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The Diplomatic Pouch

Analysis | Tunisia: What’s next?

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 has been following the recent events in Tunisia closely and contributed the following analysis.

“Tell me how this ends,” David Petraeus (then commander of the 101st Airborne Division) famously asked at the start of the second Gulf War. The situation in Tunisia following President Kais Saied’s July 25 announcement that he was assuming emergency powers is far different than that of 2003 Iraq. But the outcome is just as uncertain and just as likely to have long-term repercussions well beyond its borders. Those reverberations will affect U.S. interests whether we like it or not.

Popular frustration

Tunisia’s Republic Day — July 25 — commemorates the date in 1957 on which the monarchy was abolished and the republic was established. This year, it witnessed widespread anti-government protests reflecting pervasive anger with the government and parliament centering on their ineffective response to the pandemic. While the country had been able to contain the spread of COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, the health system was overwhelmed by the recent rapid increase in cases; infection and death rates rose dramatically. (Tunisia’s per capita death rate is the highest in Africa.) The economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, a persistently high unemployment rate, and extensive corruption also motivated the demonstrations.

Assumption of emergency powers

The Tunisian president acted that evening and assumed emergency powers. Depending on whom one believes, he moved either in response to the demonstrations or in line with a plan prepared months before. Saied, a constitutional law professor with no political background or party affiliation before his landslide election to the presidency in 2019, invoked Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution to justify his assumption of emergency powers. He dismissed the prime minister, suspended parliament, and lifted parliamentarians’ immunity. Since then, at least three members of parliament have been arrested, including one who had accused Saied of staging a “coup against the constitution.”

Iyadh Ben Achour, a leading drafter of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution and perhaps the country’s leading jurist, told the TV network France 24 on July 26 that “this is completely unconstitutional.” Article 80 clearly states that it can only be invoked “in the event of imminent danger” (emphasis added) and “after consultation with the Head of Government and the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People” (the Tunisian parliament). It further states that parliament “shall be deemed to be in a state of continuous session throughout such a period” and “cannot be dissolved.”

While Saied’s actions exceeded the authorities outlined in Article 80, they have also appeared to garner widespread support. The offices of Al Jazeera were raided and closed, and reporters for the New York Times were briefly detained, but there have been no other apparent clampdowns on journalists or articles critical of Saied. In sharp contrast to the Ben Ali era, there are no restrictions on speech and lively debate is part of social media. Saied’s call to limit public gatherings to three people is widely ignored and by all accounts is not being enforced. No blood has been shed.

What is Saied’s plan?

Even prior to his July 25 actions, Saied made clear that he does not appreciate political parties, running as an ardent independent, and calling for an end to the current political party structure, in favor of “a democracy of individuals.” Perhaps curiously for a constitutional law professor, he was not enthusiastic about the 2014 constitution or its separation of powers among the presidency, the prime minister, and parliament. Otherwise, he is a cipher. It is unclear whether he is improvising or whether he has a long-term strategy for navigating the crisis that engulfs Tunisia. His actions after the 30-day mark stipulated by Article 80 will be a test of his commitment to the rule of law and an important sign of his future intentions.

[Read an update from Ambassador Gray on Saied’s latest action — firing the Tunisian ambassador to the United States]

U.S. and Gulf response

Equally unclear is how high a priority the Biden administration places on the situation in Tunisia. The State Department’s July 26 statement may have said all the right things about democratic norms, but any statement that begins “[we are] closely monitoring developments” is doomed to be perceived as tepid. The read-out of the U.S. n ational security advisor’s July 31 call to Saied was more pointed, as it “focused on the critical need for Tunisian leaders to outline a swift return to Tunisia’s democratic path.” Interestingly, the read-out indicated that the call was an hour long; the duration of such calls is only rarely noted if at all.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood was in neighboring Algeria July 25–26 but did not travel to Tunisia to express U.S. concerns about Saied’s actions. In marked contrast, the Saudi foreign minister traveled to Tunisia on July 30 to signal his government’s support for Saied. Saied’s office released a video on August 1 in which he suggested that “friendly countries” would offer Tunisia financial aid. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long been rumored to support Saied due to their enmity for the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which has the plurality of seats in the now-suspended parliament and which has been in and out of the government since the October 23, 2011 Constituent Assembly elections.

Looking ahead

Saied’s assumption of extraordinary powers on July 25 is seemingly popular now, but the public mood is frustrated and sour. The current favorable sentiment could easily turn if his actions do not produce results or if he miscalculates and becomes increasingly heavy-handed. As one Tunisian friend who supports Saied’s actions told me, he “has not been given a green light to do whatever he wants to do.” Tunisian civil society is robust and has successfully mediated previous political crises — most notably in 2011 and 2013 — and there is little appetite for a return to the repression that marked the Ben Ali years.

U.S. interests

Tunisia is a longstanding friend of the United States. Its Mediterranean coastline is longer than that of France so Tunisia’s stability safeguards NATO’s southern flank. (Tunisia is also a major non-NATO ally.) Equally if not more importantly, however, sustaining Tunisia’s transition to democracy is a critical test of the Biden administration’s strategy to counter the rising tide of authoritarianism. The Biden administration was providing such support before July 25, suggesting that it understood the need to support emerging democracies.

Other countries — friends and foes alike — will scrutinize U.S. action or inaction to assess the extent to which the new administration will follow through on its pro-democracy rhetoric. Tunisia’s destiny is for Tunisians to determine, of course, but its friends — and friends of democracy throughout the world — can and should play an important supporting role.

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.

For more background on Tunisia, listen to this episode of the Diplomatic Immunity podcast: