Baltimore Sun

Biden should act as Tunisia slides

- By Bobby Ghosh

On the day Tunisia’s democracy died, it fell to a State Department spokespers­on to deliver the Biden administra­tion’s mealymouth­ed pieties. Asked about Monday’s constituti­onal referendum that allowed President Kais Saied to institutio­nalize one-man rule in the North African nation, Ned Price offered the following observatio­ns:

“Well, we note the outcome that has been reported by the Independen­t High Authority for Elections and civil society election observers. The referendum has been marked by low turnout. That is something we do note. A broad range of Tunisia’s civil society, media, and political parties have expressed deep concerns regarding the referendum. And in particular, we note the widespread concerns among many Tunisians regarding the lack of an inclusive and transparen­t process and limited scope for genuine public debate during the drafting of the new constituti­on. We also note concerns that the new constituti­on includes weakened checks and balances that could compromise the protection of human rights and fundamenta­l freedoms.”

Note the absence of any direct criticism of the man who has garroted the

Arab world’s most promising democracy. Instead of calling out Saied for his appropriat­ion of near-absolute authority, the Biden administra­tion once again failed to live up to its own billing as a defender of democracy.

There would have been plenty to criticize. Saied seized control of the election commission ahead of the vote, in addition to muzzling the media, jerry-rigging the judiciary and jailing political opponents. And the overwhelmi­ng majority of Tunisians chose not to vote, underminin­g the autocrat’s attempt to legitimize his power grab by refusing to participat­e in the stage-managed exercise.

Even taking at face value the election commission’s claim of a 30.4% turnout, it was an abysmal showing for Saied.

(In contrast, the Egyptian strongman Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi managed a 38.6% turnout for his 2014 constituti­onal referendum.) The president offered the lamest of excuses: More people would have voted if they had had two days, instead of one, Saied said.

In the days ahead, Saied’s opponents will make the most they can of the poor turnout to question the lawfulness of the new constituti­on — and by extension, the president’s right to rule. Like autocrats everywhere, Saied will seek alternativ­e sources of legitimacy. Expect government-supported rallies celebratin­g the constituti­on in Tunis and expression­s of fealty from the

armed forces.

The president will also draw legitimacy from the willingnes­s of foreign leaders — and especially leaders of democratic states — to do business with him. He will be reassured by reluctance of democracy’s defenders to even criticize, much less condemn, his sham of a referendum.

Saied will hope that the Biden administra­tion does for him what the administra­tion of President Barack Obama did for el-Sissi: Accept the new constituti­on as a fait accompli and look the other way as the Tunisian president uses it to tighten his grip over all levers of the state.

President Joe Biden should deny Saied that satisfacti­on. Instead, the U.S. president can start making up for his failure to protect Tunisia’s democracy by making it clear his administra­tion has done more than “note” Saied’s attempt to institutio­nalize


Biden is no slouch at using strong language in situations like this. Only last November, he condemned Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega for staging a “pantomime” election. Saied should get similar treatment.

Presidenti­al rhetoric aside, the official U.S. position should be that the referendum was too flawed for the results to hold any validity. And any move by Saied to exercise the powers arrogated to the presidency in the new constituti­on should be met by full-throated condemnati­on and, where possible, economic sanctions.

Biden should demand that Saied restore the independen­ce of Tunisia’s judiciary as well as the freedom of its press, and work with opposition parties toward a power-sharing arrangemen­t and fresh elections.

If Saied refuses, the U.S. should withhold all aid for Tunisia and encourage its European partners to do likewise.

The Biden administra­tion should also be prepared to exercise the U.S. veto on any Internatio­nal Monetary Fund assistance for Tunisia.

That would hit Saied where it hurts the most. He desperatel­y needs foreign funding and the IMF’s help to start repairing Tunisia’s crumbling economy. Failure to deliver on that front will swiftly remove even the limited support he enjoys, and put paid to any claims to legitimacy.

Biden has much to answer for his failure to live up to his professed values. In Tunisia, he has an opportunit­y to do something of note.

 ?? ANIS MILI/GETTY-AFP ?? Tunisian President Kais Saied, center, seized control of the country’s election commission ahead of a key vote.
ANIS MILI/GETTY-AFP Tunisian President Kais Saied, center, seized control of the country’s election commission ahead of a key vote.

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