Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.
As in Belarus and Hong Kong, democratic freedoms are under attack in Tunisia. But 10 years after its revolution, the powers that be are weaker, and strong foreign support for Tunisians’ freedoms can tip the balance.
“I will not become a dictator” insisted Kais Saied, the Tunisian president, as he shut down parliament, put the army on the streets and stopped Al Jazeera broadcasting.
Not since Egyptian general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared in military uniform in the summer of 2013, denying that the events which would make him president were a coup, or when Jeremy Corbyn said he was “present but not involved” at a wreath-laying ceremony for terrorists, has North African denial been so implausible.
Tunisia is the last survivor of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, but a decade on, its democracy is looking shaky. Ten years of fractious politics haven’t yielded the economic progress freedom was supposed to bring. The pandemic, and the disruption of the vital tourist industry it produced, has made things worse.
Tunisia is supposed to have a political system where power is shared between parliament and the president, but last week the president, a former academic who doesn’t belong to any political party, invoked emergency provisions of the constitution to suspend parliament for 30 days. But while the constitution allows periods of emergency presidential rule, they are conditional on the parliament being in session to keep an eye on him.
A constitutional court would have reaffirmed this, but one hasn’t been set up yet. In its absence, Saied, despite being a former professor of constitutional law, just used the security forces under his command for a power grab. Though he likened himself to de Gaulle, it would be fairer to compare him to Cromwell dismissing the Rump.
Nonetheless, unlike Sisi’s in Egypt, Saied’s coup looks far from a foregone conclusion. Elected with 72 per cent of the vote in 2019, Saied’s approval ratings have fallen to around 40 per cent, and it’s best to describe him as the single most popular figure in a crowded field.
The successor pparty to the old regime, known as the Free Destourians, heads the polls with around 30 per cent support, followed by the genuinely moderate post-Islamist Ennahda, with 20 per cent. Various left-wing and secularist groups, and Islamist groups make up the rest.
This contrasts with Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood were extreme, saw democracy as a means to an end, and against whom the Army was the only force in society capable of standing up to them. Unable to win on their own, Ennahda, who now describe themselves in as “Muslim Democrats” in conscious analogy with Angela Merkel’s CDU, have become moderate (a hardline faction split off to form its own “Dignity” party). Though Saied can argue that his opponents are dysfunctional, there is no threat of an Islamist takeover in Tunisia.
Islamist weakness has been reflected in the US position, with Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, insisting that Tunisia return to the “democratic path.” The US may also be motivated by concerns about increasing Chinese influence in the country, which is only 200 miles from Sicily.
The Foreign Office has so far been rather more perfunctory, issuing a statement so anodyne it is worthy of the department’s caricature in Yes, Prime Minister. There is a need to get a grip on the situation, and the Foreign Secretary should use the opportunity to lead.
Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia. It has been heavily involved in the democratic transition since 2011, supporting civil society, offering practical assistance and considerable sums of aid. Unlike France it is not burdened by colonial baggage there. And it has an opportunity to outflank the EU which is hampered by the requirement for unanimity in foreign affairs. The UK has an opportunity to convene a response by the world’s democracies.
The most important task is the resolution of the constitutional crisis and a return to the normal democratic process.
In the first instance, the army should be taken off the streets, and journalists be allowed to report openly. Parliament should be reconvened (after all that is what the Tunisian constitution requires even during an emergency), and the parliamentarians that have been arrested freed immediately.
In the medium term, agreement is needed on a constitutional court, and measures to ensure full international observation of future Tunisian parliamentary and presidential elections to ensure their legitimacy.
In the longer term, reforms are needed in Tunisia’s army, intelligence services and police, to ensure oversight by all elements of Tunisia’s political system, as is normal in presidential democracies. They may be under the command of the president, but need to be subject to laws enacted by the parliament compliance with which is monitored by parliament and enforced by the judiciary.
Finally, priority should be given to Tunisia’s economic recovery. The country is still extremely poor, despite reasonable levels of education, a large French-speaking population and a geographical location extremely close to the European market. A good investment climate and the rule of law should put it in a position to leapfrog its neighbours in Algeria and Morocco. Further aid needs to be made conditional on progress towards a stable, and free, political and business environment.
The only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab revolutions needs our help. Unlike in Hong Kong and Belarus, autocratic forces lack a powerful patron. Unlike in Egypt, choice isn’t between authoritarianism and Islamism. And unlike in Lebanon, the country has not been overtaken by sectarian dysfunction. We can make a difference in Tunisia. It would be unforgivable to take our eye off the ball.