In the aftermath of the Arab Spring that rocked the political systems of the Middle East, Tunisia has emerged as the success story of democracy in the Arab world. It is now what many consider the region’s only functioning democracy. However, this may change as Tunisia’s democratic development is increasingly threatened by President Kais Saied’s seizure of power amidst dire economic troubles and escalating public unrest.
Protests, largely featuring Tunisian youth, emerged in January over the government’s inability to resolve the country’s prolonged and dire economic crisis, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2011, Tunisia’s government has been grappling with external debt which now exceeds $40 billion. Following the end of Ben Ali’s regime, the former Tunisian dictator, successive governments have addressed the $20 billion debt leftover from the regime by regularly borrowing money. In addition to the massive external debt, the government must also presently deal with a budget hole of $3 billion for the rest of 2021, subject to the international market prices of Tunisian currency, and of wheat and oil. The budget hole can only be addressed through a complementary budget law debated and passed through a parliament, which Saied had frozen in July of 2021. The president has only complicated economic matters since his election in 2019 through his promotion of populist politics and “one-man rule” that rejects international assistance.
Tunisia has been struggling to attract foreign investment, especially after the Jasmine Revolution: a wave of government corruption protests in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring. Due to terrorist attacks and capital flight, the tourism sector has taken a massive hit, which has severely reduced the foreign currency reserves. From 2010 to 2018, the foreign currency reserves fell from $9.8 billion to $4.8 billion. Reflecting a similar trend, annual foreign direct investment (FDI) fell from $1 billion after the fall of Ali’s regime to $945 million in 2018. Despite the passing of investment laws and the creation of the Tunisian Investment Authority in 2017, an administrative body managing the implementation of investments, the Tunisian economy has remained sluggish and the unemployment rate as of 2021 has soared to 17.8 percent.
Amidst the protests over economic stagnation, President Kais Saied has recently added fuel to the fire of public unrest with his efforts to assume total executive power. In September of 2021, he declared a national emergency, sacked the prime minister, suspended the parliament, and bestowed upon himself the power to rule by decree. Tunisia’s path to a stable democracy is now increasingly threatened, with many condemning Saied’s power grabs as a coup.
In response to alarming signs of Tunisia’s potential return to autocracy, the White House has repeatedly called for the reinstallment of democracy. Both the deputy national security advisor, Jonathan Finer, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered messages to Saied discussing the urgent need for a return to parliamentary democracy. Other members of the international community also expressed discontent with Saied’s actions; however, they remain passive observers to the ongoing volatility in Tunisia, abstaining from taking a decisive stance on the situation.
The United States is no stranger to championing democracy in foreign countries, and has certainly cemented its reputation as a democratic symbol in the international community. However, it is not to say that these endeavors have always been successful, as demonstrated by the U.S. interventions in Vietnam, Iraq, and most recently Afghanistan. Now that the U.S. has been involved in three failed attempts to forward democratic norms in politically-unstable regimes, it begs the question: Will Tunisia be any different?
The U.S. was involved in 2 major wars against communist forces in Vietnam. The US backed France in an anti-colonial war with Communist nationalists from 1946 to 1954. The French lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu and negotiated the partition of Vietnam into two zones through the Geneva Accords, costing the US approximately $2.5 billion. After the French withdrew, the U.S. provided military and financial aid for the South Vietnamese state from 1954 to 1975, despite multiple warnings from nation leaders not to get involved in Indochina. In addition to steady opposition to the Vietnam War in America, the prolonged conflict severely damaged the US’s international image as it shattered America’s exalted identity of military invincibility and prowess.
In light of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 with the intent to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and end the rule of dictator Saddam Hussein, who was perceived to have relations with al-Qaeda. However, no caches of WMD intelligence were discovered and Saddam Hussein was much weaker than initially perceived, leading to much criticism of the war. Former President George W. Bush proclaimed the end of Hussein’s rule as a victory and that Iraq would become a story of democratic success in the Middle East.
