Tunisia’s Arab Winter

On Dec. 13, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced that he will initiate a constitutional referendum next July, and that parliament will remain suspended until the next round of elections in December 2022. The president’s broadcast came almost five months after his unconstitutional power grab in July, when he froze parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and deployed the military to prevent legislators from entering the parliamentary building in Tunis. Saied argued that these actions were necessary in orders to address the nation’s political paralysis, economic deterioration, and collapsing healthcare system. He later declared in September that he would ignore parts of the constitution drafted in 2014 and rule by decree.

Though President Saied’s December announcement may be a step closer towards the concrete political roadmap demanded by Western officials and domestic critics, it is still doubtful that a restoration of democracy in Tunisia is imminent. The fact that Saied plans to appoint a committee to draft the new constitution and is expected to expand the powers of the presidency makes it unlikely that he will concede any of his power. More recently, the conviction of former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki after he criticized Saied as a “coup leader” highlights the current president’s dictatorial tendencies and willingness to hijack the country’s political institutions to his advantage.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Tunisians rose up against their dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in December 2010 and ignited pro-democracy uprisings throughout the Arab world, the once peripheral country in the Greater Middle East became the highlight of the struggle against autocracy in the region. Not only was Tunisia the birthplace of the Arab Spring, but its (relatively) secular culture, large middle class, literate population, small and accountable military establishment, moderate Islamists, and strong labor unions and civic associations made it especially primed for success.

After narrowly escaping a major political crisis in 2013, the former French protectorate underwent peaceful parliamentary and presidential elections the following year and was soon bestowed the title of “the success story” of the Arab Spring by the international community. Nonetheless, though Tunisia may have avoided the grim fate met by its Arab counterparts, there were still good reasons to be skeptical that the nation’s transition was really as successful as the West claimed it to be. A stagnating economy, numerous terrorist attacks, widespread perception of corruption, and political gridlock all led to Tunisians growing disillusioned with their government and eventually electing Saied. These problems were only exacerbated when COVID-19 wrecked the nation’s health care system. Moreover, as Steven Cook points out in his book “False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, the transition in Tunisia resembled the fundamentally “unrevolutionary” nature of the uprisings throughout the Arab world, as many institutions from the old regime remained intact even after the transfer of power. For instance, in the aftermath of two notorious terrorist attacks in 2015, the Tunisian government resurrected Ben Ali-era counterterrorism measures that could easily be leveraged to suppress dissent and target political opponents.

Another problematic sign from the political dynamic in Tunis was the ongoing mistrust between the Islamist Ennahda Party and secular Nidaa Tounes coalition. Beji Caid Essebsi, who was elected president in 2014, created the Nidaa Tounes party under the banner of anti-Islamism. The secular leader consistently portrayed Ennahda’s Islamism as anti-democratic and incompatible with Tunisia’s secular identity, and even tried to unsuccessfully exclude the party from the governing coalition in 2015. To be sure, some of these suspicions over Ennahda’s true character were warranted, but attempts to exclude the party from the political process completely are a cause for concern. Secular leaders throughout the Greater Middle East routinely exaggerate the flaws of Islamists to legitimize authoritarian policies. In the case of Tunisia, President Saied and his supporters are calling for the dissolution of Ennahda even though the party’s leaders renounced their Islamism and rebranded themselves as “Muslim Democrats” in 2016.

Despite friction between various political factions in the tiny North African nation, the relative parity between Ennahda and secular parties initially held the country’s tenuous transition together. Ennahda had a plurality, not an outright majority, in Tunisia’s parliament, with non-Islamists parties and independents holding 59 percent of the seats. This was in stark contrast to Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties together controlled almost three quarters of the Egyptian Parliament after the first round of elections, since the secular-leftist political parties were unprepared and poorly organized. The overall political balance in Tunisia initially prevented both Islamists and their secular opponents from abusing power, whereas the absence of which in Cairo (along with other organizational and ideological shortcomings of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) led to President Mohamed Morsi’s power grab and his subsequent ouster.

Unfortunately, whatever fragile equilibrium existed between different political actors in Tunisia is now deteriorating under Saied. Though domestic opposition to the president has been growing over the past few months and his approval rating has declined from 87 percent in 2019 to around 55 percent currently, he remains the most popular figure in the nation. Even if Tunisians continue to unite over Saied’s failure to address the country’s economic woes, the absence of legislative and judicial opposition will give the president ample opportunity to consolidate his power over the upcoming year.

Though observers throughout the international community have called on the United States and European Union to save Tunisia’s experiment with democracy, the overall response from the West has been ambiguous. American and European lawmakers have condemned Saied’s actions and his failure to initiate an inclusive dialogue, but so far have not taken concrete steps to pressure him on these issues. Part of this hesitation is due to the close counterterrorism relationship between the West and the Tunisian military, which has tempered desires to use military aid as a lever for political reform. Given Tunisia’s particularly acute extremist threat, and the Biden administration’s desire to extricate the United States from the conflicts of the Greater Middle East, it is uncertain whether Washington will pick a fight with Saied over the country’s authoritarian regression. There is also the fear that aid suspensions may backfire and alienate Saied and his supporters, similar to what happened in Egypt. Washington’s disapproval of the overthrow of Morsi in 2013 and Sisi’s subsequent crackdown convinced many Egyptians that America deliberately abetted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to weaken the nation.

Indeed, it is still too soon to write off any possibility of Tunisians or Western powers saving the country’s experiment with democracy. However, some analysts have argued that Saied’s populist nature and his gravitation towards the Gulf states makes the current crisis irredeemable. Moreover, recent developments elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrate that authoritarianism in the region is far more persistent than previously imagined. If Tunisian democrats and their Western supporters are unable to pull off a miracle as they did in 2013, the birthplace of the Arab Spring may soon join its brethren stuck in the Arab Winter.

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

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