America Is Not Rooting for Ennahda’s Return to Power

A series of statements by senior U.S. officials criticizing Tunisian President Kais Saied continue to spark controversy in Tunisia, as many politicians, intellectuals, and media figures have misunderstood and misinterpreted the remarks.

The latest comments came from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during his address at the U.S. Africa Command headquarters. This was perhaps the first time a sitting American defense secretary has openly criticized Tunisia so directly and with relatively strong language. Nothing like this ever happened under former Tunisian Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The U.S. State Department has been solely responsible for diplomatically conveying direct or indirect messages of discontent during times of crises. Today however, the situation and context have changed. President Saied has responded sharply to ongoing criticism from the United States and events reached the point where his government summoned U.S. Embassy officials on three separate occasions to inform them officially of Tunisia’s objections.

President Saied’s supporters have also called for rejecting the credentials of Joey Hood, the nominee to become the next U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, should he be confirmed by Congress. Some of those supporters have such tunnel vision that they even called for severing diplomatic ties with Washington.

It has to be said that the U.S. defense secretary’s remarks about Tunisia were indeed remarkable given the unprecedented threat they presented. Austin said President Saied’s actions amounted to “headwinds” against the advocates of democracy and freedom, stating that “Tunisia’s dream of self-government is again in danger.” He also declared before U.S. troops and the world at large that “the United States stands committed to supporting our friends in Tunisia—and anywhere in Africa—who are trying to forge open, accountable, and inclusive democracies.”

President Saied and his supporters are not the only ones who are unhappy about the United States’ position. There is widespread suspicion among Tunisia’s elite that the current U.S. administration is plotting to bring Islamists back to power by exerting pressure on Saied or even removing him from power if necessary. Some among Saied’s supporters base these suspicions on allegations that the Americans plotted Ben Ali’s ouster and helped the Islamist Ennahda movement take power following the Tunisian uprising because the Americans were hedging their bets on political Islam movements in the region and are now, once again, betting on the wrong horse.

This particular spectrum of the Tunisian elite refuses to acknowledge that the price for getting rid of the Islamists should not be to deprive those very Islamists of democracy. Democracy is indivisible; it cannot be granted to one group and denied to another that adhered to the rules of the game. Otherwise, we would end up in a fraudulent democracy rooted in opportunism and a dilution of rights and freedoms, a democracy in which one group amasses privileges by turning its opponents into enemies that must be excluded and eliminated. Such an approach is unproductive as it would turn the Islamists into victims with a legitimate right to return on the pretext that they needed to struggle against persecution.

Having seen how Ennahda failed to govern the country, the Americans are not ready to help the Islamist movement regain power. Nonetheless, they are still willing to engage with Ennahda should it win the votes of Tunisians in fair and honest elections. From a political standpoint, the U.S. position is unquestionably sound and logical because the ballot is still the arbiter of legitimacy in any democratic system. As such, one cannot criticize the Americans for merely trying to remind us of the minimum rules that govern a peaceful transition of power without using violence or de facto politics.

Of course, America has strategic interests, some of which might converge with our own national interests, in which case we would support them. When American interests conflict with ours, we should oppose them to the extent our resources and the confines of recognized institutions allow. Here are some examples of the type of American interests that we should oppose:

• U.S. administration efforts to drag us into normalizing relations with Israel. This remains a possibility, especially if we look back at the statements made by the incoming U.S. ambassador. In this case, the Tunisian government should rely on the support of the public and the various political and civil forces that reject normalization with Israel and champion the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. Public support is the refuge of any populist government, particularly a democratically elected government.

• U.S. administration efforts to push the Tunisian army into overthrowing or replacing the head of state. This issue has been the subject of much talk in recent months both inside and outside Tunisia. It is a lamentable scenario that would undermine Tunisia’s democracy and its global image. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the Tunisian army would agree to such a solution, as it could result in dangerous structural changes to the very nature of Tunisia’s political system, civic life, and institutions.

• America resorting to starving the Tunisian people and withholding aid to punish and tame their government under the pretext of restoring democracy. This type of policy has been implemented in numerous countries, but it has consistently produced disastrous results instead of ushering in any true democracy.

Aside from the exceptions listed above, you can’t object to American policy or that of any other country when this policy consists of trying to advise, pressure or warn another political regime against pursuing policies that could undermine freedoms and democracy. Any political discourse based on such objections will conflict with the struggles of people who aspire to freedom and justice.

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