Analysis | Can Tunisia’s civil society save its democracy?

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.

Tunisian Parliament in a horse shoe shape, with parliamentarians and a TV camera looking on.
Tunisian Constituent Assembly deputies on February 28th, 2012, discussing the place of Islamic law in the new constitution. (Image: Magharebia/Wikimedia Commons)

Twin crises confront Tunisia today: a stagnating economy and — more recently — President Kais Saied’s suspension of parliament and assumption of extra-constitutional powers. By all appearances, Najla Bouden Romdhan — the former geology professor he appointed as prime minister on September 29 — is unlikely to have the skills, experience, or leeway necessary to solve these economic and political problems.

Americans need to pay attention for two reasons. First, Tunisia’s path from dictatorship to democracy — stalled by the president’s power grab this summer — is important for any American who cares about democratic values. Second, stability in Tunisia is key to reducing dangerous and unregulated migration to U.S. allies across the Mediterranean Sea.

This month is the anniversary of a key turning point in Tunisia’s political history. October 23, 2011 was a clear, sunny day, which saw Tunisians flock to the first elections since revolution had ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as president nine months earlier. They were also the first free elections in the nation’s history.

The coalition that emerged in the Constituent Assembly, comprised of the Islamist Ennahda party and two smaller secular parties, accomplished two primary objectives. Its immediate and most obvious charge was the drafting of a new constitution, approved on January 27, 2014. It also fulfilled its second objective (less clear, perhaps, but just as important) by establishing legitimacy for Tunisia’s political evolution in the aftermath of the revolution. A peaceful transition of power followed the national elections in 2014, including the hand-over from President Moncef Marzouki to the man who defeated him for re-election, Béji Caid Essebsi.

Since then, however, progress has stagnated. Given the subsequent inability of politicians to tangibly address the pressing needs of the average Tunisian voter, it was no surprise that the top-two vote-getters in the 2019 presidential balloting were political outsiders. Although Tunisia initially handled the COVID-19 pandemic capably, the dependence of its economy on exports and tourism meant that it could not escape COVID’s economic impact. The absence of strong leadership from both the president and parliament exacerbated pre-existing gridlock.

Dissatisfaction with the government grew as the economy nosedived and the pandemic intensified, increasing existing doubts among many Tunisians that democracy could be responsive to their needs. At one point Tunisia had the highest mortality rate in Africa. On July 25 of this year, Saied invoked Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution, asserting that its “imminent danger” clause permitted him to suspend Parliament. He doubled down on September 22, publicly stating that he would rule by decree. While initial indications were that most Tunisians were so fed up that they accepted his actions, concern is growing that he has over-reached. Even more worrisome to most is the absence of any discernible plan to address economic issues at the core of Tunisian discontent.

[Read more from Ambassador Gray on Tunisia’s unfolding crisis]

There is nothing in Saied’s background as a law professor or presidential candidate to suggest that an economic plan (much less a viable one) will materialize soon. Indeed, his campaign and his public remarks since July 25 have focused on his interest in rewriting the constitution to devolve political power to the local level. The goal, he says, is to establish “a true democracy in which the people are truly sovereign.” It’s classic populism, in which an authoritarian leader offers “quick fixes for complex problems and bypass[es] or eliminat[es] intermediaries such as political parties, parliamentary representatives, and established institutions.”

Saied is missing the point. Tunisians, like everyone else, have pocketbook concerns. Analysis of recent public opinion surveys undertaken by the well-respected Arab Barometer “confirms that the deterioration of the economy — or more specifically a continuing collapse in living standards — has been at the forefront of people’s minds in Tunisia.” Saied’s abstract political constructs, however, do not address the economic needs of the country’s citizens.

Recent demonstrations suggest that Tunisian patience is running thin; so is patience on Capitol Hill. Three Democratic members of Congress reportedly wrote President Biden on September 24 to express their concerns about Saied’s recent moves. In a September 27 op-ed entitled “Tunisia’s President Saied is not keeping his word,” Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) wrote that “until democracy is restored, we must reconsider our security assistance package to Tunisia.” Moreover, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing on October 14 entitled “Tunisia: Examining the State of Democracy and Next Steps for U.S. Policy.”

Suspending U.S. assistance to Tunisia may be a tempting policy option but it is unlikely to be effective. President Biden’s budget request for Tunisia for fiscal year 2022 was only $197.1 million. More extreme moves — such as blocking loans offered by international financial institutions — might carry additional weight but doing so while agreeing to loans to countries far less democratic than Tunisia would be hypocritical.

The United States, unfortunately, has limited leverage to influence Saied’s calculus. Moreover, Tunisians alone can and should determine their future. The United States can help and should redouble efforts and assistance to bolster civil society, whose vibrancy has been a defining strength of the Tunisian political environment. One way to underscore U.S. concerns about Saied’s actions would be to limit Tunisian participation at the upcoming Summit for Democracy solely to civil society groups.

Tunisian civil society has been democracy’s champion and guarantor. (October 9 marks the sixth anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the country’s National Dialogue Quartet for its successful effort by four civil society organizations to bridge divisions manifested by two political assassinations in 2013.)

Whether Tunisia’s civil society can once again rescue its democracy is an open question, but Arab Barometer’s finding that 55 percent of Tunisians believe “democracy is always preferable to any other kind of government” offers hope that it can.

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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The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views expressed are those of the authors and not the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit isd.georgetown.edu for more.

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The Diplomatic Pouch

The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views expressed are those of the authors and not the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit isd.georgetown.edu for more.