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Lessons Learned from a Dictator’s Overthrow – Featured Opinion of Former Ambassador Gordon Gray

by Gordan Gray

The massive demonstrations in Algeria and Sudan, followed by the ouster of each nation’s leader, reminded me vividly of January 14, 2011.  On that day, millions of Tunisians took to the streets, standing up to a quarter-century of increasingly authoritarian rule.  Later the same day, following four weeks of demonstrations that had grown throughout the country, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned in disgrace and fled to Saudi Arabia.  As the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia at the time, this was the moment that stands out above the rest when I look back upon my 33-year career as an American diplomat.

Some of the Tunisian protestors brandished signs accurately predicting that for Ben Ali and his regime, it was “Game Over.”  In following the events in Algeria, I was struck that demonstrators there were also carrying signs reading “Game Over.”

During the birth of the movement which became known as the Arab Spring, my colleagues and I at the American Embassy in Tunis received a crash course on revolution and transition. Eight years later, the lessons we learned are as valuable as ever – and I hope the Trump administration will keep them in mind as it works to safeguard our national security interests in North Africa and beyond.  Here are some most important pieces of counsel the President and his aides would be wise to heed.

Context matters:  Although Jared Kushner famously stated that “we don’t want a history lesson,  we’ve read enough books,” in-depth knowledge of America’s diplomats was a tremendous asset during the post-Ben Ali transition. Jeff Feltman, the State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East then, had acquired significant experience while serving in Tunisia during the late 1990s. He kept in touch with many of his contacts from that time, including human rights activists and opponents to Ben Ali’s reign, some of whom would become ministers in the new national unity government. In addition, many at the Embassy had studied Arabic at the field school in Tunis, and their deep expertise about Tunisian culture shaped our determination that there was a very real chance the transition could succeed – and that American support could contribute to that success. We knew Tunisia led the Arab world in women’s equality and was marked by tolerance and homogeneity. Its vibrant civil society, large middle-class, high literacy rate, and familiarity with the institutions of democracy were also important. In short, we judged that Tunisia had the necessary ingredients for a successful political transition, even if only time would tell whether these ingredients would be sufficient.  Today, the United States is fortunate to have diplomats with rich experience in Algeria and Sudan leading our missions:  the Ambassador in Algiers had previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for North Africa, and the Deputy Chief of Mission was the Public Affairs Officer in Algiers earlier in his career.  In Khartoum, the Chargé d’Affaires had previously directed the Office of the Special Envoy for Sudan.

Leadership matters:  For all of the talk about America’s declining influence in the world, I saw firsthand in Tunisia how America still shapes and influences discussion. Many in Washington deserve credit for realizing the magnitude of the Tunisian revolution – and then acting immediately to seize the opportunity it presented. The people of Tunisia took note when Feltman became the first senior foreign official to visit Tunisia just ten days after Ben Ali fled, even as other ministers in the Arab world were slower to embrace the fledging transition government. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman came to Tunis in February 2011, and Secretary Hillary Clinton a month later. It may be glib to say that eighty percent of success is showing up, but there is no surer path to failure than not doing so. The United States cannot be a first-rate diplomatic power without the direct public engagement of senior Executive and Congressional leaders. The contrast between 2011 and our current environment – when an isolationist president has shaken faith in American leadership and key positions at the State and Defense Departments remain unfilled – is glaring.

Words matter:  Saying the right thing at the right time is an essential part of diplomacy. President Obama touched the Tunisian people in his 2011 State of the Union Address—delivered eleven days after Ben Ali fled – when he proclaimed, “The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”  In Tunisia afterwards, Cabinet ministers and average citizens alike told me, in virtually identical words, that this show of solidarity had brought them to tears. In 2011, we had a president who was an acclaimed author and eloquent orator. Today, we count ourselves lucky when Trump sends a tweet that does not contain any spelling errors.

So do actions:  Words, of course, are never enough. The Obama administration and Congress put their money where their mouths were by crafting a comprehensive assistance package to bolster the Tunisian economy and to meet the needs of the un- and under-employed youth who had sparked the revolution. Highlights of the package, announced following an October 7, 2011 Oval Office meeting between President Obama and then-Prime Minister Caid Essebsi, included loan guarantees, selection of the Millennium Challenge Corporation threshold program, and the establishment of an enterprise fund to spur entrepreneurship. The Trump administration, on the other hand, sought to drastically cut U.S. assistance to Tunisia by 67 percent (or more than $110 million) and in its most recent budget proposal proposes cutting the State Department’s budget by 23 per cent.

Humility is important, too:  Humility is the essence of diplomacy. We knew that Tunisians did not need leaked Embassy cables to tell them that the Ben Ali family was corrupt, and they have rejected the American-centric narrative that their revolution would not have started, much less succeeded, without Facebook. As one senior U.S. official commented to me, “the Arab Spring mattered to us, but was not about us.”   In painful contrast, “humility” is not part of Trump’s vocabulary.

Finally, values matter:  President Obama campaigned on hope and change, and stated that the Arab Spring showed that “the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.”  President Trump, meanwhile, praises autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un, while insulting democratically-elected leaders of NATO allies such as Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel.

Tunisia’s political transition from the authoritarianism of the Ben Ali years to the peaceful transfer of power following free and fair elections stands as a model for the Middle East and North Africa.  Continuing along its democratic path, Tunisia will hold parliamentary elections on October 6 and the first round of presidential elections on November 10.  The ruling elite in Algiers and Khartoum should implement the will of their people and follow the Tunisian example.

While Tunisia continues to face real economic and security challenges, American support helped ease its difficult transition.  Our efforts exemplify the advantages of pursuing steady, thoughtful, and values-driven foreign policy instead of issuing erratic and bombastic statements over Twitter. The Trump administration should heed the lessons of America’s diplomacy in Tunisia – and apply them to our nation’s interactions throughout the world.


Gordon Gray is the Chief Operating Officer at the Center for American Progress.  A career Foreign Service Officer, he served as the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia (2009-12) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (2005-8).


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