Tunisia: Examining the State of Democracy and Next Steps for U.S. Policy
Oral Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism
Dr. Elie Abouaoun, director of Middle East and North Africa Programs, testified on October 14, 2021 at the the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism's hearing on "Tunisia: Examining the State of Democracy and Next Steps for U.S. Policy." His expert testimony as presented at the hearing below.
Chairman Deutch, Ranking Member Wilson, and members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism, thank you for the opportunity to testify on the unfolding political crisis in Tunisia.
I am the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace based in Tunis. However, the views expressed here are my own.
On July 25, following nationwide protests in the middle of a political, social and health crisis, the President of the Republic, Mr. Kais Saied, invoked Article 80 of the Constitution to lift parliamentary immunity, suspend the parliament for 30 days, and dismiss the Prime Minister.
This decision was greeted with jubilation on the streets of Tunisia. However, fears of democratic backsliding were exacerbated on August 24 when the President extended his extraordinary powers indefinitely. On September 22, Mr. Saied replaced much of the Constitution with a three-page decree that officially dissolved parliament and granted himself control over all executive and legislative functions while renewing his pledge to bring about rule of law, end impunity, and restore the proper functioning of the state.
A potentially positive development was the appointment days ago of a Prime Minister and new government. It remains to be seen how much influence this new government will have in reality.
Prior to July 25, Tunisia was not a consolidated democracy. The 2011 revolution resulted in more personal freedoms and political pluralism. But these elements alone did not constitute a consolidated democracy and did not necessarily portend economic prosperity. And while far less frequent than pre-2011, the government’s use of the security sector and the judiciary to suppress dissent continued post-revolution.
After his September decision, the President has lost the support of the major civil society organizations, the private sector, and nearly all of the political parties, including the largest elected party in the Parliament, Ennahda, an Islamist party distinct from the Muslim Brotherhood.
In line with their President, there is a consensus among Tunisians that the expectations of the 2011 revolution have not been met. However, there is disagreement about what kind of intervention is necessary to put the country on a path to prosperity and democracy. The President’s focus on remaking the political system overlooks the need for more structural economic and social reforms.
In addition, the public perception that the Tunisian state has unlimited resources creates unrealistic expectations that no political system can accommodate. A more reliable course of action for Tunisia to achieve political stability would be to focus on economic growth and to lay out a comprehensive and inclusive political roadmap emphasizing the return to normal institutional governance, including a democratically elected parliament that delivers justice and accountability for what happened since 2011.
In the last ten years, the U.S. has made several strategic investments in Tunisia especially in the areas of security and justice sector reform, military assistance, financial support, economic growth, democratic governance, and civil society strengthening.
While using its points of leverage carefully to decelerate Tunisia’s slide toward autocracy, the U.S. must continue to proactively support Tunisia’s stability and the promotion of pluralistic, democratic norms.
In the current context, abandoning the engagement with security forces would not be in the interests of the U.S. or Tunisia.
Indicators of when security assistance should be reconsidered include a deterioration of human rights, the continued absence of a plan to restore democratic order, or other indications that Tunisia’s old regime police state is being restored.
One of the largest successes from U.S. investment in Tunisia since 2011 is the flourishing and professional civil society. Now more than ever, this civil society and key public institutions need America’s steady technical support and encouragement.
Unlike other countries in the region where similar power grabs did not trigger the same level of concern, it is promising that many Tunisians have realized that President Saied’s decisions since July 25 are dangerous for the country.
Furthermore, despite the polarization and tension in Tunisia, there has not been an outbreak of unrest nor has the government resorted to tactics of large-scale violence and intimidation, which is encouraging.
Lastly, beyond some inflammatory media discourse, there has not been any action taken by Tunisia to downsize the partnership with the United States.
Leaving Tunisia on its own will lead to instability as the President is unable to deliver on the economic and social fronts. Too much pressure or the wrong kind of it could further destabilize the country, harm the Tunisian people, create threats to regional security, and undo the successes that U.S. investment has had to date.
The most constructive way to influence the course of events in Tunisia is through concerted multilateral pressure, international and regional, through quiet diplomacy.
A democratic and friendly Tunisia is in the national security interests of the United States. Pressure on the President must be targeted, firm, quiet, and multilateral.
Thank you very much and I look forward to your questions.
The views expressed in this testimony are those of the author and not the U.S. Institute of Peace.