President Kais Saied’s de facto dissolution of parliament in July 2021, abandonment of the constitution, and targeting of the opposition are clear signs that Tunisia is no longer a democracy and has returned to the authoritarian playbook of Arab leaders past and present. I see three main reasons for this abrupt end to Tunisia’s decade-old democracy: 1) the failure to accompany political reform with socioeconomic gains for citizens; 2) the subsequent rise of populism; and 3) the mistakes of the Islamic party. To move forward in Tunisia and the Arab world, prodemocratic forces must link freedom, development, and social justice.
On 25 July 2021, after months of economic and public-health hardship induced by covid-19, major protests erupted against the Tunisian government. That same evening, President Kais Saied announced that he was dismissing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspending parliament, rescinding the legal immunity of legislators, and presiding over their public prosecution. Ironically, Saied contended that he was taking these measures in the name of the 2014 Constitution, which prohibits such an unchecked concentration of powers.
A month later, Saied announced the extension—for an indefinite period—of these exceptional measures. On September 22, he issued a presidential decree affirming the suspension of parliamentarians’ immunity, stating that legislation will be “made in the form of decree law promulgated by the president,” and introducing a long list of powers that would make any would-be dictator in the world envious. All these decrees are in contradiction of the spirit and text of the 2014 Constitution, which is now de facto abolished. This presidential decree marks the end of the democratic transition that Tunisia embarked upon ten years ago after the ouster of longtime dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The de facto dissolution of parliament, the abandonment of the constitution, and the arrests of political opponents and journalists are clear signs that Tunisia is no longer a democracy and that it has returned to life under the old playbook of Arab dictators past and present.
Why does the process of democratization in the Arab world seem so arduous? Is this process bound to fail even in the country that seems to offer the most favorable conditions for its success? Analysts have cited multiple causes ranging from economic and social hardship to so-called cultural incompatibility, from the legacy of colonialism to the intrusion of foreign powers in support of authoritarian conservation.
There is no single causal explanation for this failure, as the contexts are complex and vary from country to country. I can only offer an explanation for the country whose democratization process I have both observed and taken part in for more than forty years. Drawing on my experience as head of the Tunisian League of Human Rights (1989–94), leader of a democratic opposition party (2001–11), president of the Republic (2011–14), and today, yet again, as an opponent of a nascent dictatorship, I see three main reasons for the return of dictatorship in Tunisia. They are: 1) the inability of the political system established in 2011 to link political rights and socioeconomic rights; 2) the rise of populism; and 3) the negative role played by feelings about political Islam.
Political and Economic Rights: The Missing Link
In the early days of the 2011 uprising, the Tunisian middle class and the poorest communities from the hinterland united to topple the Ben Ali regime. The middle class could no longer tolerate being deprived of individual and collective freedoms that its counterparts on the other side of the Mediterranean fully enjoyed. Those in the poorest class could no longer tolerate being deprived of their socioeconomic rights, especially in light of the scandalous corruption of the ruling elites.
Middle-class demands were quickly met. After 2011, Tunisians soon came to enjoy an unprecedented level of political freedom. Freedoms of expression and association, including freedom to hold public protests, promptly became the new normal. A few months after the revolution, Tunisians freely elected a constituent assembly tasked with the historic mission of designing a constitution for a new democratic state. Three years later, on 27 January 2014, Tunisia adopted its first democratic constitution in hopes of doing away with dictatorship for good.
Unfortunately, the poor, the unemployed, and the forgotten in the interior regions of the country had less reason to welcome the establishment of the democratic state. Of course, they too have benefited from the climate of freedom, but their expectation of a better life economically has been destroyed. Worse, for some among the poorest, the revolution has made an already precarious situation even grimmer.
The race to fulfill economic expectations as promptly as political expectations was impossible to win, given the deep financial and economic crises that Tunisia experienced in 2011. Decades of cronyism and corruption by the ruling families and their entourages had left the country with an anemic economy. While corruption was the primary cause of Tunisia’s economic ordeal, few analysts noticed that the much needed anticorruption policy which the government (in which I took part) implemented actually made the condition of society’s poorest members worse. For example, when the state took back more than three-hundred corrupt businesses and agricultural enterprises, this threw thousands of people out of work overnight. In order to soften the economic blow of “draining the swamp,” the government needed a massive influx of aid or cash. Tunisia did not have access to such resources. Therefore, the anticorruption measures that the country’s economic system badly needed ended up further worsening the immediate economic situation of those who were already the most heavily burdened by the past regime’s cronyism.
