Aghast like most Americans at pro-Trump extremists’ incursion of the U.S. Capitol, a growing chorus is arguing that the United States, clearly in the midst of its own democratic crisis, should give up on promoting democratic values abroad. We must turn inward to repair our political system, they say, and until we get our own house in order we have no basis for championing democracy anywhere else.
Reversing the dangerous erosion of U.S. democracy is urgent, but the argument that this requires abandoning efforts to uphold democratic values elsewhere has it backwards. Commitments to democratic values at home and overseas are mutually reinforcing. Ignoring—or worse, abetting—human rights violations abroad corrodes the rule of law and democracy here. American officials accustomed to turning a blind eye to abuses elsewhere are more likely to do the same at home. If we believe in democracy for ourselves, we must defend democratic values everywhere, even as we work to address our own deep problems. As the world’s most powerful country, whose actions affect the state of democracy elsewhere—and which is itself affected by the global rise of authoritarianism—the United States must look inward and outward at the same time.
President-elect Joe Biden seems to understand this. He has promised to restore the rule of law and repair democracy here while also putting “democracy and human rights at the center of America’s foreign policy.” At the core of his administration’s efforts should be Tunisia, the Arab world’s lone democracy. Today Tunisia is marking a decade since its Revolution of Dignity ousted dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali and kicked off the Arab Uprisings. Its young democracy is struggling and could use more support from the international community, especially the United States.
Since January 2011, Tunisia has made remarkable progress in transitioning toward democracy. Tunisians overcame terrorist attacks, assassinations, and societal polarization to adopt in 2014 the most democratic constitution the Arab world has ever seen, both in terms of its content and in the transparent process of consensus-building that produced it. Since then, Tunisians have had successive free and fair elections for president, parliament, and municipal councils. And a vibrant civil society has emerged to help ensure that Tunisians enjoy the rights guaranteed by their new constitution and to hold their government institutions accountable.
But in several critical respects, Tunisia’s transition has stalled. Its elected leaders have not shown the political will to confront key problems, such as endemic corruption, that fueled the revolution. They have not made the needed systemic legal and judicial reforms nor created key institutions mandated by the constitution, most notably the Constitutional Court. Newfound freedoms have not yet led to the social justice and prosperity demanded by the revolution. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated Tunisia’s economic crisis.
The United States and other democratic powers, which never embraced the Arab uprisings of 2011 as they had similar movements in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, have now largely forgotten about Tunisia. Officials in democratic countries cite Tunisia as a success story but no longer provide needed levels of support nor take a serious interest in the country.
The Trump administration, focused on shoring up corrupt Arab dictatorships through massive weapons sales and diplomatic cover for rights abuses, had particularly little enthusiasm for Tunisia’s democratization. Its neglect seemed punitive: each of President Trump’s four annual budgets proposed massive cuts in aid to Tunisia by an average of 60 percent.
The Biden team has an opportunity to reverse this neglect while Tunisia is at an inflection point. Tunisians are increasingly disillusioned that the revolution has not delivered more. Openly anti-democratic politicians who praise the Ben Ali dictatorship are gaining traction, and authoritarian countries like China are making inroads. Re-invigorated support for Tunisian democratization can help Tunisians confront these challenges. It is also a smart investment in terms of U.S. national security. The violence and instability that have plagued the Middle East and North Africa will only subside in a sustainable way when the region is ruled by stable, democratic governments that are accountable to their citizens. At the moment, the best hope for this is in Tunisia.
To refocus international attention on Tunisia, President Biden should make his first trip to the region a visit to its sole Arab democracy. His administration should increase aid to Tunisia, balancing democracy and economic support with security assistance. It also should formally open negotiations with Tunisia on a Free Trade Agreement, with strong protections for labor and other human rights, to strengthen Tunisia’s economy and its ties with the United States. And the Biden administration should work closely with pro-democracy allies in Europe and elsewhere to build a unified front of support for Tunisia. This should include incentivizing key steps, such as the establishment of a Constitutional Court, and making serious progress in fighting corruption, with the promise of significant additional aid, trade, and diplomatic support.
As Biden steps into office, aiming to close a dark chapter for American democracy, his administration can reinforce this shift at home with a strong commitment to democracy abroad, including redoubled U.S. efforts in Tunisia.
Stephen McInerney is executive director at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).
Photo Credit: Wassim Ben Rhouma on Flickr