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Tunisia and Egypt: Two Tests for Biden and Democracy

The Biden administration has not yet decided whether to call Saied’s power grab a coup.”

During his first six months in office, President Joe Biden has repeatedly described promoting democracy as a priority of his foreign policy. His Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released in March, states “democracy holds the key to freedom, prosperity, peace, and dignity,” and it uses the word “democracy” or “democratic” 47 times in 24 pages. In June, while visiting European allies in the run-up to a summit with Vladimir Putin, President Biden said free countries were “in a contest—not with China per se, but a contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world—as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century.” Two North African countries now test how committed the United States’ 46th president truly is to this goal.

Tunisia and Egypt, the first two countries to oust their dictators in the Arab Spring of 2011, have followed very different political trajectories over the last decade. American policy toward each can play a significant role in determining how long democracy can survive in Arab countries. While the decision to continue promoting responsive public institutions, free and fair elections, and other key features of democratic states is one for Tunisians and Egyptians to make—and it is not easy for any population to make under difficult circumstances—American actions can make it easier for democracy to win out.

It is fair to ask why Americans should care about democracy in countries thousands of miles away, especially in a region that for many evokes images of “endless wars.” At a time when there are many economic and social priorities to attend to at home—many of which President Biden is also seeking to address— it makes sense to question any significant focus on other countries’ internal affairs. Furthermore, with President Biden and most Americans seeking to wind down their country’s decades-long military involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia, it is natural that this region is one that Americans are keen to shift attention away from.

There are two reasons for the United States to invest time and resources in Middle Eastern democracy. The first relates to the desire to avoid further military engagements. If Americans do not want their troops to be deployed to more conflicts in the greater Middle East, they would do well to support democratizing movements in the region. The claim of many autocrats that they provide “stability” is an illusory one. Dictatorial regimes allow resentments to grow—over corruption, repression, people’s lack of a voice in their government—that eventually explode into revolution. Many Middle Eastern rulers with which the United States has been friendly have experienced this: Look at Mohammad Reza Shah in Iran or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Even dictators whose cooperation with the United States was more limited, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (who tortured suspected terrorists on the United States’ behalf), have faced massive uprisings, with the latter staying in power by fighting a brutal war that has killed half a million people. If there is to be genuine, long-lasting stability, a stability that is truly embraced and respected by strong majorities in Middle Eastern countries, they must be functioning democracies.

Second, if the United States does not choose the side of democratization, or indeed stands in its way and with friendly autocrats, it makes a mockery of its claim to be a force for good in the world. If Americans want to believe that their country is a paragon of freedom and fairness that can inspire the world, it behooves them to have a government that incorporates this vision into its foreign policy. No country will ever allow moral interests completely to displace strategic ones; even ideologically-motivated powers have more mundane concerns like security and wealth. But a country that sees itself as “land of the free” and presents itself as “leader of the free world” should at least not actively contradict that image for the sake of imagined security gains. 

Tunisia

On July 25th, Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended his country’s parliament and fired its prime minister. Invoking Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution, he announced he was exercising his powers at a time of “imminent danger.” However, Article 80 requires that the president consult with the prime minister and the speaker of parliament before doing this. Saied did not, leading to fears that he will extend this seizure of power into a long-lasting dictatorship.

Tunisia has certainly struggled in many ways. While its development into the freest, most democratic Arab country over the past decade has been inspiring, its people still suffer from corruption (which Saied has promised to tackle), as well as from unresponsive officials (some of whom have not been held accountable for their actions under the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali). According to the World Health Organization, Tunisia has the highest Coronavirus (COVID-19) death rate in the Middle East and Africa. Police violence has led to major protests. It is not surprising that many Tunisians would cheer Saied in his stated desire to bring order and better governance.

Saied’s actions, however, are dangerous. Like any ambitious chief executive in any republic in any region or era, he will be very tempted not to give back power after 30 days, whether or not that is currently his intention. If he holds on, if he uses soldiers to prevent Tunisians from holding him to his word, the Arab Spring’s greatest success story will have ended. Even if he does eventually relinquish power after 60 or 90 or 180 days—and every day a strongman remains in power makes it less likely he will give it up of his own accord—the world will have seen how vulnerable Tunisian democracy is. It will be a devastating development.

