More Than Rhetoric: Tunisia’s Democratic Backsliding

From calls for foreign aid to be suspended, to migrants being driven out, democratic backsliding has brought Tunisia back into the headlines. Despite leading the Arab world with the Jasmine Revolution, a series of anti-government protests that ushered in democracy during the Arab Spring, Tunisia seems to be ushering in a new authoritarian government. After conducting their first election in 2011, many began to tout Tunisia as the poster child for civil resistance. Three years later, the country held free and fair elections that brought the Nidaa Tounes Party (Call of Tunisia Party) into the limelight. Having won a plurality of votes, many Western analysts were quick to write this off as a success. Nonetheless, it became clear shortly thereafter that this ‘party’ was heavily divided and lacked a clear figure head to unite the group into anything more than a movement. By 2018, Nidaa Tounes was a fraction of what it once was, and voters had lost confidence in officials.

In the wake of this turmoil, a political outsider stepped onto the stage. President Kais Saied was a former constitutional law professor who ran as a populist against what Carnegie Endowment called a “deeply polarizing media mogul.” As an outsider, Saied lacked any comprehensive platform and failed to articulate any policy plans that might alleviate the grievances of the voters. Despite his inexperience, he walked away with the popular support after promising to focus on domestic issues and improving relations with regional allies. According to all accounts, things remained the status quo until President Saied suspended parliament and dismissed the Prime Minister in 2021.

Saied’s Tunisia

Although Saied has still been unable to express his policies, his vision for Tunisia is gradually being pieced together through his speeches. His current strategy seems to be two prong, as he hoards power and points blame.

It has become abundantly clear that Saied wants to have an executive branch that can operate without supervision. Originally, the dismissal of parliament was justified under ‘exceptional measures’ from Article 80 of the constitution. Despite being justified, it effectively siphoned the legislative and judiciary powers to him; a move which is likely to be cemented with the passage of the referendum. Saied critics worry that Tunisia is headed toward autocracy as the unicameral parliamentary system has been hollowed out. Beyond their elected officials, Tunisians seem to have lost authority over the courts, as the Military Judicial Council can now more easily try cases involving civilians and military personnel accused of national security crimes.

In addition to attacking his opponents, Saied has been spouting conspiracy theories and stoking underlying socioeconomic tensions. During a particularly inflammatory speech from February, Saied professed that illegal immigration is part of an international plot to subvert Tunisia’s character. He alleged that the demographic shift is intended to “turn Tunisia into only an African country with no belonging to Arab and Muslim worlds.” Two days later, he insisted that his speech did not contain racial discrimination, nor was it intended to incite violence. Nonetheless, countries like the Ivory Coast, Mali, and Guinea are rushing to repatriate their citizens as reports come out about migrant families being attacked, evicted, and detained.

Despite this alarming turn, it has received relatively positive responses amongst the Tunisian working class. The fearmongering has successfully turned the publics’ attention away from the Saied administration’s inadequacy, while also planting a convenient scapegoat for the country to pin their economic hardships on. According to a report published by the Arab Barometer in 2022, an “overwhelming majority of Tunisians (83 percent) say they trust President Saied, including more than half (55 percent) who say they have a great deal of trust in the president.” In addition to 76% of Tunisian respondents saying that they ‘strongly support’ Saied’s decision to suspend Parliament, believing that this would soon turn the economy around. Among his supporters, an overwhelming majority supported a constitutional change to empower a hyper-presidential system that would free the president from the constraints of a parliament. Nonetheless, Saied’s new constitution referendum vote only drew out around a third of the population.

International Response

Currently, World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans have been paused, meanwhile the United States, African Union, and European Union have expressed concern. The inflammatory rhetoric has not sat well with the international community, but it has also not amassed the public outcry that would be expected. Both the European Union and the United States have sent billions of dollars to Tunisia to assist with their democratic transition since 2011, with the US and Tunisia signing a five-year bilateral Development Objective Agreement worth $335 million in 2019. Despite being so heavily invested in Tunisian democracy, Western democracies have only mustered the ability to express their ‘concern’ and to urge President Saied to adhere to international human rights law. In general, the broader authoritarian shift has received mixed responses outside of Tunisia. Some experts like Ahmed Zaki have likened the events of 2021 to a ‘constitutional coup’, while officials in Egypt and Algeria have praised the referendum. Even more nations have seemingly turned a blind-eye. Despite the tentative international response, domestic opposition has been decisive and organized, as thousands of protestors have taken to the streets and social media platforms.

[Photo by Dodos photography, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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