I was committed to improving the economic condition of the vast majority of our fellow citizens, as this was a key goal of the revolution. Working with the three-party “troika” government that was in office during my presidency, I started to set up antipoverty programs. In 2012, I sent advisors to Brazil to study the policies of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which are rich in useful lessons for us. Time, however, was not on our side. Such antipoverty programs would only show results in the long term. In addition, the population’s frustration and disappointment increased every day, proportional to their economic disarray.
Counterrevolutionary forces capitalized on this wave of discontent by making grandiose promises during the legislative and presidential elections of 2014. The election of my successor, Béji Caïd Essebsi, at the end of December 2014 did not improve the economic situation, quite the contrary. The only law he passed in parliament in 2017 was called the National Reconciliation Law. It was in fact an amnesty law for corrupt businesspersons. This law contributed to strengthening corruption and worsening political instability. Despite the creation of the country’s first democratic constitution, and the strengthening of political institutions such as the independent election commission, economic challenges created an ideal context for the emergence of populism.
The Rise of Populism
President Saied was elected to the presidency of the Republic in 2019 with a large majority of votes. Like most populist leaders (Alberto Fujimori in Peru in 1990, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines in 2016, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018, Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine in 2019), Saied was elected thanks to three imaginary qualities: His voters fancied him to be a new, clean, and straightforward personality. They saw him as new because he did not belong to the traditional political class that had become discredited by its failures and despised for its supposed turpitude. They saw him as clean by virtue of his lack of political experience. And they saw him as straightforward because he told them what they wanted to hear, namely, that they were the victims of a bunch of inept and crooked politicians. As their new leader, he promised the voters, he would rid the country of crooks. The completion of his work would allow citizens to enjoy the swift return of virtue, prosperity, and security.
Tunisians’ frustration with a fragmented political class that has seemed more interested in backdoor dealmaking than in elaborating policy to address the economic crises is understandable. The dramatic mismanagement of the covid-19 health crisis has only worsened people’s disillusionment with elite politicking. Yet the economic and political measures that President Saied has taken since his July 2021 coup do not bode well for his ability to miraculously fix Tunisians’ problems. His aggressive attitude toward any foreign donor in the name of the so-called defense of Tunisian sovereignty has alienated investors and donors. In 2020, Moody’s gave Tunisia a B-minus credit rating, but as of 2021 that has dropped to a C.
Meanwhile, Saied’s authoritarian stance toward his opponents is ominous. In early September, Human Rights Watch decried his “repressive policies.”1 Speaking on 20 September 2021 from Sidi Bouzid, the inland town where the uprising against Ben Ali began, the president issued a vaguely worded call to violence, talking of “traitors” and asking citizens to “cleanse the country.” In November, Amnesty International reported that Tunisia had seen more trials by military courts in the prior three months than it had seen in the preceding decade.2
Exploiting Fear of Political Islam
Finally, what the Tunisian situation reveals with much clarity is the toxic impact of an immediate and enduring obstacle: the instrumentalization of Islamism haters by democracy haters. Even as the prodemocracy movement began to organize in Tunisia in the 1970s, the issue of the role and integration of Islamism caused a major rift among activists who supported human rights and opposed authoritarianism. At the time, very few believed as I did that while we should obviously reject violent extremism, we should include moderate Islamists in our common struggle against authoritarianism.
This integration-moderation approach, already contentious before the Arab uprisings, was disparaged even more after Islamists’ ascent to power in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. The success of Ennahdha in Tunisia and the Muslim Brothers in Egypt in the first elections following the respective uprisings only reinforced the anti-Islamist disposition of a fringe of each country’s democratic movement that is numerically minor, but politically influential. Wide popular support for Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s 2013 Cairo coup among so-called liberal and leftist intellectuals and politicians—not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia—suggested that local elites were more frightened by political Islam than by dictatorship.
Yet it was not just the anti-Islamist establishment that mobilized against democratic institutions and took to the streets on 25 July 2021 in Tunisia. Protesters who marched on what has become one of the most loathed symbols of a struggling democratization process, the parliament, were mainly young people from historically marginalized neighborhoods. Their anger at Islamists is not ideological. They blame Islamists for betraying their promise to deliver clean and efficient governance, for prioritizing a politics of petty agreements and backdoor deals with parties from the former regime, and for catastrophically mismanaging deadly health and economic crises.
