An Open Letter to President Biden on Democracy and U.S. Policy towards Tunisia
In light of recent developments in Tunisia, a group of former U.S. diplomats and senior government officials, leaders in the democracy promotion community, and Middle East scholars have written to President Biden to urge his administration to act firmly and swiftly in support of Tunisian democracy.
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The Honorable Joseph R. Biden
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
May 3, 2023
Dear Mr. President:
We write to you with growing alarm over Tunisia’s dramatic turn towards repression and authoritarian rule. During the recent Summit for Democracy, you eloquently spoke about the urgency of our current moment: “We’re at an inflection point in history, where the decisions we make today are going to affect the course of our world for the next several decades.”
Tunisia is part of this global story and struggle. At the start of your term, Tunisia was the last remaining democratic success story of the Arab uprisings. Today, its democracy is dying. What happens in Tunisia in the next critical weeks will reverberate in the region, signaling to competitors like China and Russia that the future of the Middle East aligns ever more closely with their own authoritarian vision.
The situation is dire. Since his coup in July 2021, President Kais Saied has dismantled every democratic institution in the country, pushing through a hyper-presidential system with no checks on his power. He has intensified his crackdown against dissidents, casually labeling them “cancers” and “traitors” and hauling them before military courts. He has jailed his opponents from across the political spectrum, including Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, Democratic Current leader Ghazi Chaouachi, and National Salvation Front leaders Chaima Issa and Jawher ben Mbarek, among others. And he has incited violence against migrants and Black Tunisians, embracing racist conspiracies. We urge you to take practical steps to reverse these dangerous trends.
The United States should not reward such behavior with aid, loans, praise, and photo-ops. 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. If the U.S. is truly serious about shoring up democracies worldwide, it must send a signal that there are real costs to democratic backsliding.
The Biden administration should immediately suspend all U.S. assistance to the Tunisian government, as it is legally bound to do after both military coups or civilian coups in which the military plays a decisive role. This has happened in Tunisia when the army shuttered the democratically-elected parliament. The U.S. should impose Magnitsky sanctions on Saied and his enablers, including the ministers of interior, defense, and justice, and not provide any funds, training, or equipment to these ministries while they persecute journalists, activists, and dissidents. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was correct to halt work on Tunisia’s $500 million Compact agreement, but formal suspension of the partnership by MCC’s board—chaired by Secretary of State Antony Blinken—would send an even stronger signal.
The pending $1.9 billion IMF loan—which would provide an economic lifeline to Saied’s regime—also represents an important lever. The United States should ask the IMF Executive Board to refuse a final agreement until Tunisia meets specific political conditions, including releasing political prisoners and establishing a genuinely inclusive national dialogue and political roadmap. After all, Saied’s government will be hard-pressed to follow through on its proposed economic reforms without the support of the major political parties, labor unions, and civil society organizations.
We believe such sustained pressure represents the best possible way to halt Tunisia’s authoritarian turn. The swift and universal condemnation of Saied’s racist rhetoric against migrants in February did lead his government to take some measures for their protection. Even if Saied is too dogmatic to change course, however, increased international pressure might lead those around him to stop facilitating his crackdown, limiting the damage he can do to the system. It can also signal to the opposition—as well as everyday Tunisians who are too afraid to speak out—that the U.S. is watching, and not bankrolling their repression.
Our goal should be to incentivize Tunisians across the political spectrum and across state institutions to reconsider the dangers of dictatorship, which, once entrenched, will be difficult to undo. To be sure, if Tunisia ended up defaulting on its debts, ordinary Tunisians would undoubtedly be affected. But they are already suffering under a seemingly never-ending economic crisis, which has only worsened since Saied’s presidential coup in July 2021. An economic strategy that is personalized and subject to the whims of an unpredictable leader is a recipe for continued chaos.
Some fear undue pressure from Washington could drive Tunisia into the arms of China. Such concerns are misplaced, given Beijing’s own constraints at present as well as the historic alignment of Tunisian state institutions with the West. Moreover, even with support from China, Tunisia will still need an IMF loan and U.S. assistance for its economy to recover and attract private investment. Washington must also recognize that the way we compete with China is not just to try and outspend them. Our approach must be to distinguish ourselves from China by bringing our values to the table.
The current crisis in Tunisia is emblematic of a broader trend the U.S. is likely to face going forward: new forms and manifestations of autocracy—often supported by our strategic rivals—challenging democratic values. Your administration has admirably and clearly declared which side it stands on in this debate. Today in Tunisia it has an opportunity to act on those convictions.
Thank you for your consideration.
Amb. Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia
Amb. Jeffrey Feltman, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs
Amb. Jake Walles, former U.S. ambassador to Tunisia
Amb. Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Algeria
Amb. Cynthia P. Schneider, former U.S. ambassador to The Netherlands
Elliot Abrams, former U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor
Stephanie T. Williams, former UN Senior Advisor on Libya and former US diplomat
Michele Dunne, former Director for North Africa, National Security Council (NSC)
David J. Kramer, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor
Tom Malinowski, former U.S. representative (D-NJ)
Kenneth Wollack, Chairman, National Endowment for Democracy
Matt Duss, former senior advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders
Francis Fukuyuma, Stanford University
Larry Diamond, Stanford University
Sarah Leah Whitson, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
Thomas Carothers, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Sarah Yerkes, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Shibley Telhami, University of Maryland
Courtney Freer, Emory University
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Sharan Grewal, College of William & Mary
Note: Organizational affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.