Home Editorial Tunisia holds valuable lessons for us all as democracy stumbles

Tunisia holds valuable lessons for us all as democracy stumbles

Tunisia holds valuable lessons for us all as democracy stumbles
The flag of Tunisia is held aloft at an anti-government protest in February 2022. (Mohamed Soufi/Shutterstock)

At the start of this year, Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor observed that “in society after society, illiberal values and politicians who embrace them are gaining ground.”

Similarly, a key finding of Freedom House’s recently released annual report was that “global freedom declined for the 18th consecutive year in 2023;” the previous year’s report had grimly observed that “the struggle for democracy may be approaching a turning point.”

What should the United States do to meet this challenge?

Voters need to vote, political chaos needs to end

First and foremost, it needs to get its own house in order. Ending political dysfunction in Congress is necessary to counter the misguided and transparently self-serving authoritarian argument that democracies cannot meet the needs of their people. Heretical it may sound, but there are worse fates than losing an election. Members of Congress need to place a much higher priority on the interests of the constituents they represent – and the national interest – than they do on short-term political calculations. One can only hope that the long overdue House of Representative’s bipartisan vote on April 20 to send assistance to Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, and Taiwan is a step in this direction.

Equally important, American citizens have to keep up their end of the social contract by voting on Election Day. Pew Research Center reports that fewer than half of eligible U.S. voters participated in the 2022 mid-term elections, and just two-thirds in the 2020 presidential election.

A voter drops off their ballot during the 2022 midterms and local elections in Pueblo, Colo. More eligible voters in the United States need to exercise their right to vote, a former U.S. ambassador says. (Karin Zeitvogel)

Third, the Biden administration should sustain its efforts to counter authoritarian regimes. Continued support in defense of Ukraine’s very existence is essential, notwithstanding the weariness that has set in after two years of a war that is currently stalemated. Similarly, the United States needs to continue building the capacity of Asian friends and partners to defend themselves against the increasingly emboldened Xi Jinping regime in China.

Fourth, the Biden administration should be planning now for the end of the war in Gaza. There are several reasons it should be looking ahead, ranging from realpolitik to humanitarian ones. Global scrutiny of U.S. diplomacy will only intensify. Will the United States support an undemocratic Israeli occupation and an undemocratic Palestinian Authority? Will it use its influence to meet the aspirations of democratic Israelis and Palestinians alike? How the Biden administration answers these questions (through actions, not just words) will be the true test of its commitment to advancing democratic norms throughout the world.

Finally, the United States needs to stand up to authoritarianism by seeking to counter leaders and governments engaged in democratic backsliding. Tunisia, where I had the privilege to serve as the U.S. ambassador during its revolution and the initial stages of its democratic transition, offers an excellent opportunity for the Biden administration to take steps to back up its rhetorical commitment to democracy.

The Tunisian example

The current U.S. national security team cannot be faulted if it feels overwhelmed by the wars in Gaza and Ukraine and the ever-present challenge China poses. But U.S. interests and values also require a concerted effort to roll back democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism.

Tunisia has an outsized importance in determining whether democracy will advance globally. This is the nation that gave birth to the Arab Spring by overthrowing Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of increasingly despotic rule. Tunisians not only united to overthrow a dictator; they then came together to draft a constitution and elect leaders who chose compromise over coercion.

In the case of Tunisia, then, the Biden administration should clearly express, in both its public statements and its private diplomatic exchanges, the expectation that the 2024 presidential balloting in the North African nation will be conducted as transparently as it was in 2019 and 2014. Political leaders imprisoned on trumped up charges, ranging from Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi to Ben Ali loyalist Abir Moussi, need to be
released. Harassment of journalists, a staple of the Ben Ali years, must end.

A woman raises the Tunisian flag during a protest in Tunis, Tunisia, February 13, 2022. (Mohamed Soufi/Shutterstock)

Words will not be enough, however. The Biden administration should use the full range of economic carrots and sticks to encourage President Kais Saied to return Tunisia to its post-revolution democratic trajectory.

One such incentive would be the prospect of reviving the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s $498.7 million compact. Approved right before President Saied’s July 25, 2021 power grab and suspended ever since, it would support much-needed improvements to Tunisia’s transportation, trade, and water sectors.

“The Biden administration should use the full range of economic carrots and sticks to encourage President Kais Saied to return Tunisia to its post-revolution democratic trajectory.”

Helping Tunisia fix its economy is essential for democracy to succeed. As the latest Arab Barometer polling indicated, “Tunisians are more likely to associate [democracy] with the provision of economic necessities.” Don’t forget that Mohamed Bouazizi’s trouble with the police – who infringed on his right to make even a meager living – caused his self-immolation in December 2010, which led in turn to the
demonstrations that brought down Ben Ali.

President Saied runs hot and cold on the International Monetary Fund’s $1.9 billion loan package, denouncing it as a “foreign diktat” even though his own government negotiated it. But Tunisia’s increasingly heavy international debt burdens may eventually force him to accept the package to avoid default. If  that happens, the loan package would provide significant leverage to U.S. rhetorical calls for truly fair elections.

While Freedom House has rightly sounded the alarm about the threats to democracy worldwide, it has also noted that “while authoritarians remain extremely dangerous, they are not unbeatable.” The Tunisian people proved that when they launched the Jasmine Revolution. Friends of democracy throughout the world need to remember that lesson.

Gordon Gray is the Kuwait Professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He was a career foreign service officer who served as the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Follow him on X (Twitter) @AmbGordonGray.
An earlier version of this opinion piece appeared in Euronews on April 9, 2024.

Washington Diplomat