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Rebuilding Tunisia’s democracy will require a long-term strategy

In the near-term, it appears likely that President Kais Saied will consolidate power.

Reporting | Analysis | Middle East

If this author has drawn one conclusion from his recent trip to Tunisia it is that rekindling the country’s democracy will require a long-term struggle. Of course, any number of sudden events could shake President Kais Saied’s regime. Still, it is more likely that in the near and medium terms, Saied will consolidate power, an effort that could see his “reelection” in 2024. And he will probably do so without facing mass opposition. For while his popularity has declined, Saied retains far more support than any one veteran political leader. Moreover, for now neither the urban middle class nor the Tunisian General Labor Union seem ready for a full-on collision with the president.

The geostrategic situation is also working in Saied’s favor. As the Biden administration mends fences with Saudi Arabia, it is unwilling to expend diplomatic capital on Tunisia’s plight. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged Saied to accept a proffered $1.9 billion IMF package, or to at least offer a revised proposal. But neither he nor European leaders are demanding that economic reforms come with any semblance of political decompression. Indeed, as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni suggested in her recent visit to Tunis, the purpose of a $1 billion deal that the EU has now offered Tunisia is to help stem the flow of refugees to Europe. Finally, Saied has repaired relations with Algeria in tandem with an agreement to keep providing Tunisia with natural gas. Algeria, as Tunisians like to say, is helping the government “keep the lights on.”

Saied’s ministers surely know that support will not save them from the very real possibility of defaulting on Tunisia’s massive foreign debt, a point underscored by reports that the government is devising an alternative proposal for the IMF. Still, Saied is unlikely to impose austerity measures that could provoke the wrath of marginalized communities, whose disgruntled youth see the unlawful jailing of more than 30 political leaders as well-deserved retribution from a political elite that Saied claims betrayed the country.

What Goes Around Comes Around

At the heart of the conspiracy theories that Saied and his allies have advanced is one simple idea, namely that a vast cabal of corrupt elites “stole” the country’s 2010–2011 revolution. This notion resonates not only with his base of disaffected youth, but also finds a kind of indirect echo in elite circles. While (often quietly) denouncing Saied’s assault on political freedoms, many intellectuals, professionals, and businesspeople blame Tunisia’s political elite, not only for failing to address the country’s massive economic and social problems but, in a more fundamental sense, for failing to build a bridge between the 2014 parliament and society at large.

This view has produced a sense of resigned ambivalence among a middle class that in 2011 took to the streets of Tunis to push for a competitive democracy. “You cannot break an omelet without breaking some eggs,” was a phrase repeated several times in Tunis. The idea that the political and economic status quo was not sustainable and that “something had to give” is also often expressed. While unhappy with Saied’s clampdown, many professionals and business leaders are not ready to come out en masse to back the protesters who, over the last few months, have regularly congregated on Habib Bourguiba Street in Tunis to demand the release of political activists.

While unhappy with Saied’s clampdown, many professionals and business leaders are not ready to come out en masse to back the protesters.

Such hesitation reflects a deep animus for the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party, and especially for its now imprisoned leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who some argue is currently getting his just desserts. “What goes around comes around,” is an idea that one hears time and time again. One activist lawyer who has close ties to Ennahda reminded this author that in 2012 the Ennahda-affiliated minister of justice at the time summarily fired 75 judges, justifying himself by accusing them of “corruption.” That Saied used the very same excuse when, in June 2022, he fired 57 judges feeds a widespread view that Ennahda’s assault on the judiciary created a dangerous precedent that eventually opened the door to Saied’s policies.

This stinging judgment is not merely being expressed by Ennahda’s secular-oriented opponents but also by activists who were once members in the party. Thus, following a talk given by this author on the problem of power sharing in Tunisia, someone in the audience who had worked with Ghannouchi assailed the latter’s efforts to remain in charge of the party despite growing criticism of what the former member called his “autocratic” leadership.

These harsh views of Ennahda are paralleled by a growing nostalgia for the modernizing project led by former President Habib Bourguiba in the 1960s and 1970s. One very animated taxi driver spoke at great length with this author about Bourguiba’s “courageous” leadership at home and abroad, while also emphasizing his disdain for all Islamists. Musings about Bourguiba’s legacy among intellectuals, writers, and legal scholars can be found in many arenas, such as an international conference that was held in Tunisia in early June. Several attendees praised what they saw as Bourguiba’s efforts to create a state rooted in the principles of Tunisian national identity and patriotism rather than religion. This modernist state-building project, they argued, had been systematically eroded by Ennahda’s leaders.

Finding Common Ground?