However, the manner in which Americans brought democracy created a hostile government unfriendly to US interests, which has alienated Washington from the region due to its pro-Iranian and Shiite position. The American agenda of building a democratic government in Iraq failed to take into consideration the region’s power structure and dynamics amongst the different ethnic groups, notably the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. This created an environment in which the country’s fundamental political landscape was dramatically altered for the benefit of Washington’s longstanding principle of democracy, without any regard for the native population. The US simply barged in and imposed a new political system, leaving a tense and bitter struggle in its wake. Washington’s tendency to back English-speaking Iraqi politicians who had common interests with the US also played a role in the creation of a government unfriendly to a US presence. During the 2010 Iraq elections, there was strong US support for Ayad Allawi, a former CIA agent. Allawi was eventually overtaken by Maliki and Sadr, whose government held generally distrustful sentiments of the U.S.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, President Bush signed into law a joint resolution authorizing the use of force against those responsible for attacking the United States. The US invasion aimed to hunt down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and destroy the Taliban regime, leading to a prolonged twenty year conflict. While the US invasion initially led to reconstruction, development of a constitution, and democratic elections, cracks in the central government and deficit in international aid has led to an ongoing Taliban resurgence, challenging the international community’s costly mission to establish a democratic Afghanistan.
After twenty years of war, four US presidents, and sustained international support, the Afghan government collapsed in a matter of weeks in 2021 as Taliban forces seized the capital, Kabul. Like in Iraq, Western officials failed to fully incorporate and understand the Afghan people in their democracy-building. Diplomatic and developmental efforts largely focused on strengthening subnational governance in an attempt to consolidate a stable state. Donor support, which surpassed over $2 billion, was funneled into local governance programs meant to “build trust” between Afghans and their government. Because the majority of Afghans interact with local officials more than national ones, Western officials reasoned that the decentralization of authority and power away from Kabul would assist in the formation of a stable nation state. In such programs and international efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan, the lack of clear authority severely hindered the effectiveness of the agenda. For example, the 2004 constitution created provincial, district, municipal, and village councils but vaguely defined the authorities and responsibilities for them. These local governance programs gradually shut down across the country, restricting donors’ direct engagement with local governments and drastically reducing international monetary aid. In effect, efforts to strengthen subnational governance failed to have a lasting effect as the programs misidentified the primary barriers of communication as technical, not political.
Tunisia is a representative democracy and republic with a parliamentary system, in which the prime minister rules as head of government and the president rules as head of state. After the 2010 Arab Spring revolution, which ousted Tunisian President Ben Ali and the dominant government party of the Rassemblement Constitutional Democratique (RCD), the proliferation of legalized political parties has led to the beginning of multiparty competition in Tunisia. Party tourism, in which members of parliament frequently change parties or branch off to start new ones, is also a notable characteristic of Tunsian politics. However, this threatens the stability of Tunisian democracy, as most parties are too small and fragmented to effectively represent their constituents properly.
Disillusionment with their government’s inability to resolve the economic crisis has led to Tunisians losing faith in the country’s democratic process. A 2018 Afrobarometer survey found that 81 percent of Tunisians do not feel close to any party and 79 percent either would not vote or know who to vote for if elections were held the next day. Additionally, public opinion polls conducted by the International Republican Institute in 2020 found that an underwhelming twenty percent of Tunisians believe that political parties are capable of properly solving national challenges. The prevalence of declarations of serious economic reforms by leading politicians have been largely dismissed by the public as tmenik, or false promises, demonstrating the level of public distrust and discontent with the democratic institutions introduced after the Arab Spring uprising.
As the international community prepares to take action, the U.S. will undoubtedly take a lead role in ensuring that Tunisia returns to a functioning democracy. However, in reflection on past interventions in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is clear that the U.S. must be mindful of how it again approaches democratic building in a politically unstable nation. Washington should take heed of the fragile trust between the Tunisian people and their democratic institutions in its foreign policy. Imposing a new political system could lead to a situation mirroring that of Iraq, in which the political landscape of the country was restructured for the benefit of American democratic ideals. International financial support, similar to what was provided to Afghanistan, could have a stabilizing effect, as much of Tunisia’s current grievances are due to shortcomings in economic policies. However, instead of funneling billions into local governance programs that failed to last in Afghanistan, the US can work to expand Tunisian trade with countries outside of Europe as well as tourism, which is a pillar of the Tunisian economy. For now, the world continues to watch for Saied’s next move and its implications for his people. Should the US get involved, however, painful stumbles in Washington’s democratic institution-building serve as reminders of the dangers of improperly intruding into politically unstable regimes.