Tunisia Backslides From Arab Spring to Autocracy

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Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring mass protests that swept North Africa and the Middle East, has entered an uncharted chapter in the country’s already turbulent transition toward democracy.

Unfortunately, in moving away from the status of the sole evolving democracy to have emerged from the mass uprisings in the region, Tunisia’s democratic future hangs in the balance.

Tunisian President Kais Saied, who has ruled the country by decree since July 25, 2021, when he dismissed the parliament and the government, cemented his power through a constitutional referendum exactly a year later on Monday.

Although there are Tunisians who think the country needs a strong leader to address its problems, there was scant enthusiasm for the referendum.

The July 25 referendum, which took place with a relatively low turnout of less than 30%, has paved a way to alter Tunisia's political system into one that gives Saied almost unlimited powers.

“The new constitution, which replaces one drafted in 2014, three years after the Arab Spring, would give the head of state full executive control, supreme command of the army, and the ability to appoint a government without parliamentary approval,” as summed up by the BBC.

Tunisians have suffered plenty of disappointment over the past decade. As the World Bank once noted, “Tunisia remains a country of contrasts: While important progress has been made on political transition toward an open, democratic system of governance, economic transition has not kept pace.”

With the referendum, which has placed the country’s political transition on a more complicated course, Tunisia continues to face daunting governance tasks, both politically and economically. At the top of the government’s to-do list must be how to revitalize the economy and build the public’s trust and confidence in the country’s political leadership.

That’s a tall order, and on the broader economic front, structural reforms must be carried out so that economic growth and prosperity can be measurably delivered for the ordinary Tunisian.

According to the latest edition of The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom, Tunisia’s economic freedom score is 54.2, making its economy the 128th-freest in the 2022 index among 177 countries ranked. Its overall score is below the regional and world averages, with the country’s economic freedom stagnating over the past five years.

With significant deterioration in fiscal health and business freedom, Tunisia has fallen to the lower half of the “Mostly Unfree” category.

From Washington’s foreign policy perspectives, Tunisia could still make itself a critical asset of untapped potential value for the United States. A steady and democratic Tunisia would not only provide the U.S. with a strategic ally, but also could serve as a possible, practical model for future democracies in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The importance of the region to the U.S., particularly the Maghreb, has been growing, with two of America’s 17 “major non-NATO ally”-status countries—Tunisia and Morocco—belonging to this strategically important corridor.

More notable is that while Tunisia has sought more aid and development assistance, China has been eyeing Tunisia’s strategic location. In 2021, for example, Tunisia and China signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement, which aims to expand the list of China-assisted projects in Tunisia, including the Ben Arous sports center and cultural centers, the Tunisian diplomatic academy, a university hospital, and construction of the Medjerda River canal. 

For these strategically important considerations, Tunisia merits Washington’s continued attention.

Regrettably, Tunisia has become a challenging test case, causing a considerable degree of engagement fatigue and frustration at many critical levels. The U.S. cannot provide Tunisia with the political will that the country needs to transform its economy according to free-market principles. That must come from within.

As keenly observed by Olfa Hamdi, former CEO of Tunisia’s national carrier TunisAir and president of the Third Republic, a political party she founded:

A divided nation is a nation in peril, and that’s what Tunisia is today under Kais Saied’s leadership. Sadly, no amount of constitutional meddling will solve the political and economic crisis Tunisia lives in.

The future course of an Arab democracy in the making has become quite uncertain.

Saied has said that the referendum was needed “to break a cycle of political paralysis and economic decay.” He further noted that “our money and our wealth are enormous, and our will is even greater, to rebuild a new Tunisia and a new republic, one that breaks with the past.”

That remains to be seen, but to achieve that, Saied should be reminded that the best way to ensure a greater and brighter future of Tunisia is to allow its bottom-up pursuit of democracy and economic freedom to take place and get nourished under good governance, reinforced by transparency and accountability.

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