The Biden administration has not yet decided whether to call Saied’s power grab a coup. Regardless of whether Saied’s actions meet any legal definition of the word, the United States’ stance should be clear: If you are undoing Tunisia’s democracy, we will not help you do it. President Biden should deliver a clear warning to Saied. If he does not reinstate parliament and give up the powers he has seized by August 24th, the United States should halt all economic and security assistance to Tunisia. As complex as any country’s foreign policy will often be—especially that of a superpower—this  situation does not allow for ambiguity.

The suspension of assistance should be complete, not partial. As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution wrote in the Atlantic on July 30th, “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…If you’re going to piss off an ally, at least make it count.” Hamid also argues that the United States should act in concert with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, to maximize the impact of suspension. If President Biden wants to pass this test, he will have to fully commit to acing it and not be satisfied with partial credit.

If Saied’s reign does indeed last only a month, his recent actions will prove to be a hurdle that any struggling democracy can face—and one Tunisia will have overcome. Tunisia will then have a chance to continue serving as an example for aspiring democrats in the Middle East and around the world. A decade after their revolution, Tunisians enjoy levels of rights and freedoms that, according to Freedom House, are comparable to those enjoyed by Israelis (contrary to assertions by some that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East). Saied’s actions and the support he has received show just how fragile rights and freedoms can be.

If democracy is fully restored, there are economic measures the United States can take to help secure it. In addition to continuing the $500 million infrastructure aid package promised in May, the United States can offer to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with Tunisia. It need not promote “free trade” as such; a one-sided commitment to market liberalization is unlikely to get much support within the United States in 2021. Instead, it should have economic development and democracy as its primary goals. Sometimes that will be achieved through increased exports to the United States, but a mere increase in personal contacts between businesspersons in the two countries will have a positive impact, too.

Meanwhile, though the United States’ relations with Tunisia are not centered on military cooperation as much as its relations with some other Middle Eastern countries (on which more to follow), there is still a security component, one Washington can utilize to keep Tunisia democratic if need be. In 2015, former President Barack Obama designated Tunisia a Major Non-NATO Ally, giving it access to more military assistance and cooperation than most countries. If—and only if—the Tunisian armed forces do not obstruct the restoration of democratic governance, President Biden can build upon this security relationship, perhaps increasing aid in return for measures to ensure Tunisian forces are committed to their country’s democracy.

If Saied relinquishes the power he has grabbed after thirty days, then his actions will have been a close call for Tunisia and for anyone rooting for democracy in the Middle East. His power grab could then serve as a warning for Tunisians—and democrats around the world—to pay attention to any autocratic inclinations their elected leaders may exhibit. And if President Biden responds to Saied’s actions like a leader who believes in the democracy he so often invokes, he will have weakened the argument that American concern for rights and values is cynical and shallow. The world will know where the United States and its president really stand. If President Biden passes this test, he can confront a much greater obstacle to a consistent pro-democracy American stance.

Egypt

In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli tells how Cesare Borgia (“the duke”) pacified a newly conquered province. Borgia’s use of a ruthless subordinate to do his dirty work is strikingly similar to the United States’ use of Egyptian dictators for most of the last 40 years:

“When the duke occupied Romagna he found it under the rule of weak masters…[H]e gave complete control to Ramiro d’Orco, a man who always acted decisively and ruthlessly. It didn’t take long for this man to restore peace and unity, getting a considerable reputation for himself. But the duke came to think that extreme severity was going to make him hated by the populace…He knew that d’Orco’s severity had caused some hatred against himself, and wanted to clear that out from the minds of the people and win them over to himself…At the first opportunity he had d’Orco arrested and cut in two, leaving the pieces on the piazza at Cesena with the block and a bloody knife beside it. This brutal spectacle gave the people a jolt, but it also reassured them.”

The United States makes Egypt’s rulers its clients and makes no significant attempt to curb their brutal treatment of the Egyptian people. Seeing stability in Egypt as a vital interest, the United States refuses to take the risk of throwing its weight behind free and fair elections, which might bring politicians ideologically hostile to the United States, Israel, and the West to power. The question now is: Will the United States do essentially what Borgia did? Removing the client from power, and allowing him to face the consequences of his brutality.

First under Mubarak, and since 2013 under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt has received an average of $1.3 billion in military assistance per year. While the aid originated in the United States-brokered peace between Egypt and Israel in 1979, it has continued in large part with the belief that strongman rule is necessary to keep Egypt from falling to Islamists. However much an American government may, in theory, want Egyptians not to be oppressed by a dictator, fear of any government in Cairo that might not be tough enough on jihadists has overridden American presidents’ hopes in this regard.

