Washington and reluctance for yet another run at pushing democratic values in Middle Eastern countries. But if we don’t do it, we’re abandoning the aspirations of millions and consigning the region to deeper chaos and an endless cycle of violence that will eventually blow back onto our shores.