Analysis | A tale of two presidents

Echoes of history in the Tunisian ambassador’s dismissal

Ambassador (ret.) Gordon Gray

Gordon Gray was the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia from 2009 to 2012. He witnessed the start of the Arab Spring and directed the U.S. response in support of Tunisia’s transition during and after its 2010–11 revolution. He contributed the following addendum to his August 4 analysis of recent developments in Tunisia.

The Tunisian Embassy in Washington (Image: Alistair Somerville)

On October 25, 2009 — six weeks after I arrived in Tunisia to begin my tour as U.S. ambassador — President Ben Ali was re-elected with 89 percent of the vote. At that point he had been president for 22 years and, as the percentage of the vote he garnered suggests, the election was rigged from the beginning. Consequently, my team at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis recommended that President Obama refrain from sending a routine congratulatory message. Our reasoning was that the Tunisian regime would misperceive such a message — however protocolary in nature and however carefully nuanced — as an endorsement of Ben Ali’s rule.

The Palace in Carthage (the suburb of Tunis where the president lived and worked) was so incensed at this glaring omission that it instructed the Tunisian ambassador in Washington to persuade us to reverse the decision. The administration stood firm and, when no message was forthcoming, Ben Ali fired the hapless ambassador.

[Read Ambassador Gray’s initial reactions to events in Tunisia]

Fast forward to August 3, 2021, and another Tunisian president has fired his ambassador in Washington. President Kais Saied removed Nejmeddine Lakhal, Tunisia’s skilled and experienced envoy, presumably in reaction to Saied’s hour-long discussion on July 31 with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during which Sullivan “focused on the critical need for Tunisian leaders to outline a swift return to Tunisia’s democratic path.” To be fair, there is one major difference between 2009 and 2021: Kais Saied was elected president with 73% of the vote in a fair and free election, but his recent moves appear increasingly authoritarian.

Saied was wrong to remove his ambassador at this delicate time in U.S.-Tunisian relations. The Tunisian embassy was already woefully understaffed due to budget cutbacks. In addition to Ambassador Lakhal’s imminent departure, the mid-level diplomat whose portfolio included representing Tunisia to Congress and to American companies left Washington at the end of July at the conclusion of his assignment. Tunisia’s embassy will now be rudderless.

Shooting the messenger may be human nature, but Saied’s intemperate move demonstrates both inexperience and a thin skin if it is true that he blamed Lakhal for Sullivan’s admonitions three days earlier. By following in Ben Ali’s footsteps, Saied reminds us of Mark Twain’s observation that history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Let’s hope for the sake of Tunisia’s future that Said does not emulate Ben Ali in other ways as well.

Gordon Gray is the chief operating officer at the Center for American Progress and is a non-resident fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Follow him on Twitter: @AmbGordonGray

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