A Coup or a Necessary Reset in Tunisia?

Foreign Policy Brief # 126 | By: Avery Roe | August 9, 2021

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Policy Summary

On July 25, 2021, President Kais Saied of Tunisia fired the country’s Prime Minister and suspended Parliament in what he called an emergency situation, giving him total power. Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution allows the President to take any actions necessary in the event of imminent danger to the country in consultation with the prime minister and parliament. While President Saied did not consult with others in the government, there has been debate on whether or not his actions otherwise fall inside the law. He has promised to appoint a new government within 30 days. In the weeks since he acted, there has been considerable debate as to what happened and what will come next as the country remains in limbo.

Since Tunisia first transitioned to democracy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, the results haven’t been what people were hoping for. The economy has been overdependent on outside forces, such as tourism, and has failed to create jobs as inflation has ballooned. All of these issues became much worse during the COVID-19 pandemic as Tunisia is in its worse economic downturn since 1956 and has one of the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rates. This has created a negative perception of the government and corruption throughout parliament.

Three days after President Saied acted, a public opinion poll found that 87% of Tunisians surveyed supported the President and only 3% opposed him. Leading Tunisian civil society groups have given President Saied their cautious support, saying that his actions were within the law but that he urgently needs to present a route out of the crisis.

The American reaction has been far different. Voices such as Senator Lindsey Graham have called for the United States to be “on the ground” in Tunisia and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution has called for the suspension of all U.S. aid to Tunisia. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has taken a milder approach, encouraging President Saied to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights.

Policy Analysis

This is undoubtedly a frightening moment for such a young democracy. However, because the President’s actions have popular support and there has been a history of dissatisfaction with the government in Tunisia, the international community must remain cautious in both their judgments and actions. If President Saied keeps his promises, it is likely that this move will be a major step forward for Tunisian Democracy and the Tunisian peoples’ quality of life. The United States needs to be watching with a close eye on the situation but does not need to be “on the ground.”

There is also the threat that President Saied does not keep his word and attempts to retain his complete control. In this instance, it would be important to see how public opinion evolves depending on President Saied’s other actions. It would be ideal to see the United States start to put more support behind Tunisian civil society groups regardless of how exactly public opinion turns out.

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After 2011 Tunisian civil society has played a large role in being responsive to the population’s needs and desires and up to this point that appears to be their plan going forward. Instances that might require the United States to get more involved include human rights abuses, a shutting down of civil society, or a drastic public opinion shift. Its options could include withholding aid or putting people on the ground to encourage a shift back to more of a democratic system.

The recent news coming out of Tunisia, one of the few states to adopt such a democratic system after The Arab Spring, has scared western observers. But there seems to be a disconnect in perception between western observers and those within Tunisia. As outsiders, it is the United States’ role to understand and keep a close eye on the country at this point and wait to see what happens. An overreaction could be incredibly damaging to American relations with Tunisia while reacting appropriately could give the relationship a large boost.

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