After ruling by decree for months after dissolving the Tunisian parliament and dismissing the prime minister in July of 2021, Tunisian president Kais Saied is now building a committee to rewrite the 2014 Constitution as more elements of Tunisian society array against him. Saied argues that all his actions have been legal and necessary to ending the political, social, and economic crises that have afflicted the North African nation for years. But opponents across Tunisia have accused Saied of staging a coup, with protests appearing across the country in recent months. On May 30th, the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (U.G.T.T.) rejected Saied’s offer to take part in a political reform dialogue which wouldn’t allow opposition parties to attend, instead calling on its million members to organize a general strike. This comes in addition to a number of Tunisian law experts refusing to assist Saied’s committee in rewriting the constitution to broaden his authority.
“The United States is deeply concerned by the Tunisian president’s decision to unilaterally restructure Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections,” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in April, reiterating the U.S.’s commitment to “supporting the Tunisian people in their democratic path.” Price concluded with a call “for an inclusive and transparent political and economic reform process with civil society, labour unions, and political parties represented at the table.”
A wide range of Tunisia’s political spectrum have spoken out against Saied’s plans, including the Islamist Ennahda party and prominent leftist leader Ahmed Neijb Chebbi. These groups, along with opposition parties, have joined forces to form the National Salvation Front.
Tunisia was one of the few countries to come out with a more representative government after the Arab Spring, a democratic wave which began in January 2011 when Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in response to mistreatment by the Tunisian government. But President Kais Saied, who was elected in October 2019 on promises of solving years of economic and political crises, has been ruling by decree for months. His moves towards further expanding his power by rewriting the 2014 constitution have sparked widespread discontent, which has only intensified as the promised July 2022 deadline for a referendum approaches.
Opportunities to reverse Saied’s degradation of the democracy Tunisians died for are drying up. International actors should heed Tunisia’s warnings. To force Tunisians to restart the process of democracy-building from scratch is to doom the country to another decade of strife, and to dash the hopes for democracy across the Middle East, North Africa, and the world.
But what can international actors do to help? Shadi Hamid and Sharan Grewal, senior fellow and non-resident fellow respectively at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, argued in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that the United States and the International Monetary Fund must strongly leverage aid, including military assistance, critical loans, and bailout programs, towards Tunisia’s government to force Saied to heed democratic opposition groups. But Sarah Yerkes, senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, warned that such a strong move may only hurt the Tunisian people and alienate Saied, arguing that providing incentives for Saied’s co-operation may be more effective.
In either case, a concerted response from the U.S., the I.M.F., or any other grouping of international actors can prove to President Saied, and to the Tunisian people, that his autocratic actions are both noticed and condemned, and that Saied will face severe consequences if he fails to change his tune. Whether by withholding aid, loans, or diplomatic support or by providing Saied incentives, a strong showing from the supposed arbiters of democracy is necessary to keep Tunisia’s representative government alive.
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