For two-and-a-half years, it looked as if the United States had broken out of this habit. Pressure from President Obama was key to convincing Mubarak to step aside during the protests of 2011. And when elections brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, they proved Western fears to be unfounded. The Brotherhood did not attempt to turn Egypt into an Iran-style theocracy, nor did it break off relations with Israel; indeed, Egypt played the same mediator role in the conflict between Israel and Hamas that Sisi’s regime has played since. Even when President Mohamed Morsi increased his powers in late 2012, he did not come close to replicating Mubarak’s dictatorship. The Brotherhood ruled with a far lighter hand than Sisi.

As important as Tunisia is as a gauge of the United States’ commitment to Middle Eastern democracy, tackling the problem of dictatorship in Egypt would likely have a much greater impact in the long term. It would be unwise for the United States directly to remove Sisi from power; the 20th century is replete with American-backed coups that, while they may have appeared rational and in the American interest at the time, led to harsh governance and anti-American resentment. Far better would be severely weakening Sisi by taking away his guns.

Regardless of his reaction to events in Tunisia, President Biden should completely halt United States military assistance to Egypt until its dictatorial regime is replaced with a freely and fairly elected one. He should not merely reduce aid. He should not pause it, like President Obama did in 2013 before resuming aid and accepting Sisi’s coup. President Biden should completely, immediately stop the provision of military assistance. If, at the very moment he signs the order, there is an American military airplane en route to Egypt, delivering weapons to the Egyptian military, that plane should be ordered to turn back.

A fair response is that, if Sisi loses American aid, he will simply look elsewhere, most likely to Russia. Indeed, Egypt in recent years has already increased its purchases of Russian weapons, and both countries have supported Libyan general Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to overthrow his country’s United Nations-supported government. So be it. The next time a mass protest is brutally suppressed by the Egyptian military, let the weapons used to kill protestors be Russian, rather than made in the United States of America. 

While the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 has had disastrous results for the world, one writer’s expressed justification for the war can be used as a justification for abandoning Sisi. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in an August, 2003 interview with the Guardian, defended the war as an attempt to lance the boil of backward, authoritarian regimes in Muslim-majority countries who denied their people the chance to thrive in the modern world, thus empowering anti-modern extremists like Osama bin Laden. To Friedman, smashing one of these regimes and allowing a democracy to replace it would demonstrate that the United States would no longer ignore the internal politics of Arab and Muslim countries, thus helping to remove the conditions of frustration under which Islamist extremists flourished.

“A show of force against any of the states that Friedman holds responsible for cultivating this destructive culture,” wrote the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman, “would have sufficed, he says—regardless of their specific links to specific terror groups (he is quick, for example, to call the idea of a link between Iraq and al-Qaida ‘just a lie’).”

Burkeman further quotes Friedman: “‘Saudi Arabia would have been fine; Pakistan would have been fine. We did Iraq because we could…My motto here to my liberal friends is that some things are true even if George Bush believes them. It’s very Machiavellian, and very hard to sell. [But] a Roman emperor would have understood it perfectly.’”

Foolish though it would be to launch a war in Egypt of the kind the United States did in Iraq, a Machiavellian mentality of the kind Friedman embraced 18 years ago can come in handy when dealing with Sisi. If the United States is bold enough to turn its back on a long-time close ally with a population of more than 100 million, less powerful authoritarian partners—such as the monarchies of Bahrain and Qatar—will have good reason to worry. If President Biden means what he says about democracy, that is how it should be.

Biden’s Turn

Even when the aftermath of September 11th attacks and the United States’ wars in the Middle East have placed the issue of democracy in many United States policymakers’ minds, thus far 21st century American presidents have not shown consistent commitment to democratic aspirations in the region. President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” may have sounded inspiring, but it did not change American alignment with many of the region’s dictators. President Obama gave hope to many when the Arab Spring bloomed, pushing aside Mubarak and forcing out Muammar Gaddafi, but those hopes were dashed when he refused to punish Sisi for his coup. President Donald Trump did not even pretend to care about Middle Eastern democracy, enthusiastically embracing Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and even would-be dictator Haftar. President Biden has a chance finally to break with this unfortunate tradition. The democratic world should hope he is up to the challenge.

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. In addition to Merion West, he has been published in Divergent Options, Braver Angels, the Washington Monthly, the Center for International Maritime Security, and Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy), among others.

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