The place where the Arab Spring began is now a test for an administration that pledged to strengthen global democracy.
Impoverished, isolated, and geostrategically unimportant, Tunisia is nonetheless the last living heir to the Arab Spring. Over the past decade, one nascent Arab democratic movement after another collapsed into civil war, sectarian Islamist enmity, and resurrected tyranny. But Tunisia was the one country that seemed to find a way forward—to successfully navigate between “the Scylla of the national security state and the Charybdis of political Islam,” as the Lebanese American journalist Hisham Melhem described it.
In 2015, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—comprising key groups in civil society—won the Nobel Peace Prize for “its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia” in the wake of the toppling of longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. But now that country’s delicate experiment is at risk of failing thanks to President Kais Saied’s authoritarian power play since the weekend, in which he has removed the prime minister, suspended parliament, taken control of the public prosecutor’s office, and banned public gatherings for 30 days.
The Biden administration and the European Union have issued only mild rebukes, and in recent days, Tunisia has all but disappeared from the headlines. In a phone call on Monday, according to an official U.S. readout, Secretary of State Antony Blinken encouraged Saied to “adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights.” Blinken later tweeted that he had urged the Tunisian leader to “maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people.”
But Saied’s so-called emergency measures remain in place, and the U.S. State Department said Wednesday that no further action has been taken. “We are monitoring and engaged,” a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy. Some activists and regional experts say more concrete forms of pressure from the United States are needed. They say preserving democracy in Tunisia will be a test of U.S. President Joe Biden’s central commitment to what he has called a “defining question of our time”—that is, “Can democracies come together to deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world?”
Critics like Dunne say the administration has fallen seriously short of what Blinken, in a major March 3 speech, said would be a new U.S. policy to “incentivize democratic behavior” and “encourage others to make key reforms … [and] fight corruption.”
What is at stake is far more than a somewhat dysfunctional democracy in a nation of 12 million people on the periphery of the Arab world, some experts say. Tunisia’s democratic survival is a test for the whole Middle East—and, indeed, could help provide a long-term solution to the ongoing problem of Islamist terrorism.
The popular Islamist party Ennahdha and its part in the coalition government in Tunisia “are really the test case right now for democracy not only in the Arab world but broadly speaking in the Muslim world,” said Noah Feldman, a Harvard University law professor and author of the 2020 book The Arab Winter: A Tragedy. “If this administration wants to be serious about protecting democracy as a broad policy approach, there are really few places more significant.” It wouldn’t cost a lot, Feldman points out. But making clear that Saied’s moves are unacceptable would “show we actually believe in democracy and we’re not being merely situational about it.”
Tunisia is unique in the Arab world because it’s the only place where a popular Islamist party has dramatically parted ways with more extreme Islamist movements—like the Muslim Brotherhood, based in Egypt. Ennahdha’s leaders realized early on that compromise was an effective strategy for accruing power and in 2016 declared that the movement was a political party “outside any involvement with religion.” In a rare if not singular move among major Islamist parties, Ennahdha gave up any claim to putting sharia, or Islamic law, into the secular constitution. And these pragmatic moves seemed to work for a time: The speaker of the suspended parliament is Ennahdha’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi.
Saied, who is ironically a constitutional lawyer, appears to have been taken aback by the international criticism, and he may not completely destroy Tunisian democracy. He contends that his actions are constitutional under Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which allows the president to take any measures in the event of “imminent danger,” but there is no court in place to rule on the issue. That is partly because of political paralysis to which Ennahdha has contributed: The parliament has been unable to agree on court nominees since a new constitution was adopted in 2014.
Yet while Washington and the Western world have remained largely muted in their responses, the Arab tyrannies and monarchies have been urging Saied on toward more authoritarianism and lumping Ennahdha together with extremist Islamist groups. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported: “Newspapers, television commentators and social media influencers in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt hailed Saied’s move as the triumph of the popular will over Ennahda. The three countries — as well as Tunisian opponents of Ennahda — have for years sought to link the party to the transnational Muslim Brotherhood and accused it of abetting terrorism.”
“The fraternity of Arab autocracies continues to grow, and Arab democrats elsewhere will be deprived of their only fleeting North Star,” Melhem, a columnist for Annahar Al Arabi in Beirut, said in an email. A report this month from Human Rights First indicated that the restoration of Arab dictatorships may be generating a new generation of terrorists; in Egypt, a harsh crackdown on democracy and human rights activists by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former general who seized power in 2014, has led to active recruitment by the Islamic State in Egypt’s prison system.
