The Biden administration is expressing fresh unease this week over the appearance of an unconstitutional power grab in Tunisia, after the country’s president abruptly fired his government’s ambassador to the United States without explanation.
Tunisian President Kais Saied‘s decision to remove Ambassador Nejmeddine Lakhal was the latest in a series of high-profile firings and other controversial moves. Since July 25, Mr. Saied has begun exercising what he claims are executive powers to rule by decree in Tunis.
The fate of the North African nation’s political system has assumed outsized prominence since Tunisia provided the spark for the region’s 2011 Arab Spring. A decade later, Tunisia is widely seen as the lone remaining democracy to emerge from the upheaval.
But in recent days, Mr. Saied, a member of Tunisia’s Independent Party, has fired the country’s prime minister and frozen parliament in a move apparently designed to clip the wings of political Islamists, particularly the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.
Ennahda has risen to prominence in the years since the 2011 revolt overthrew longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But many in Tunisia now blame the party for gridlock in the legislature.
Local polls show a notable number of Tunisians actually support Mr. Saied‘s controversial recent moves as a way to cut through the gridlock and spur desperately needed economic growth. However, the developments have caused mounting concern in Washington.
Biden administration officials say they are concerned about the prospect of a return to authoritarian rule given that Tunis has staved off Islamist uprisings and resurgent authoritarianism.
Asked about the ambassador’s abrupt dismissal, spokesman Ned Price said the State Department regards the ongoing moves by Mr. Saied as a “fluid situation.”
“Our focus is on encouraging Tunisian leaders to adhere to the Tunisian constitution and to quickly return to normal, democratic governance,” Mr. Price told reporters Tuesday. “In some ways, more important than the question of labels, is the critical work of supporting Tunisia in its return to that democratic path, and that’s what we’re focused on right now.”
His comments came a day after President Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan pressed that message directly to the Tunisian president during a phone call Monday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the administration‘s position on the 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 that democratic map, taking actions that run counter to the constitution, including freezing the parliament.”
“We very much recognize that Tunisians are suffering terribly with COVID-19 and a very, very challenging economy,” Mr. Blinken said. “They need a government, of course, that’s responsive to their needs, but that has to happen in a way that is consistent with, respectful of the constitution.”
Mr. Saied on that same day insisted that he was not trying to undermine Tunisian democracy or its constitution and denied he had staged a coup following the arrest of two members of parliament.
“I know the constitutional texts very well, respect them and taught them and after all this time I will not turn into a dictator as some have said,” Mr. Saied, who is a former law professor, said, according to a statement from his office.
But critics say Mr. Saied has yet to carry out steps needed to reassure Tunisians, including the appointment of an interim prime minister and a road map to end the emergency measures.
The developments represent a delicate policy challenge for the Biden administration as it seeks to hold up Tunisia as a model for democracy in the Arab world.
Sharan Grewal, a nonresident fellow with the Brookings Institution, argued that Mr. Saied‘s “power grab represents a major test for Tunisia‘s young democracy,” comparing it to a wave of popular protests that rocked the country in 2013, nearly derailing its initial transition out of dictatorship.
“How Tunisian and international audiences react to Saied‘s announcement will likely shape whether the country remains the world’s only Arab democracy or falls to what political scientists call a ‘self-coup’ or incumbent takeover,” Mr. Grewal wrote last week after Mr. Saied‘s initial announcement that he will temporarily rule Tunisia by decree.
North Africa analyst Magdi Abdelhadi, writing for the BBC, underscored the complexity of the Tunisian situation, noting that a “stagnant economy (it shrunk by 8% last year), growing unemployment (estimated at 17%), and a fractious political class have convinced a growing number of Tunisians that democracy is not delivering for them.”
“A large number of Tunisians [have] a sense of hopelessness and a loss of faith in parliament and the country’s political parties,” Mr. Abdelhadi wrote. “That explains why Mr. Saied‘s draconian measures were met with jubilation on the streets.”
“His supporters were simply fed up with parliament, and yearned for someone, a strongman perhaps, who could fix the country. But can Mr. Saied really fix it?” Mr. Abdelhadi added, citing a warning published recently by The Economist, which stated that “a replacement strongman is not the answer to Tunisia‘s problems.”