Ten months into President Kais Saied’s steady dismantling of Tunisian democracy, the U.S. government knows its strategy isn’t working. Saied’s authoritarian takeover—which has included shuttering the parliament, using military courts to try civilians, and repressing political opponents and media figures—has continued despite American and European demands. Most recently, Saied ruled out allowing international observers to attend the July constitutional referendum, which looks likely to codify his power.

Sarah Yerkes
Sarah Yerkes is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa.
More >

It would be naïve to expect aid cuts to push him to end his authoritarian takeover. Yet that is exactly what the United States wants to do—a move that would likely have the opposite effect. Before considering cuts, the government should study lessons from Egypt and consider its brief window of action before the constitutional referendum.

A Risky Step With the Potential to Backfire

The U.S. government’s new budget calls for a nearly 50 percent cut to economic and military aid to Tunisia. But cuts in economic aid to Tunisia do not reflect the administration’s priorities of advancing democracy and addressing the country’s serious economic challenges. The new budget would reduce support to “democracy, human rights and government” programs from $48 million to $28 million, cut economic growth support funds from $39 million to $19 million, and eliminate the $17 million budget for workforce development. By targeting Tunisia’s most critical needs, the United States seeks to send a message to Saied. Instead, they’d likely end up hurting the Tunisian people.

Some in Congress are also calling for a full suspension of military aid to Tunisia. This strategy, while well-intentioned, is a risky step that has the potential to backfire with very little likelihood of success. It would diminish the capacity of the Tunisian armed forces to address the real and serious terrorist threats facing the country while hurting U.S. relations with the most popular institution in the country. And it could push Tunisia into the arms of Russia or the Gulf states, who do not share the U.S. interest in promoting democracy. 

U.S. security assistance to the Tunisian military has been effective at addressing the country’s myriad security threats, with the administration labeling it a “critical regional security partner.” But terrorism and instability next door in Libya and Algeria remain major challenges for Tunisia, and instability there represents a direct threat to the security of the United States and its European allies. Although the military is not without fault—the use of military trials to prosecute civilians has risen dramatically, and Saied has, at times, politicized the military, such as by positioning tanks in front of the now-suspended parliament—it would be unwise to punish it by withholding aid. The Tunisian military is by far the most trusted organization in the country, according to a wide variety of public opinion polls. The United States would damage its leverage in Tunisia by turning its back on one of the few remaining institutions with credibility in the country.

Should the United States cut military aid, the Tunisian president would likely look elsewhere for assistance. Saied has been cozying up to Russia, with multiple media reports about planned visits between Tunisian and Russian officials. While shifting military hardware and systems from American to Russian equipment would be costly and time-consuming, other countries, such as Egypt, use both. Saied has also reportedly been engaging Egypt to pressure the Gulf to step up its support for Tunisia. Despite rhetorical support for Saied’s actions, the Gulf has thus far not offered financial backing. But should the United States abandon Tunisia, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates could easily fill in the $100 million gap. And neither Russia nor the Gulf states will make democratic behavior a condition of their assistance package.

Rather than withholding military assistance, the United States should take a more nuanced approach. It should use this opportunity to better target security assistance, such as by prioritizing funding for security governance, expanding programs that focus on democracy and human rights, providing training and expertise on military justice, or directing funds to the military rather than to corrupt domestic police forces. These moves could all send a signal about U.S. priorities without punishing the Tunisian people. 

Lessons From Egypt

While the Egyptian experience is not identical to the Tunisian one, U.S. lawmakers can learn from the failure of the country’s experience in Egypt. One clear lesson is that the suspension of military (or economic) aid can be effective if it is tied to a specific action and it is preemptive. In a pivotal moment during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the administration of former president Barack Obama told the Egyptian military that it would lose its entire $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance if it fired on protesters, which some credit as a turning point in the revolution. So to make cuts to Tunisian assistance more potent, President Joe Biden’s administration should announce red lines—such as firing on protesters, outlawing political parties, or removing presidential term limits—that would trigger a full assistance suspension. But for those threats to work, the United States must make them known publicly and be willing to make good on them.

