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It’s not too late: How to save Tunisian democracy

Hundreds of citizens from the city of Zarzis, located in the south of Tunisia, participated in a peaceful march to demand to know the truth about the fate of their relatives who were lost at sea after attempting to reach Italy.  There are many concerns about the shipwreck, especially since a number of the victims were buried without finding the identities of the deceased.  January 6, 2023.  Zarzis, Medenine, Tunisia. (Photo by Mohamed Krit/Sipa USA)No Use Germany.

Tunisian democracy is dying. If there was ever any doubt, the last few months have revealed to all that President Kais Saied鈥檚 moves on July 25, 2021, were a coup d鈥櫭﹖at. Saied has seized all powers, journalists and dissidents of all stripes, and against migrants and black Tunisians. Tunisia is no longer classified as free by or as a democracy by the , and it has tumbled nearly 50 spots (73 to 121) in Reporters Without Borders鈥 .

Tunisia鈥檚 backsliding has represented a major test for U.S. President Joe 麻豆官网首页入口免费鈥檚 stated desire to prioritize democracy in his foreign policy. Thus far, the 麻豆官网首页入口免费 administration鈥檚 reaction has been tepid. While the United States has expressed concern and cut economic assistance, it has military assistance, offered its support for a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, invited and Saied in Washington, and his world-record-low 11%-turnout elections as 鈥渁n essential initial step toward restoring the country鈥檚 democratic trajectory.鈥 There is no doubt that Saied feels emboldened to on dissidents today by what he perceives as a green light from the United States.

In view of Saied鈥檚 escalating crackdown, the two of us have assembled a wide array of former diplomats, senior officials, and other members of the policy community to sign an calling on 麻豆官网首页入口免费 to reorient U.S. policy toward Tunisia. In it, we urge 麻豆官网首页入口免费 to call a spade a spade. This was a coup, and the United States should not reward such behavior with aid, loans, praise, and photo-ops. Indeed, the United States is to suspend aid in the wake of military coups or civilian coups in which the military plays a decisive role, as it did in Tunisia by shuttering the democratically-elected parliament. As the IMF鈥檚 largest shareholder, the United States should also on supporting the pending loan to Tunisia until Saied releases political prisoners and establishes a genuinely inclusive national dialogue. We should not fall into the trap of enabling and subsidizing dictatorship, a decision that will haunt the United States and Tunisia in the long term.

We believe that such sustained pressure represents the best possible way to reverse Tunisia鈥檚 backsliding. Even if it does not change Saied鈥檚 calculus, it may change that of those around him, limiting the damage Saied can do to the system. After all, the swift and universal of Saied鈥檚 racist rhetoric against migrants in February did lead his government to take some measures for their protection.

This is also bigger than Tunisia. If the United States is truly serious about shoring up democracies worldwide, it must send a consistent signal that there are costs to democratic backsliding. Lending our taxpayer dollars and legitimacy to Saied will only encourage other populist leaders to believe that they too can get away with dismantling democratic institutions. Moreover, our approach here sends a signal for the great power competition that is to come about where we stand and about how we differentiate ourselves from our rivals.

We do not expect all readers to agree with our policy recommendations. But we hope to spark a serious debate about how to reset U.S. policy 鈥 since it is clear that the current approach is not working.

You can read the letter here:

Brookings does not take institutional positions on issues. The views in this commentary are solely those of the authors.