This week, President Biden hosts the Summit for Democracy, attempting to rally countries globally to defend and advance democratic principles. The Summit will be held virtually due to COVID-19, losing some luster, but it remains a signature event. Democracy has been in retreat for over a decade, according to Freedom House, creating a sense of urgency among freedom-loving people worldwide. Sadly, democratic backsliding has certainly been the case with Tunisia.
After the Summit was announced in August, there was much speculation over which countries would be invited to attend. A top Biden administration official recently reported that the U.S. took “a really inclusive, big-tent approach” to participation. The fact that over 100 countries –as well as civil society and private sector representatives– will participate in the Summit makes Tunisia’s exclusion even more startling. Tunisians should ask their government why it is unwelcomed by the world’s leading democracy?
There has been much analysis in Washington of the Summit invitation list. Russia and China were obvious exclusions, given their authoritarianism, bringing about their joint written attack on the Summit. Some question why the Philippines and Poland were invited given their democratic regression. The Carnegie Endowment think tank produced a detailed analysis of Summit participation. Tunisia’s exclusion, it found, was because of its “slow-moving coup.” Sad, but true.
Indeed, since suspending the democratically-elected parliament in July, President Kais Saied has taken Tunisia further and further off the democratic path that Tunisians started on ten years ago by launching the Arab Spring. The Tunisian president has eroded the separation of powers by grabbing ever more authority from the parliament and judiciary, attacked media freedoms, and is politicizing the military, a first in Tunisia. Saied wants to rewrite the Tunisian constitution, essentially by himself. Summit attendees will make various pledges to strengthen their democracies. As of today, President Saied would have no credible pledges to make.
Tunisia’s president is also undermining the Tunisian economy. Inflation is high. Youth unemployment is around 35 percent. A top U.S. Treasury Department official recently visited Tunisia and warned the government that its economic policies were deteriorating the economy and that continued U.S. and international support would require reform. The world has these concerns too. Tunisia’s credit rating was cut in October. Tunisia’s economy has been struggling for years, but instead of liberalizing it, President Saied is flirting with creating “collectivist companies” that sound Marxist in their design.
Corruption is another problem in Tunisia. The Summit is targeting this scourge, with ways to tackle it being on the agenda. The Biden administration will announce sanctions on foreign figures for corruption, rightly believing that it is sapping democracy worldwide. Lessening Tunisia’s economic freedom, giving the state more power as Saied looks to be doing, will only bring more corruption, guaranteed.
This economic slide has led some Tunisians to lose faith in “democracy,” but the political and economic system Saied is building surely will not deliver the results they want and deserve. Centralized political and economic power is a recipe for abuse, corruption, and economic stagnation. Democracy is imperfect and difficult to build. It is far easier to stifle democracy and build authoritarian regimes. But the solution isn’t to turn away from democracy; as the Summit suggests, the answer is to redouble efforts to make democracy work.
Making democracy work is first ensuring that separation of powers in these nascent democracies is a reality. Programs to strengthen the judiciary branch and ensure its independence from the executive branch could go a long way toward strengthening democracy. As we just learned in the case of Tunisia, the executive branch taking over other branches seems to be always the doorway to dictatorship and to aborting the democratic processes.
Programs to also support and strengthen the functioning of parliaments and to connect these parliaments to their counterparts in the free world democracies are also as important as ensuring free and transparent elections.
Making democracy work requires making political parties work too. President Saied took advantage of Tunisia’s discredited political parties to grab power during a mid-term. Tunisia needs political parties based upon policies and universal ideas, not personalities or religious and/or nationalist ideologies. The U.S. and other democratic nations can help Tunisian parties to develop. This will take time, but vibrant political parties are critical to a functional democracy.
It is jarring that the country that led the Arab Spring, and inspired people throughout North Africa and the world, is sliding toward authoritarianism. But while the Tunisian government is unwelcomed at the Summit, Tunisian democrats and their worldwide allies have not abandoned the principles of freedom and individual liberty that the Summit participants have gathered to reaffirm and advance. Tunisians cannot be excluded from this powerful movement, despite its current government.
Olfa Hamdi is the founder and president of the Center for Strategic Studies on Tunisia, which aims to ensure a strong and lasting alliance between the United States and Tunisia; she also serves as the founder and CEO of Concord Project Technologies in Palo Alto, Calif., and is the former CEO of Tunisair.