Desperate to be accepted by anti-Islamists and former regime elites, the leadership of Ennahdha agreed to all manner of bargains and deals with former regime politicians and businesspersons. Not only did this schizophrenic strategy fail to bring Ennahdha leaders the respect of their ideological enemies on the Tunisian left or from the former regime, but it also alienated Ennahdha from the forces of the revolution and the disenfranchised youth who initially found Ennahdha’s promise of a clean politics so appealing. Herein lies the paradox that defines Islamists in Tunisia.
The Tunisian scenario is representative of the democratic stalemate that most Arab countries currently face. Many Arabs conflate a hatred of political Islam with a hatred of democracy itself. The Islamists’ politics of bargaining alienated principled revolutionary forces, and accentuated the resentment and suspicion that marginalized young people felt toward representative democracy and party politics. The Islamists have unintentionally helped to kill democracy by means of their morally bankrupt participation in it.
Not only has political Islam helped to kill democracy, it has inflicted many wounds on itself. When it asserts itself, powerful social and economic groups mobilize against it and use it as a scarecrow to justify the restoration of corrupt and authoritarian regimes. By contrast, when political Islam compromises with the parties of the former regime, political Islam loses whatever remains of its credibility among its own popular base.
For more than a decade, the democratic experiment throughout the Arab world has been paralyzed by the toxic tension between Islamists’ failed politics of bargaining, and authoritarians’ antipolitics of fear and repression. New generations of activists and intellectuals across the Arab world will have to transcend this false choice, and imagine new formulas for inclusive and democratic political participation if they want to achieve the dream of dignity, accountability, and social justice that mobilized the Arab people ten years ago.
Using Democracy’s Own Means Against It
Looking back over the past ten years, I am bewildered and terrified by the ease with which the enemies of democracy seized the means of democracy in order to oppose, corrupt, and destroy democracy.
Former regime businesspersons and politicians have weaponized freedom of the press against the revolution and democracy. Corrupt media from the old system have soiled, denigrated, and attacked activists and leaders of the transition. Freedom of association has allowed antidemocratic parties to organize and fight democracy inside Tunisia and to provide unconditional support for the coup d’état in Egypt and the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria. Free elections were turned into occasions for amplifying hate propaganda and disinformation via social networks.
This is why I am convinced that after a democratic revolution, it is dangerous to compromise with the old system. Yes, we must show humanity and seek national reconciliation, in particular through the establishment of transitional justice. However, as I have always insisted, we must not compromise with a system based on corruption, fraud, and manipulation. Democracy must eliminate it as Nelson Mandela did with apartheid, and not reconcile with it as Ennahdha did in Tunisia.
As far as political Islam is concerned, I still stand by what I believed in the 1970s. We cannot resume and continue the democratization experiment in Tunisia and other Arab countries if we exclude an entire segment of the population and deny Islamist parties and their supporters the right to participate in politics within the framework of the rule of law. That holds true even if one cannot but acknowledge how inefficient and flawed or lacking their policies and political vision have been since they have been in charge.
It is often forgotten that during the first half of the last century, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria all experienced brief periods of parliamentary democracy. They all succumbed to military coups whose ideology was largely inspired by the Soviet model, namely, an authoritarian regime and a planned economy that was supposed to meet the needs of social justice and economic development.
Today, democratic hopes in Arab countries and perhaps elsewhere in the world are not threatened by the Soviet model but by the Chinese model: economic development combined with political dictatorship. This model is already widely established in the Arab world, mainly in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. What a paradox it is to see these states, which are the best U.S. clients in the region, struggling to impose the Chinese model in Tunisia.
If we want to escape this model, which is today the main threat (both ideological and political) to democracy in the world, we must link freedom, development, and social justice. Otherwise, democracy is only a parenthesis between dictatorships.
Has our fight for democracy been lost? The answer is yes; but this defeat is temporary. The dictatorship, whether of the military type in Egypt or the populist one in Tunisia, has little chance of improving the economic situation of the populace. In addition, the establishment of a democratic regime, however flailing and imperfect, has given an unforgettable taste for freedom to the younger generations and influential sections of society such as journalists, lawyers, NGO activists, and so on. Let us support them with all our effort. Our fellow citizens’ lives depend on it.
1. “Tunisia: President’s Repressive Policies Abrogate Rights—Dozens Placed Under Arbitrary House Arrests,” Human Rights Watch, 11 September 2021, .
2. “Tunisia: Alarming Increase in Number of Civilians Facing Military Courts,” Amnesty International, 10 November 2021, www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/11/tunisia-alarming-increase-in-number-of-civilians-facing-military-courts.
Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press
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