Joe Biden Needs to Get Off the Fence About Tunisia
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There can be no more pretending that Tunisia is a democracy. Two months after sacking the prime minister and suspending the country’s elected parliament, President Kais Saied has torched its constitution and assumed the right to rule by decree.
For those who profess to care about freedom and about democracy in the Arab world, it is time to get off the fence and act.
I’m looking at you, Joe Biden.
Long before he arrived in the White House with the promise to promote and protect liberty worldwide, Biden was an enthusiastic proponent of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. As vice president in 2015, he played host to Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi at the Naval Observatory. According to the official readout of the meeting, Biden “underscored the importance the U.S. places on ensuring that democracy succeeds in Tunisia.”
As president, Biden has understated rather than underscored the importance of Tunisian democracy. When Saied — Essebsi’s successor — made his power-grab in July, the U.S. responded cautiously. Biden himself did not comment about the threat to the only country to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings with a free polity, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken was circumspect in his expression of concern. The State Department issued an anodyne statement, saying “Tunisia’s political and economic troubles should be based on the Tunisian constitution and the principles of democracy, human rights, and freedom.”
The most charitable explanation for this lassitude is that the Biden administration was willing to give Saied the benefit of the doubt: He was, after all, a popularly elected president, and many Tunisians had cheered him as he disabled the country’s other democratic institutions. He had claimed to be motivated only by the need to clean the Augean stables of Tunisian politics, and had promised that the state of emergency would last no more than 30 days.
Saied is no longer committing himself to a timeline for a return to democratic rule. He says only that Tunisia’s post-Arab Spring constitution, created after two years of public consultations, will be amended and a new electoral law enacted — when, and on whose authority, is anybody’s guess.
These measures are familiar to Arabs who have had their democratic aspirations dashed by dictators. Some Tunisians were initially optimistic Saied would use emergency powers to tackle endemic corruption, political paralysis and economic stagnation. But even they are growing anxious about his intentions. Ennahda, the Islamist party that had a plurality in the suspended parliament, is no longer alone in characterizing the president’s actions as a coup. Secular politicians like the leftist ex-president Moncef Marzouki have described Saied as a threat to Tunisian democracy.
That assessment is being echoed by the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union, the country’s largest and most powerful. Better known by its French acronym UGTT, the organization had initially adopted a wait-and-see posture toward Saied’s power-grab, reminding him about the importance of “constitutional legitimacy” and the need for national dialogue. Now it says the president is on a “clear path toward absolute authoritarian rule.”
The klaxons from Tunis can no longer go unheeded by the world’s leading democracies. The U.S. and France — Tunisia’s largest trading partner — must take the lead in pressing Saied to cede power. Washington and Paris may be at odds on other geopolitical issues, but they share an interest in preventing democratic backsliding everywhere.
Perhaps most important, the U.S. and Europe also have strong ties to the Tunisian military leadership, which has thus far backed the president but remains wary of getting too deeply involved in politics. Remember, it was the studied neutrality of the military that ensured the downfall of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, making him the first victim of the Arab Spring protests.
But getting Tunisia’s generals back on the fence would require Western powers, and especially the Biden administration, to get off theirs.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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