What Can the U.S. Do to Restore Democracy in Tunisia?

[On May 23, 2022, Radwan Masmoudi moderated a Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy panel discussion of what the United States can do to restore democracy in Tunisia. This is my summary of highlights of the program, not a transcript. Use of the first person is for convenience only. For a video of the entire discussion click here.]

Sharan Grewal (College of William & Mary; Brookings Institution). We should learn from the mistakes we made in responding to the coup in Egypt.  Aid restatement must be clear about what Kais Saied must do to restore suspended aid. We should delegate decision to restore aid to a third party to depoliticize the decision. We should call the coup a coup since the word is effective in delegitimization. The belief that Saied has the popularity to sell IMF reforms to the Tunisian public is misplaced.  He has already lost popularity and would not want to delegitimate it further by alienating his remaining base who are leftist Nasserists, not Islamists or free market supporters. He needs an off-ramp, a means of being able to claim victory even as democracy is restored. This requires a negotiated solution.

Sara Yerkes (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). Partially agreed with Sharan.  There is more the international committee needs to do to stop Saied’s power grab that is harming Tunisia. The threat of a new constitution means we have only a couple of months to act. Constitutional referenda usually pass. This will allow him to claim popular support. I do not believe aid suspension will work. I know Tunisia is not Egypt. Sharan made good points about things that could have been done better. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi knew the U.S. would never abandon Egypt. But the language to trigger aid cutoffs is military coup, which does not apply to Tunisia, so while it may affect the conversation, it makes no legal difference. The aid to Egypt was much larger, and it didn’t matter because others stepped in, as they would in the case of the much smaller aid to Tunisia.  Russia needs friends now and could easily fill the gap. Removing aid only removes what leverage we do have. Further, cutting aid could adversely affect Tunisian security on both its borders and internally. Economically it would be counterproductive in that it would hurt not Saied, but the common people.  I suggest a different approach. Keep existing aid levels but rejigger it by giving the money not to the government but to the civil society among whom we have strong partners on the ground.  Redirect aid out of hands of the police. Reward Saied for good behavior by offering to increase the total amount of aid. I agree with conditioning IMF loan on reforms, but you need more than that.  Offer diplomatic carrots like a visit to the White House. Offer clear, public benchmarks. Vague goals like “return to democracy” won’t do the trick.

Shadi Hamid (Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings; Fuller Seminary). This is a the conversation we should have had nine months ago. We must act in the next few months or throw in the towel. I called for suspension of aid and IMF talk last year. Responses that Tunisia is different from other coups have been proven wrong. Partial aid cuts don’t work. The failed aid cut in Egypt was incredibly partial, consisting of only 8% of the aid. It  dilutes the message. Even U.S. officials were unsure of what it meant. Kerry said to his Egyptian counterpart aid is “a very little issue.” I would agree that aid cuts are not the only answer.  I call for the maximalist option in which the IMF is our primary lever. It is a little messy to involve the IMF in political questions, but the U.S. has the ability to do it if it has the political will and brings its European partners on board. Anything less than a full-throated approach runs the risk of alienating Saied without affecting things. Tunisia is at risk of default. IMF support also opens up other financial lines and is the key to the Tunisian economy. Tunisia needs the U.S. much more than we need them. There is no excuse to tiptoe around Kais Saied when he is in such a weak position. We say that the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is the most important struggle of our time, but we suffer from Middle East exceptionalism in which we act as if we do not believe democracy is appropriate to the Middle East.

Larry Diamond (Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, Stanford University). We should not be overly offended by the Biden administration’s lack of attention to democracy in the Middle East because the administration has similarly slighted the issue elsewhere, including India, where Muslims make up one of the largest minority groups anywhere in the world. The same for the Philippines. There are few countries in the world that have so disproportionate an impact on the future of democracy for their population size as Tunisia. Although the law banning aid to countries in which a coup has taken place refers to military coups, the signaling impact of calling this a coup is essential to undermining its legitimacy. If we do not call a spade a spade here, where in the world shall we do so? The difference between Sharan and Sara’s positions may not be as great as it sounds because the impact of cutting government-to-government aid cannot be overstated. If we can cultivate training and lending for small and medium enterprises in Tunisia, it can help to separate the regime from the people while emphasizing our commitment to the Tunisian people. The goal of private diplomacy can and should be to manipulate the cost/benefit analysis. We must make clear to Saied what will happen to him if he continues down the path of institutionalizing this coup.  It is simply not correct to say constitutional referenda always succeed. We should urge our friends to not boycott the election.

Radwan Masmoudi (Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy).  As head of a civil society organization, I would welcome support for civil society; but I have been very disappointed by civil society in Tunisia which has been largely silent and in some cases supported the coup. Civil society organizations in Tunisia are afraid of standing up to Saied. The military has supported Saied in shutting down the parliament. Why don’t we have leverage on the military, which cares about its relationship with the United States?

Grewal. I agree that the military’s actions suggest support of the coup. They might argue that they are just following orders, but the order is unconstitutional, and they have resisted unconstitutional orders in the past. I think if a message is sent from the U.S. military to the Tunisian military, it would be effective in leveraging U.S. military aid. Although this is a presidential rather than military coup, presidential coups are becoming more common, and that increases the importance of sending the right message. Although Algeria and the Saudis have given some money to Tunisia, I am not sure that our taking a stronger stance would increase the aid. Even if it does, let it happen; the Tunisians need the money.

Yerkes. The U.S. has used the IMF as leverage since day one, but it has not worked. It is a good idea, but it is not sufficient. Suppose we cut off all aid and end IMF involvement: the result is starvation of the Tunisian people. I don’t see how that helps. I agree that the military should exert pressure.

Hamid.  We have not used the IMF lever to this point.  We are talking about suspending talks (including talks about talks) if certain conditions are not met. There is no prospect of Tunisia moving towards Russia or China. The equipment we have given Tunisia can’t run on Russian or Chinese support.

Diamond. Russia is so overextended now that a Tunisian turn to Russia does not seem plausible. When a military has been trained by the United States, we have a lot of leverage; but when the boom is lowered it sets into a motion a new set of dynamics.  A careful evaluation of costs and benefits is needed, but we should try to separate Saied both from the Tunisian people and the Tunisian military.

Grewal. Sarah’s proposal to redirect aid to civil society is clever. Another approach would be to reinstate aid in stages as incremental goals are met.

Hamid.  The United States has actively supported authoritarians in the Middle East. It has been a bipartisan strategy that goes back for decades. It cannot be changed at the margins. It requires a major change in strategy.

Grewal. The question has been raised: “Is Saied a rational actor?” There is one overriding issue for him: a new republic.

Yerkes. The U.S. had no interaction with Tunisia before the Arab Spring. We care about Tunisia because we care about democracy in Tunisia.

Hamid. I do not deny American political actors prefer democracy, but when they calculate cost and benefits democracy carries little weight. Otherwise we would not have seen the moral stains of the last twenty or thirty years.

Diamond. We all agree that the next few months are critical and that the Biden administration must be pressed to act.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute
www.minaret.org

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