As the attempt to build democracy in Afghanistan has crumbled, the case of Tunisia, 3,300 miles to the west in North Africa, has been an encouraging counterpoint. But the transition to democracy there is now facing its biggest challenge yet. After the Arab Spring revolutions of 2010-11, Tunisia emerged as the only representative democracy in the Arab world. As a military coup in Egypt in 2013 restored autocratic rule, and Yemen and Libya fell into ongoing civil wars, Tunisian civil-society groups won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for leading the negotiations that produced a democratic constitution and free, fair elections. That political system was upended on July 25, however, when President Kais Saied fired the prime minister, suspended Parliament, imposed a nationwide curfew, and declared a state of emergency for 30 days—and then, on Aug. 23, extended it indefinitely. Saied says that he’s responding to protests demanding the government resign for its failures to manage the pandemic, lower a persistently high unemployment rate, and address endemic corruption. Many Tunisians have welcomed Saied’s moves to dismiss a thoroughly unpopular government, but his critics say that he’s a populist demagogue undertaking a coup against the democratic system. Is the Arab Spring’s lone success story collapsing?

Michele Dunne is the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served as a Middle East specialist at the U.S. State Department from 1986 until 2003. As Dunne sees it, Saied’s seizure of power could mean the end of the democratic transition in Tunisia, as well as of the political freedoms and civil rights that revolutionaries of the Arab Spring fought for. Tunisia’s struggles to create a democracy, Dunne says, reflect the problems that scuttled the other Arab Spring transitions: regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. acted swiftly to undermine democratization, while the United States and other established democracies gave little help. In Dunne’s view, Tunisia, other Arab states, and even Afghanistan offer important lessons for the United States and its allies in how to promote the spread of democracy in the world.

Michael Bluhm: Is Tunisian democracy in danger?

Michele Dunne: We don’t know whether the steps that President Saied took have ended the democratic transition in Tunisia. Tunisia has been through other major challenges to its transition, and each time Tunisians have backed away and kept the democratic transition going. That’s still possible.

But this is the biggest challenge so far, and things are looking pretty dark. President Saied correctly diagnosed that the political system in Tunisia wasn’t working. The question is whether these steps are the right way to address that problem.

The Tunisian government—and the democratic transition in Tunisia—may have been one of the victims of COVID. The COVID crisis pushed what was an unhappy, ongoing political situation in Tunisia over the edge. People became extremely impatient with poor governance and the inability of the political system to address the COVID crisis.

The COVID crisis came on top of an ongoing economic crisis. One of the big failures of the transition has been for Tunisians to come together around an economic vision that would go along with the political vision that they agreed to in their constitution. The economy in Tunisia has limped along for years. With tourism taking a major hit because of the pandemic, the bottom has fallen out of the economy.

Scossar Gilbert

A couple of things about the political system and transition have made it vulnerable to failure. First, they never completed constructing the political system. They never got to institute a Constitutional Court. That’s important right now, because there’s no court to rule whether what President Saied did was constitutional. The bureaucracy has not been reformed, so corruption and poor performance have continued. At the same time, they had quite an inspiring constitution and a big expansion in personal liberties and freedoms of expression and association.

Bluhm: What is at stake here? Tunisia’s democratic regime, electoral accountability, or even the credibility of democracy in the Arab world?

Dunne: What’s at stake here are the hard-won political gains of the last 10 years: the increases in freedom of expression and association, individual rights, and the Tunisian constitution. Because of a failure to reform governance, continuing corruption, and poor economic performance, all their political gains—of which Tunisians have been justly proud—are at stake now. We don’t know for sure that they will be lost, but they could be. All of that is on the table.

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