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.

Related Publications

Dialogues nationaux sur la consolidation de la paix et les transitions créativité et pensée adaptative

Dialogues nationaux sur la consolidation de la paix et les transitions créativité et pensée adaptative

Monday, December 13, 2021

By: Elizabeth Murray;  Susan Stigant

Dans le meilleur des cas, les processus de dialogue national promettent d’apporter un élan décisif à la transformation inclusive du conflit. Ce rapport examine les dialogues dans six pays: la République Centrafricaine, le Kenya, le Liban, le Sénégal, la Tunisie et le Yémen. Ces divers processus montrent les possibilités de favoriser le dialogue, de forger des accords et de progresser vers la paix; et le rapport offre des conseils détaillés sur les possibilités et les aspects pratiques pour ceux qui envisagent d'organiser un dialogue national.

Type: Peaceworks

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

What’s Next for Tunisia’s Transition?

What’s Next for Tunisia’s Transition?

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

By: Dr. Elie Abouaoun;  Leo Siebert

Long heralded as the sole success story of the Arab uprisings, Tunisia was thrown into political tumult on July 25 when President Kais Saied dismissed the prime minister, suspended parliament and removed politicians’ immunity from criminal prosecution. The decision followed days of protest and long-term malaise, with Tunisians angered over the government’s COVID response, endemic corruption, a lagging economy and, more broadly, the inability of the post-Ben Ali political system — particularly political parties — to deliver for citizens. While many Tunisians supported Saied’s move, they and the international community await what comes next and how it will impact the North African country’s long-term political and economic trajectory.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

Where Does Tunisia’s Transition Stand 10 Years After Ben Ali?

Where Does Tunisia’s Transition Stand 10 Years After Ben Ali?

Thursday, January 14, 2021

By: Leo Siebert

The story by now is well known. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in December 2010 sparked an unprecedented wave of protests across Tunisia and the broader region. Less than a month later, the country’s longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia. That was 10 years ago today. And while Tunisia is often lauded as the “lone success story” of the uprisings that swept across the region, its democratic transition remains in limbo. A decade later, Tunisians have seen hard-won improvements in political freedoms, but a lagging economy and sclerotic politics have stunted the realization of many of the protesters’ demands—and kept them in the streets.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

The Current Situation in Tunisia

The Current Situation in Tunisia

Monday, October 12, 2020

As the Arab Spring’s birthplace and its sole fledgling democracy, Tunisia represents an encouraging yet incomplete victory against authoritarian rule and violent extremism. Tunisia’s progress since the revolution in 2011 makes it an important democratic partner in a volatile region. However, a persistent economic crisis, political disaffection, and the inherent difficulties of a major political and social transition continue to threaten the country’s stability. Elections in late 2019 swept in a new mosaic of smaller political movements reflecting the public’s deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and the stalled transition. This broad array of new parties has struggled to form a cohesive government capable of overcoming complex partisanship.

Type: Fact Sheet

View All Publications