The Washington Post

Tunisia’s democracy is teetering

In the birthplace of the Arab Spring, a new political winter is at hand.


IN THE greater Middle East, President Biden’s trip through Israel and Saudi Arabia has dominated the news and all but monopolize­d diplomatic attention. This might have been inevitable — but it is neverthele­ss unfortunat­e, to the extent it distracts from the ongoing destructio­n of democracy in Tunisia. President Kais Saied, though legitimate­ly elected in 2019, has been using his power to undermine the country’s once-promising political institutio­ns, establishe­d in the wake of a 2011 uprising against dictatorsh­ip. Tunisia’s revolt triggered the Arab Spring, which has tragically failed or been defeated by dictators around the region. Mr. Saied’s plans for a new constituti­on, which he seeks to ratify in a referendum set for July 25, could deepen this political winter.

That date marks the anniversar­y of the day in 2021 when Mr. Saied dismissed the prime minister and suspended parliament, citing presidenti­al emergency powers and the need to deal with Tunisia’s undeniable political and economic crisis. Troops blocked legislator­s from entering parliament, a signal that he enjoyed military support. Indeed, many Tunisians, frustrated with corruption and partisan gridlock, applauded his move. Since then, however, economic and social problems have persisted. The president has resorted to rule by decree and cracking down on those who push back against his power grab — including the elected parliament, which he purported to dissolve March 30 in retaliatio­n for attempting to reassert its constituti­onal powers.

Certainly Mr. Saied has controlled drafting of the proposed constituti­on, which was not finalized until July 8. In place of the mixed parliament­ary-presidenti­al system created under the post-uprising 2014 constituti­on, Mr. Saied’s document would move back toward a system reminiscen­t of the one Tunisia had before the Arab Spring. The president could hire and fire a prime minister without input from the legislatur­e; the latter’s only recourse against the president’s hand-picked cabinet would be a no-confidence motion requiring a two-thirds majority. The president could dissolve parliament but could not be impeached. While presidents would be formally limited to two five-year terms, that tenure could be extended. The elected parliament would be further weakened by the creation of a vaguely defined new “council of regions.” Other measures could curtail judicial independen­ce.

Elected with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2019, Mr. Saied campaigned as a populist and is counting on residual popularity, coupled with voter apathy and sheer lack of informatio­n, to win this hastily arranged plebiscite. He is also counting on a passive response from Tunisia’s allies in the European Union and the United States, which have issued various verbal admonishme­nts. The most recent E.U. statement was especially tepid; it merely “takes note of concerns” about the new constituti­on. Likely more impressive to Mr. Saied was the Biden administra­tion’s threat in April to cut bilateral military aid from $122 million to $61 million next year, but that has not yet been enacted into law. More leverage exists in the form of bilateral U.S. economic aid and Tunisia’s potential need for an Internatio­nal Monetary Fund bailout. Western government­s must use it, or the cause of Arab democracy will lose.

 ?? ZOUBEIR SOUISSI/REUTERS ?? Demonstrat­ors in Tunis display the Tunisian national flag during a protest against the government of President Kais Saied on June 19.
ZOUBEIR SOUISSI/REUTERS Demonstrat­ors in Tunis display the Tunisian national flag during a protest against the government of President Kais Saied on June 19.

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