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.