Although the US and EU may pay lip service to democratic processes and institutions, they will ultimately prioritise their security interests.
The Biden administration’s response to Tunisia’s autogolpe of July 25 has been tepid. The White House, not wanting to burn bridges with President Kais Saied, is being pragmatic. Biden’s team will want to have a working relationship with any Tunisian government regardless of its democratic legitimacy or its lack thereof. After all, the US and other Western countries’ close ties with Tunisia have never depended on the North African country being democratic.
The leadership in Washington must contend with US law, which requires suspension of assistance to any government if a “coup” brought it to power.
“Any indication that the White House felt that what Saied did was unconstitutional would then trigger a reevaluation of military aid that the US provides to Tunis [and] no one wants to do that,” explained Dr Geoff Porter, the president of North Africa Risk Consulting, in an interview with TRT World. For essentially the same reason, the Obama administration never officially acknowledged any coup in Egypt in 2013.
For now, Biden’s administration says the State Department must first finish a “legal analysis” before the White House can determine whether a “coup” took place in Tunisia on July 25. Yet this seems to be a strategy for buying time.
“It is clear that US officials are playing it safe and waiting to see how things unfold before making any strong statements,” said Dr Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
It is easy to imagine the White House finding ways to accept and legitimise Saied’s power grab so long as he keeps Tunis on good terms with the US and Europe.
“Unfortunately, we have seen different US administrations accommodate themselves to reversions to authoritarianism,” said Dr Imad Harb, the Director of Research and Analysis at the Arab Center Washington, DC. “While being more comfortable with a democratic Tunisia, the US will find reasons for maintaining a good relationship with a Saied-led autocracy. Egypt is a great example here.”
Dr Porter emphasised that “stability and security” are the US leadership’s top priorities in Tunisia.
“The Biden administration is willing to turn a blind eye to Saied’s move and appears willing to accept Saied’s explanation that what he did conformed with the constitution” even if that requires an extremely generous interpretation of Article 80.
“The US has shown a willingness to work with other less democratic countries if it serves the US’ strategic interest. Stepping back from Tunis would create space for other regional actors with whom the US has had tense relationships. It learned that lesson in Libya and will not repeat it in Tunisia.”
A debate in Washington
Since 2011, Tunisia has been a largely successful and non-controversial country from Washington’s perspective. Many in the US foreign policy establishment hail Tunisia for its transition to democracy a decade ago, and the role which the North African country played in the Arab Spring movement across the wider region. Some American politicians are demanding that Biden’s administration come to the defense of Tunisia’s young and fragile democracy.
Republican Congressman Joe Wilson wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to express “severe concern” about Tunisia’s autogolpe. The lawmaker argued that Tunisian democracy succeeding is important for both America’s national security interests and stability in North Africa. Senator Wilson pointed specifically to the Islamic State (Daesh) and Al Qaeda’s potential to benefit from democracy failing in Tunisia.
On the other side of the aisle, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar called on the administration to halt American aid to Tunisia because of Saied’s autogolpe.
The Daesh factor
But it is safe to assume that the Biden administration is prioritising other interests, such as counterterrorism efforts, above democracy. When it comes to North Africa, the threat of Daesh- and Al Qaeda-affiliated militias is a top concern for Washington. In the post-Arab Spring period, these violent groups have targeted practically all Maghrebi and Sahelian countries, including Tunisia.
The US and its European allies will clearly continue having interests in working with Tunisia when it comes to countering Daesh regardless of whether the Arab country is on the dawn of autocracy or not. Just as Daesh’s meteoric rise in 2014 served to bring the Obama administration closer to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi (after it froze some military aid to Cairo following the 2013 coup), the Biden administration may see Saied as a valuable partner in the struggle against armed groups.
A shared approach
Experts believe that the Biden administration will probably be on basically the same page as the Europeans when it comes to dealing with Tunisia’s situation. EU members can be counted on to engage an autocratic Tunisia in pragmatic manners that further their national interests, even if these Western countries may prefer a democratic Tunisia. Like the US, European governments will prioritise their security interests in Tunisia above the health of the country’s democracy.
“I think the US and Europe will have the same approach toward Tunisia,” said Dr Harb. “In fact, both US and French officials demanded a return of the parliament and to democratic politics. Still, both will accommodate themselves to a stronger presidential system if Saied goes that way.”
Despite Western officials’ formal statements that warned Tunisia about its future, “in the short and medium term there will clearly be some kind of flexibility in the relations between Tunisia and the Western partners,” explained Umberto Profazio, an Associate Fellow at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst at the NATO Defence College Foundation.
“In the eyes of European governments and the US, whoever comes atop of the domestic power struggle in Tunisia also needs to ensure stability and avoid immediate repercussions in the region. The spillover of the destabilisation of Tunisia would be disastrous, given the unclear situation in Libya and, more in general, the fluid situation in the Mediterranean Basin and North Africa in particular. It will also have serious repercussions on the flow of migrants along the Central Mediterranean Route, which would prove particularly challenging for Italy.”
Ultimately, if Saied takes Tunisia in a more authoritarian direction, the US and European powers will probably not put much pressure on him to restore democratic legitimacy or respect the rule of law.
By playing a more passive role in Tunisia, the West is, either by design or by default, allowing regional actors such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to fill voids and capitalise on turmoil to advance their own interests in the North African country. To be sure, those Arab governments’ counterrevolutionary agendas are about ending, not preserving, Tunisian democracy.
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