Another lesson is the recognition that the United States is not the only game in town. When the United States suspended a large portion of the annual military assistance package shortly after President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s 2013 coup, Egypt did not suffer. Rather, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait stepped in with $12 billion—nearly ten times as much assistance as the entire U.S. package. Furthermore, the suspension did not translate into greater respect for human rights. The Egyptian regime grew more, not less, repressive in the face of U.S. aid suspensions.

A third lesson is the need for consistency. Egypt is a clear-cut case of a military coup, and the abuses of human rights are far more extreme there than in Tunisia. Yet the U.S. government has repeatedly changed course—restoring funding shortly after withholding it or using a national security waiver to override cuts. This sort of inconsistency has let Egyptian authorities (as well as others in the region) know that aid suspensions are likely temporary, and they simply need to wait for tides to turn in Washington for aid to be restored.

Finally, the Egyptian military, unlike the Tunisian military, has long been a political actor, controlling a large stake in the Egyptian economy and supporting Sisi’s rule. This means that targeting military assistance would be a far more potent tool in Egypt than for Tunisia’s largely apolitical military—and it has still been mostly ineffective. The Tunisian military, albeit not without fault, is not the bad guy. So while cutting military assistance to Tunisia is likely to have a negative impact on one of the United States’ most trusted partners in the region, it is not likely to diminish Saied’s power or to influence the Tunisian president to rewind his autocratic actions.

A More Effective Path Forward

The United States is right to recognize the urgency of acting to prevent further consolidation of Saied’s authoritarian power grab. The administration has a small but critical window prior to the July 25 constitutional referendum before Saied’s authoritarian power grab is codified into law.  The repeated drumbeat of U.S. statements and visits to express American displeasure with Saied’s path has been insufficient to pressure the president to stop his authoritarian drift.

To put real pressure on Saied, the United States should take two steps. First, Congress should re-jigger U.S. assistance to Tunisia. It should suspend all direct assistance to Saied’s government, and instead support organizations and institutions committed to transparency and freedom such as political parties, civil society groups, and the media (which is increasingly under threat). Saied’s leaked NGO law, which could come to fruition in the coming months, could outlaw foreign funding of civil society, making it harder to support the actors working to advance democracy in Tunisia, so this funding would be even more crucial before the window closes. Furthermore, the United States already has many strong Tunisian partners that are pushing back against Saied’s crackdown and would benefit from additional U.S. financial and rhetorical support.

Second, the United States should develop a menu of “carrots” to entice Saied to take concrete action to rewind his authoritarian actions. Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power stated that should Tunisia return to a democratic path, “our support can increase.” The amounts currently at stake are not enough to sway Saied, but offering much more substantial sweeteners could succeed in both helping to address Tunisia’s economic and social challenges and giving Saied a win that could allow him enough confidence to open the political space.

Tunisia is in dire need of economic support, and the carrots could address that crisis. They could include conditioning the $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation grant currently in limbo on the return of a freely and fairly elected parliament, or providing large pots of direct budget support to Tunisia. Additionally, diplomatic incentives such as inviting Tunisia to participate in the Democracy Summit follow-on activities, inviting Saied to the White House, or publicly praising positive action are all low-cost options that are likely to be more effective than the “sticks” employed thus far. But for any of these carrots to work, they must be tied to explicit, realistic, and measurable outcomes.

Continuing to support Tunisian civil society and the Tunisian people is not only morally the right thing to do, but it is also in U.S. national security interests. Conversely, choosing to go forward with aid cuts that will likely fail to change the dynamics on the ground and could diminish U.S. leverage in the region could lead to further political instability and economic pain. The United States has an opportunity right now to change course and adopt a path more likely to lead to success for Tunisia’s democracy and U.S. interests.