Tunisia’s seizure of power creates unease for the Biden administration
The Biden administration this week expresses new unease over the emergence of an unconstitutional takeover in Tunisia, after the country’s president brutally sacked his government’s ambassador to the United States without explanation.
Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decision to impeach Ambassador Nejmeddine Lakhal was the latest in a series of high-profile layoffs and other controversial measures. Since July 25, Mr. Saied has started to exercise what he claims to be executive powers to rule by decree in Tunis.
The fate of the North African nation’s political system has assumed disproportionate importance since Tunisia initiated the region’s 2011 Arab Spring. A decade later, Tunisia is widely regarded as the only remaining democracy to emerge from the upheaval.
But in recent days, Mr Saied, a member of the Tunisian Independent Party, has sacked the country’s prime minister and frozen parliament in a measure apparently intended to cut the wings of political Islamists, especially the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.
Ennahda has grown in importance since the 2011 uprising toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But many in Tunisia now blame the party for the deadlock in the legislature.
Local polls show that a notable number of Tunisians actually support Mr Saied’s recent controversial measures as a way to break the deadlock and spur desperately needed economic growth. However, the developments have sparked growing concern in Washington.
Officials in the Biden administration say they are concerned about the prospect of a return to authoritarian rule given that Tunis has avoided Islamist uprisings and the resurgence of authoritarianism.
Asked about the ambassador’s brutal dismissal, spokesman Ned Price said the State Department viewed Mr. Saied’s ongoing measures as a “fluid situation.”
“Our aim is to encourage Tunisian leaders to adhere to the Tunisian constitution and quickly return to normal democratic governance,” Price told reporters on Tuesday. “In some ways more important than the issue of labels is the critical work of supporting Tunisia in its return to this democratic path, and that is what we are focusing on right now.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out the administration’s position on developments in Tunisia during an interview last week with Al Jazeera.
While Mr Blinken said Tunisia has been a “remarkable demonstration of democracy” over the past decade, he stressed that the administration has “concerns about deviating from this democratic card, taking measures that go against the constitution, including the freezing of parliament ”.
“We fully recognize that Tunisians are suffering terribly from COVID-19 and a very, very difficult economy,” Blinken said. “Of course they need a government that meets their needs, but it has to happen in a way that is consistent and respects the constitution.”
On the same day, Saied insisted he was not trying to undermine Tunisia’s democracy or its constitution and denied staging a coup following the arrest of two MPs.
“I know the constitutional texts very well, I respect them and I have taught them and after all this time I will not turn into a dictator as some have said,” said Mr Saied, a former law professor, according to one. release from his office.
But critics say Saied has yet to take the necessary steps to reassure Tunisians, including appointing an interim prime minister and a roadmap to end emergency measures.
The developments present a delicate political challenge for the Biden administration as it seeks to make Tunisia a model of democracy in the Arab world.
Sharan Grewal, a non-resident member of the Brookings Institution, argued that “Mr Saied’s takeover represents a major test for Tunisia’s fledgling democracy”, comparing it to a wave of popular protests that rocked the country in 2013, almost derailing its initial transition. dictatorship.
“The reaction of the Tunisian and international public to Saied’s announcement will likely determine whether the country will remain the only Arab democracy in the world or fall into what political scientists call a ‘coup’ or takeover,” wrote Mr. Grewal last week after Mr. Saied’s decision. initial announcement that he will govern Tunisia temporarily by decree.
North Africa analyst Magdi Abdelhadi, writing for the BBC, highlighted the complexity of the Tunisian situation, noting that a “stagnant economy (it shrank by 8% last year), growing unemployment ( estimated at 17%) and a fractured political class have convinced a growing number of Tunisians that democracy is not for them.
“A large number of Tunisians [have] a feeling of hopelessness and a loss of confidence in the country’s parliament and political parties, ”wrote Mr. Abdelhadi. “This explains why Mr. Saied’s draconian measures sparked jubilation in the streets.”
“His supporters were just fed up with parliament and longed for someone, maybe a strong man, who could fix the country. But can Mr. Saied really fix it? Mr Abdelhadi added, citing a warning issued recently by The Economist, which stated that “a replacement strongman is not the answer to Tunisia’s problems”.