Argument

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The International Community Must Use Its Leverage in Tunisia

Foreign powers should condemn Kais Saied’s power grab to halt long-term damage to the nascent democracy.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
A protester lifts a Tunisian national flag during an anti-government rally in front of the parliament in Tunis, Tunisia.
A protester lifts a Tunisian national flag during an anti-government rally in front of the parliament in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 25. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

Tunisian President Kais Saied dissolved parliament, sacked the prime minister, and declared himself chief executive on July 25—actions that reek of a coup in the Arab world’s only democracy. Tunisians carried out a successful revolution in 2011, ousting longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and ushering in a democratic transition—one that was still ongoing when Saied was elected in 2019. Although Saied has sought to couch his actions in a constitutional article that allows the president to take exceptional measures when the state is in imminent danger, his power grab is still extralegal and comes against Tunisia’s short- and long-term interests.

Tunisia currently faces three crises. Its economy, which has struggled since the revolution, is close to collapse, leading some observers to compare it to Lebanon. The coronavirus pandemic decimated the tourism industry and sent unemployment skyrocketing; this month, amid a brutal fourth wave, Tunisia has seen its highest number of new COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. And a political crisis preceded Saied’s recent actions: The 2019 elections ushered in the most fractured government in Tunisia’s history, with the largest party holding just one quarter of the seats.

The next few days and weeks will be crucial for Tunisia. Statements from foreign actors have so far failed to condemn Saied’s antidemocratic and extralegal actions, only expressing concern and urging calm. To avoid long-term damage to the country’s transition, the international community must use its leverage to encourage Tunisia to quickly get its democracy back on track.

Tunisian President Kais Saied dissolved parliament, sacked the prime minister, and declared himself chief executive on July 25—actions that reek of a coup in the Arab world’s only democracy. Tunisians carried out a successful revolution in 2011, ousting longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and ushering in a democratic transition—one that was still ongoing when Saied was elected in 2019. Although Saied has sought to couch his actions in a constitutional article that allows the president to take exceptional measures when the state is in imminent danger, his power grab is still extralegal and comes against Tunisia’s short- and long-term interests.

Tunisia currently faces three crises. Its economy, which has struggled since the revolution, is close to collapse, leading some observers to compare it to Lebanon. The coronavirus pandemic decimated the tourism industry and sent unemployment skyrocketing; this month, amid a brutal fourth wave, Tunisia has seen its highest number of new COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. And a political crisis preceded Saied’s recent actions: The 2019 elections ushered in the most fractured government in Tunisia’s history, with the largest party holding just one quarter of the seats.

The next few days and weeks will be crucial for Tunisia. Statements from foreign actors have so far failed to condemn Saied’s antidemocratic and extralegal actions, only expressing concern and urging calm. To avoid long-term damage to the country’s transition, the international community must use its leverage to encourage Tunisia to quickly get its democracy back on track.

International stakeholders already have the opportunity. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is currently negotiating an assistance package predicated on economic reforms that Tunisia has not undertaken due to political infighting. The United States recently announced a nearly $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation compact that requires Tunisia to meet political and economic thresholds—progress that Saied could reverse. Finally, the European Union and its member states are Tunisia’s largest benefactors, pushing the country to consolidate its democracy. These actors should use their influence to get Saied to quickly relinquish his unlawful power and reinstall a legitimate government and an elected parliament.

Saied correctly recognizes that Tunisia needs a reset to unstick its political stalemate, but it should not come through unconstitutional means. Infighting between the president and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and polarization within parliament have escalated dramatically in recent months, preventing the implementation of much-needed reforms. Saied has vocally denounced the leading Ennahdha party and its leader and notably refused to sign off on the parliament’s appointees for Tunisia’s constitutional court, which is supposed to act as a check on executive power and is the one body that could officially declare the president’s recent actions unconstitutional.

Saied has set Tunisia on a path that is likely to end in further instability.

By dismissing the parliament and removing his political rivals from power, Saied has set Tunisia on a path that is likely to end in further instability and potential bloodshed. To push Tunisia toward the political reset it needs, the international community should encourage actors across the political spectrum to set aside their differences and work together to pass economic reforms to bring relief to Tunisians in need, provide economic growth, and lower unemployment. International donors can also support civil society efforts toward a national dialogue to create a path forward out of the political impasse.

Tunisia is in dire need of international assistance to avoid a total economic collapse. The pandemic has obliterated its tourism sector and sent the economy into freefall. Meanwhile, billions of dollars of debt are about to become due. Rocky IMF talks over a potential loan have so far left Tunisia empty-handed, and recent credit rating downgrades have made investors nervous. Saied’s power grab will only add to those fears, with foreign donors now likely to take a step back before offering funds to a non-existent government and an erratic leader. The IMF is right to withhold any assistance until a reliable and democratically elected government can consent to an agreement.

Saied’s recent moves could also harm Tunisia’s already disastrous pandemic response. Its ineffective health ministry has failed to contain the coronavirus, and the Tunisian people are now suffering from pandemic fatigue, ignoring lockdowns and curfews as new cases multiply and variants threaten the partially vaccinated and unvaccinated. Tunisia’s hospitals, many of which are underequipped, are now over capacity. Tunisia expected to receive millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from the West, mostly through direct donations. With the uncertainty Saied has introduced, donors could be hesitant to hand over vaccines or supplies. Every day that passes without a clear chain of command puts Tunisians’ health at risk.

Saied’s power grab is already exacerbating political divides, with dueling protests in the streets between his supporters and opponents—and the potential for violence should they spiral out of control. On Sunday, pro-Saied protesters targeted the Ennahdha party, attacking several of its offices. If Saied does not condemn this violence, the protests have the potential to intensify. If he is committed to putting Tunisia back on the path to democracy, he should either reinstate the democratically elected parliament or call for new elections within a few months. Otherwise the president risks the international community officially labeling his actions a coup, which could invoke legal measures that lead to sanctions.

Saied’s power grab is already exacerbating political divides.

Saied has been clear about his disdain for Tunisia’s democratic institutions since before he took power, speaking about getting rid of parliament. He has expressed the desire to return to Tunisia’s pre-revolution way of governing: with a strong head of state who concentrates power in their own hands. The international community should not expect him to relinquish power of his own accord or abide by the democratic norms so many Tunisians fought to bring about in the past decade. But strong international pressure applied consistently could force his hand.

Tunisia’s democracy now faces a serious challenge. The United States and Europe, which have so far remained silent, should condemn Saied’s power grab and offer support to democracy in Tunisia and the civil society actors working to keep that democracy alive. If the community of democracies fails to speak up, it will send a loud and clear signal to Saied and his supporters that his actions do not have international consequences. The president’s consolidation of power could unravel all the hard-fought work to bring about Tunisia’s nascent democracy.

Update, July 28, 2021: This piece has been updated to clarify the author’s views on donor countries and the vaccine response.

Sarah Yerkes is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments and on state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa. Twitter: @SarahEYerkes

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