Tunisian President Kais Saied’s drift towards authoritarianism since taking power on July 25, 2021 has led many in the United States and Tunisia to advocate for a cut in all US aid. However, while the suspension of support is emotionally rewarding, it is unlikely to change Saied’s autocratic practices. Equally important, cutting off aid altogether would not serve American interests or help the Tunisian people. Instead, the United States should use its bilateral aid — and influence in international financial institutions — to promote its core interests in Tunisia: security and democracy.
Henry Kissinger pointed out, and some might say cynically, that America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. Security and democracy are the two main American interests in Tunisia. Both transcend Tunisia’s borders, which is why they matter and why the United States should continue related assistance programs.
When I left Tunisia ten years ago after serving as U.S. Ambassador, security was one of the biggest challenges facing Tunisia for both internal reasons – government-led reluctance by Ennahda to deal with the growing threat of violent Salafists – and external – instability in neighboring regions. Libya and the rise of the Islamic State. The security situation only worsened over the following years, as evidenced by the 14 September 2012 Salafist attack on the US Embassy; the 2013 assassinations of two opposition leaders, Chokri Belaid on February 6 and Mohamed Brahimi on July 25; and terrorist attacks in 2015 against tourist sites, the Bardo Museum on March 18 and a hotel on the beach in Sousse on June 26.
Since then, however, Tunisian capabilities have increased significantly due to the government’s increased emphasis on border security as well as assistance and training from the United States and other partners. Terrorism remains a threat – and will not recede as Libya’s instability continues – but the country is now safer.
Yet no nation is immune to the transnational threat posed by terrorism, and Tunisia is no exception. Its location means that neither the United States nor its NATO allies in the Mediterranean can afford an unstable Tunisia. It is therefore misguided to cut security assistance by nearly half, from $112 million to $61 million, as proposed in the administration’s fiscal year 2023 budget. for Near East Affairs, Barbara Leaf, stressed the importance that the United States places on security during her separate talks with the Ministers of Defense and Interior during her August 29-31 visit to Tunis .
The survival of Tunisian democracy is of outsized importance in a time of global autocratic revival. Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, rightly observed that “autocracies like China, Iran and Russia will welcome the collapse of Tunisia’s democratic aspirations as news.” proof of “the failures of democracy as a system”.
The State Department’s FY2023 Congressional Budget Rationale explains that the proposed allocation of economic support funds would be provided to civil society organizations, rather than the government, “in light of the uncertainty concerning the political orientation of Tunisia”. This approach is exactly the right one to take in the current situation.
Saied’s autocratic actions have jeopardized the economic assistance that is important for Tunisia’s recovery. On June 30, 2021, less than a month before Saied would begin his power grab by freezing parliament, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) approved a “$498.7 million deal with the Tunisian government to bolster transport, trade and water sectors in Tunisia”. Tunisia desperately needs this kind of assistance, which would benefit the average citizen much more than the authorities.
But it is inconceivable that the MCC would now allow the program to continue given the radically changed political landscape since it endorsed the pact. Grants can only go to countries that meet “rigorous standards of good governance, from fighting corruption to respecting democratic rights,” as MCC noted when it announced the initial approval of the pact. .
Concluding a $4 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is even more important for stabilizing the Tunisian economy. The IMF team that visited Tunisia in mid-July rightly stressed the importance of “broad buy-in” when reporting on its meetings. The United States should insist on a return to democratic norms as a condition for granting an IMF loan, and it should make its expectations explicit.
It is also difficult to see how an agreement with the IMF would gain popular support. Saied’s approach to rewriting the constitution was the opposite of inclusive. Moreover, he dissolved the parliament, so there is no possibility of legislative approval.
In the end, there’s not much the United States can do. The friends of democracy must support their Tunisian counterparts, but it is of course up to Tunisians to choose the future path of their country. By the time the next presidential elections take place in 2024, it is quite possible that Tunisians will be fed up with Saied. They focus on the economy. Saied’s mix of Ben Ali’s authoritarianism and Muammar Gaddafi’s political philosophy is unlikely to meet the pressing needs of Tunisians.
Gordon Gray is a professor of practice at Penn State’s School of International Affairs. He is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. He was a career Foreign Service officer who served as U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia during the early Arab Spring and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @AmbGordonGray.