Feldman and other observers, as well as many rights activists, say Biden could be doing much more to deliver the message to Saied that a continuing flow of international aid and investment must be conditioned on democratic behavior. Shortly before Saied’s takeover, the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation approved nearly $500 million in aid to strengthen Tunisia’s transportation, trade, and water sectors. Saied’s government is also seeking a three-year $4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, which answers to pressure from Washington and other major capitals. Washington has other leverage as well: In 2020, the United States signed on to a 10-year military cooperation program with Tunis, and the two sides regularly hold joint exercises. And in the last decade, Washington has invested more than $1 billion in the Tunisian military, according to U.S. Africa Command.
Other critics say they are broadly disappointed at Biden’s apparent willingness to wink and nod at other dictators in the region, such as Sisi of Egypt and the Saudi monarchy. “I think it’s pretty clear they haven’t matched action to rhetoric,” Brian Dooley of Human Rights First said in an interview. “It’s time to stop saying it’s early days [for this administration] because we’re six months in and there is no palpable new approach.” In February, the Biden administration approved a $197 million sale of missiles to Egypt days after the Egyptian government detained family members of a U.S.-based Egyptian American human rights activist.
Outside of withholding foreign aid—which would likely be counterproductive in a poor country like Tunisia—the administration has quite a number of other levers it can use, including important symbolic ones such as denying high-level meetings as well as practical options such as enforcing existing human rights conditions on arms sales, “but it has been very hesitant in using any of them,” Dunne said.
Despite his embrace of democracy as a cause, Biden has not indicated he’s interested in reviving what’s left of the Arab Spring. On the whole, the Biden administration has signaled that it wants nothing more than to leave the region behind, turning its sights to the Indo-Pacific and China. The president is as much a practitioner of realpolitik as he is an advocate of democracy, and it’s clear his main interest is not in nurturing new democracies but in herding together the mature industrial democracies against major authoritarian threats such as China and Russia. In May, Biden even thanked Egypt for “its successful diplomacy,” referring to Sisi’s coordination with the United States in orchestrating a cease-fire in May between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza.
Even so, the U.S. president has actively encouraged democracy elsewhere in the world, for example inviting Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to the White House this week and weighing sanctions against that nation’s Russia-aligned authoritarian leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko.
It’s also clear to a pragmatist like Biden that democracy has not been terribly rewarding so far for Tunisia. Saied’s power grab was actually popular among large masses who have complained of rampant corruption and are suffering terribly for basic needs. “I think the fundamental issue is that in order to have sustainable democracy, you have to have some sort of economic stability,” said Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver.
Tunisia’s plight is only the latest illustration that democracy is no panacea—even in the United States—especially when it comes to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. “Tunisian democracy was very brittle from its inception,” Melhem said. “This is a spectacular failure of governance that was very clear throughout the last decade. In the last few weeks, a perfect storm occurred; in addition to the old political dysfunction, the perennial economic dislocations were made more dangerous by the total failure of the governing elite in dealing with COVID-19.”
“It’s still possible that Tunisians will find their way back from the brink now, as they have several other times when the democratic transition seemed about to fail,” said Michele Dunne, the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. “But this episode shows once again how extremely difficult it is for a democratic transition to succeed without an enabling international environment. Tunisia has had no support for its transition within the Middle East North Africa region and far too little support from other democracies in Europe and the United States.”
Democracy failed in the Arab world for a wide variety of reasons: civil war in Syria and Yemen, fear of rampant Islamism in Egypt, among others. Only Tunisia, where the Arab Spring uprisings began after street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself on Dec. 17, 2010, to protest official repression and corruption, has continued to function democratically.
Will Tunisia also be where the Arab Spring finally ends? Some experts believe that the Arab Spring is not dead, only in hibernation—but these societies need outside encouragement, in particular pushback against the autocrats. And Biden’s pro-democracy credibility is very much on line, especially since he served as Barack Obama’s vice president when the Obama administration abandoned the Egyptian democracy movement in 2013 and backed Sisi, swiftly restoring aid to Egypt. “I think we often forget that democratic revolutions are almost never successful on the first attempt,” Hashemi said.