On the day Tunisia’s democracy died, it fell to a State Department spokesperson to deliver the Biden administration’s mealy-mouthed pieties. Asked about the July 25 constitutional referendum that allowed President Kais Saied to institutionalize one-man rule in the North African nation, Ned Price offered the following observations (italics mine):
“Well, we note the outcome that has been reported by the Independent High Authority for Elections and civil society election observers. The referendum has been marked by low turnout. That is something we do note. A broad range of Tunisia’s civil society, media, and political parties have expressed deep concerns regarding the referendum. And in particular, we note the widespread concerns among many Tunisians regarding the lack of an inclusive and transparent process and limited scope for genuine public debate during the drafting of the new constitution. We also note concerns that the new constitution includes weakened checks and balances that could compromise the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Note the absence of any direct criticism of the man who has garroted the Arab world’s most promising democracy. Instead of calling out Saied for his appropriation of near-absolute authority, the Biden administration once again failed to live up to its own billing as a defender of democracy.
There would have been plenty to criticize. Saied seized control of the election commission ahead of the vote, in addition to muzzling the media, jerry-rigging the judiciary, and jailing political opponents. And the overwhelming majority of Tunisians chose not to vote, undermining the autocrat’s attempt to legitimize his power grab by refusing to participate in the stage-managed exercise.
Even taking at face value the election commission’s claim of a 30.4% turnout, it was an abysmal showing for Saied. (In contrast, the Egyptian strongman Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi managed a 38.6% turnout for his 2014 constitutional referendum.) The president offered the lamest of excuses: More people would have voted if they had had two days, instead of one, Saied said.
In the days ahead, Saied’s opponents will make the most they can of the poor turnout to question the lawfulness of the new constitution — and by extension, the president’s right to rule. Like autocrats everywhere, Saied will seek alternative sources of legitimacy. Expect government-supported rallies celebrating the constitution in Tunis and expressions of fealty from the armed forces.