Tunisia, democracy, and the return of American hypocrisy

FILE PHOTO: Tunisia's President Kais Saied gives a speech at the government's swearing-in ceremony at the Carthage Palace outside the capital Tunis, Tunisia February 27, 2020. Fethi Belaid/Pool via REUTERS
Editor's note:

With its muted reaction to Tunisian President Kais Saied’s suspension of parliament and dismissal of the prime minister, the Biden administration may be returning to the American tradition of hypocrisy regarding democracy abroad, Shadi Hamid writes. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.

Governments, even democratic ones, are often ineffective or simply bad. Elections sometimes produce uninspiring results, particularly when a patchwork of parties forms an unwieldy coalition government that struggles to get much of anything done. This doesn’t mean it should be overthrown. Nor should the United States ignore coup attempts staged in the name of bypassing the messiness of democracy. Yet in Tunisia, this is what the Biden administration appears to be doing, revealing the widening gulf between American words and deeds.

On Sunday, Tunisian President Kais Saied, who is supposed to share power with Parliament and a prime minister, suspended the former and dismissed the latter. In case anyone doubted his intentions, Saied addressed the nation while flanked by top military and security officials. On Monday, the army surrounded Parliament and blocked legislators from entering the building. Most Americans probably don’t care that Tunisia is—or, perhaps more precisely, was—the lone success story of the Arab Spring. But the atmospherics of the story might resonate. A president longing to be a strongman is something that we in the United States recently experienced. As a long-standing democracy, America had institutions that rose to the challenge and restrained former President Donald Trump’s authoritarian instincts. Young, fragile democracies are rarely so lucky.

From the very start of his presidency, Joe Biden identified the struggle between democratic and authoritarian governments as the central challenge of both the present and future. As he put it in his first press conference as president: “It is clear, absolutely clear … that this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.” This lofty rhetoric was somewhat surprising, especially for a man who had viewed the 2011 Arab uprisings with evident skepticism. In one memorable moment, just two weeks before the Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak fell amid mass protests, Biden said: “Look, Mubarak has been an ally … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

Believing in the power and possibility of democracy is easy in theory. The problem with democracy in practice is that it is never quite as good as its proponents hope it might be. The same can be said for how the United States responds to breaches of democracy in the Middle East. Despite ostensibly being on the side of popular rule, the White House has so far refused to take sides in Tunisia, instead expressing “concern” over the developments there. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki informed reporters that administration officials were in touch with their Tunisian counterparts “to learn more about the situation, urge calm, and support Tunisian efforts to move forward in line with democratic principles.” (After Egypt’s 2013 coup, it was Psaki who infamously said, “We have determined we are not going to make a determination” about whether to call it a coup.)

In the Middle East, Tunisia’s crisis is the first real test of Biden’s professed commitment to a new democracy doctrine. During the unusual presidency of Donald Trump, Americans could easily forget that sustaining a gap between rhetoric and policy was a storied U.S. tradition. In his unapologetic disregard for supporting human rights and democracy abroad, Trump offered a natural experiment. The difference wasn’t so much that he couldn’t be bothered, but more that it didn’t occur to him to be bothered in the first place. For the first time in decades, the gap between words and deeds closed considerably. The United States, under Trump, had become less hypocritical. Dissidents no longer had to wonder if the United States would come to their aid. Under no illusions about American interest in their plight, they could adapt their activism accordingly and focus exclusively on their own local context. In his frank disregard, Trump was simply incapable of betraying them.

Under Joe Biden, America is speaking in terms of values and morality once again, both at home and abroad. Other countries, particularly weak ones, do not have the luxury of high-minded idealism. To pretend, in other words, is a privilege, one that America has insisted on and even earned. Its unrivaled power allows it two things: the ability to have ideals but also the ability to ignore them. For the United States, the charge of hypocrisy is effective precisely because it speaks to something true: We would like to be better, but we can’t.

But why can’t we? Why can’t we thwart a slow-motion coup in Tunisia, a relatively remote country where the risks of being too bold are minimal? Unlike Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous nation, Tunisia can’t claim to be central to U.S. regional objectives, such as the promotion of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (however imaginary such a solution might be).

A related question is to what extent the United States can actually influence the internal affairs of faraway countries. Is there much Biden can do? The short answer is yes. If Tunisia’s president doesn’t begin reversing course, the Biden administration can threaten a full—not a partial—suspension of aid. Partial aid suspensions don’t generally work, because they confuse and dilute American leverage. They are also self-undermining, because they communicate to authoritarian leaders that U.S. officials are hedging their bets and unwilling to follow through on their own stated commitments. Half measures can be the worst of both worlds—they anger target governments while failing to accomplish much besides virtue signaling to the foreign-policy community. If you’re going to piss off an ally, at least make it count.

To be sure, threatening an aid suspension is risky. But all bold policy action is risky (otherwise it wouldn’t be bold). We also know that not threatening an aid suspension seems almost certain to lead to an undemocratic result—a continuation of Tunisia’s current course of elevating a would-be strongman over Parliament and other constitutional constraints. So one option, while risky, is considerably more promising than the other. Some observers legitimately worry that suspending assistance to the Tunisian government might backfire. But this perspective misunderstands the direction of leverage; Tunisia needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Tunisia. The Biden administration should of course coordinate any such effort with the European Union and individual member states. Considering Europe’s proximity to and influence in Tunisia, any pressure campaign is likely to fail without European buy-in.

Also capable of playing a decisive role is the International Monetary Fund, which has invested in bailing out Tunisia’s battered economy (exacerbated by some of the worst per capita COVID-19 death rates in the world). The IMF’s Articles of Agreement impose no political conditions; autocrats and democrats alike are eligible for support. Even so, the U.S. and European nations, as the largest shareholders, can exercise their voting rights as they see fit. There is precedent for attaching conditions to prospective financial-support packages. During Egypt’s brief democratic opening in 2012 and 2013, the IMF requested that the elected Islamist government secure broad support, including from opposition parties, for an IMF deal. In short, the claim that President Biden lacks sufficient leverage to pressure the Tunisian government simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

I realize that this may be a losing battle. To be disappointed is to be realistic. The Biden administration is unlikely to act boldly, however bold its rhetoric has been up until this moment. In a small, obscure Arab country, then, a surprise coup attempt may mark—after a short interregnum—the return of American hypocrisy.