On June 2, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) organized a virtual panel titled:
Panelists were Monica Marks, Professor of Middle East Politics at New York University Abu Dhabi; Radwan Masmoudi, President, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy; and Jacob Walles, former US Ambassador to Tunisia and Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Daniel Brumberg, ACW Nonresident Senior Fellow and Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, moderated the event.
Jacob Walles began by outlining current US policy toward Tunisia, which he called “a policy of ‘on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand.’” While the Biden administration has criticized Tunisia’s democratic backsliding and called for an inclusive dialogue, it has not conditioned assistance to the country or criticized President Kais Saied himself. Walles supposed a reason for this hesitancy is to avoid getting too involved and noted a mistaken assumption in many American and European policy circles: that Saied’s actions have broad public support. This, he argued, confuses support for Saied for the popular dissatisfaction that undermined support for parties like Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda. While Saied rode into power on a wave of popular distaste for the political class, he has no answers for the country’s serious economic problems, and his support has waned significantly.
Walles detailed Saied’s apparent attempts to avoid dialogue in ramming through his proposed constitutional revision. He described the upcoming July 25th referendum as reduced to plebiscite, a yes-or-no vote on a document no one has seen. He suspects that Saied will capitalize on low turnout for this referendum and upcoming parliamentary elections to push through his reforms with a compliant parliament. While cutting off avenues to dissent in this way may benefit Saied in the short term, this will likely lead to further instability and repression as the opposition is forced onto the streets. Drawing on the efforts of the National Dialogue Quartet during the 2013-2014 crisis, Walles explained that unilateral attempts at dialogue by either Saied or outside powers would be viewed as illegitimate by the Tunisian populace, and that the international community should support grassroots Tunisian alternatives to Saied. He concluded by saying that “the failure of Tunisia’s democratic experiment would be a tragedy, not only for Tunisia itself but also for the cause of democracy in the region and beyond.”
Monica Marks began her presentation by saying that the United States should not allow itself to be complicit in what is obviously a move toward authoritarian rule in Tunisia. She said that the US response to Saied’s announced roadmap last September was totally inadequate in that it expressed a false sense of relief when there was genuine belief that things were not going in the right direction. She added that there have been many abuses since the coup of July 25: stripping the judiciary of its independence, the takeover of the functions of the electoral commission, going after critics in military courts, and other practices that indicate that Saied is not interested in restoring democracy or in allowing the smooth functioning of constitutional institutions. She affirmed that “it is beyond clear for many months now that Saied is a nascent dictator, and that Tunisia is no longer a democracy.”
Marks repeated her assertion that Saied’s roadmap of last year is not democratic in any shape or form, a reality that she said does not seem to have been internalized in Washington, among policy circles who should know better. She said that Saied is dangerous in how he interprets any scant positive signs as support for his behavior and program. She said he is able to make mountains out of very small pockets of support and build policies on this mistaken understanding. She said that Saied needs to be pushed to allow more inclusivity. Carrots and sticks must be used with him to force him to change course, such as talking to him, allowing conditional IMF economic assistance, sanctioning military officers close to him but not the Tunisian army, and encouraging alternatives to provide clear political and economic visions for the future. She said that the Tunisian economy must be helped because people are hurting, but the US should not provide Millennium Challenge Corporation funds which would send the wrong signal because these are to support democratic governance.
Radwan Masmoudi reminded the audience of the dangerous situation in Tunisia today and of the current quick slide toward authoritarianism. He said that Kais Saied has just fired 57 judges because they do not agree with him; an act that is unconstitutional because he has no authority over the judiciary. Saied is also amending the law governing the work of the High Judicial Council and the electoral law without any consultation. He called for a national dialogue but only asked those who support his moves to be part of it. Masmoudi asserted that building a democracy in the Arab world is a very difficult undertaking. Tunisia’s experiment was essential and its democracy was not perfect. He said that “there were shortcomings, there were weaknesses, there were mistakes made in the last ten years. Of course, it is not an easy process.” He added: “we cannot improve our democracy by going back into dictatorship.”
Masmoudi asserted that the United States must have a clear vision and position about what is going on in Tunisia. The same applies to the European Union. He said that the US and the EU should do the following: 1) declare that Saied’s move on July 25 was indeed a coup, which would be a strong message to Tunisians and the international community; 2) condition assistance to Tunisia on progress on democratic change and restoration of constitutional life in the country; 3) oppose any IMF loans to Tunisia if that progress is not made; 4) invite and meet with members of the opposition; and 5) demand that the Tunisian army stay out of politics. Masmoudi thinks that Saied may not want to be offered an off-ramp to reinstate democratic institutions because he wants to rule by decree.
Finally, Masmoudi disagreed with propositions that the opposition is not unified; he said they are united in opposing the coup and against all the unconstitutional steps to which Saied has resorted.