This sweeping indictment of Ennahda can be both unfair and unfounded. Indeed, there is much blame to go around for some of the more dubious accommodations and laws that were struck following the 2014 elections, not least of which was the 2015 “anti-terrorism law.” As a bill that gave the government sweeping powers to shut down any political dissent it deemed a “threat to national security,” the law has provided legal fodder for Saied’s efforts to silence Ennahda’s leaders. This paradoxical twist of fate cannot possibly be laid solely at the feet of Ennahda, whose MPs were no more or less expedient than those of its partners in the country’s power sharing government. Nor do the Ennahda members—many of whom were savagely tortured during their years of imprisonment in the 1980s—deserve to be tossed in prison on evidence that all human rights organizations have condemned as totally unfounded.

Suspicions among Ennahda’s detractors about the movement reflect an enduring fault line between modernists and Islamist-oriented leaders in Tunisia.

Suspicions among Ennahda’s detractors about the movement reflect an enduring fault line between modernists who want to keep the state at a safe distance from the religious sphere and Islamist-oriented leaders who argue that one way or another governing institutions—and the public sphere at large—must reflect Islamic values. Paradoxically, while his efforts to shut down Ennahda may have secured a measure of tacit support from secular-oriented Tunisians, Saied regularly invokes Islamic ideas and symbols to sustain his base. His evident success in manipulating identity conflicts raises a basic question: Will Saied’s bid to impose a populist autocratic vision eventually induce veteran and new political activists to forge a robust political alliance that cuts through an ideological divide in ways that might engage the imagination of Tunisia’s dispirited youth?

Stirrings of Opposition and Social Activism

There are many obstacles to creating this kind of unity, the most important of which is a growing sense of fear about the fate of basic human rights. Indeed, worries created by the president’s clampdown on the judiciary, the media, and political leaders have sparked concerns that the net of repression will widen to include other arenas, including the country’s universities.

Such a development could have widespread reverberations. With over 200,000 students and about 23,000 teachers and professors, Tunisia’s universities constitute a politically significant core of the vast urban middle class. This sector suffers from many of the ills that have shaken the rest of society, such as the lasting aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis and rampant inflation, the latter of which translates into drastically lowered salaries in public sector universities. These problems have not only generated threats of university wide strikes; they have also produced a lamentable if much-discussed brain drain, as academics move abroad, especially to Gulf states.

Despite these trends, the universities have thus far remained a relatively untrammeled arena. This situation, some Tunisian scholars argue, may reflect Saied’s hesitancy to go after his colleagues in the faculties of law and political science where he taught for many decades. Still, the recent publication of a petition by 52 leading scholars of law and political science condemning the arrest of all political leaders telegraphs rising concerns in this important sector. That the vast majority of the signatories are modernist scholars who distrust Islamists suggests that an expanding circle of writers, thinkers, and academics are defying a strategy of selective repression designed to foster division and distrust in ways that play into the president’s hands.

Thus far the government has not responded to this defiant petition. But even if it does not act, the signatories could soon be the targets of widespread retaliation on Facebook. A country of over 12 million, Tunisia has nearly 8,700,000 Facebook users. Saied’s allies have not hesitated to harangue and malign his online critics. While these efforts have cast an ominous shadow, there is a small but growing coterie of young activists who are monitoring such abuse in a bid to stop or deter what amounts to a kind of online terrorism.

In a small country with so many Facebook users, fighting this problem remains an uphill battle. After all, activists also depend on the very platforms that are being used to intimidate the president’s critics. Moreover, they face the very real possibility that the government might use some of the laws it has deployed against political leaders to silence online activists.

The Geostrategic Context: Principle Versus Power

Apart from the domestic arena, one subject that occupies many Tunisians is the region’s shifting geostrategic terrain. As Saied has accelerated his efforts to intimidate or silence his real and imagined opponents, he has tried to discredit international criticism of his autocratic measures by harping on the notion of national and state sovereignty. At the same time, he has tried to shore up his regime by seeking diplomatic and financial support from regional and global powers in ways that have raised eyebrows. Indeed, Tunisians are quick to note (often with a humorous twist) that while the president has rejected foreign “dictates,” his actions suggest that he is perfectly happy to make deals with some foreign powers so long as such accommodations reinforce his power on the home front.

Saied has tried to discredit international criticism of his autocratic measures by harping on the notion of national and state sovereignty.

On this score, the rapprochement between Tunisia and Algeria is often mentioned, along with the recent interaction between Saied and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and perhaps most importantly, Saied’s outreach to Western European leaders. That a president who evokes Arab nationalist themes is negotiating with Italian and French officials to assuage their concerns about refugees—many of whom come from the Sub-Saharan African community that has suffered attacks ever since Saied assailed their presence in Tunisia in February 2023—is the subject of much sardonic comment. Similarly, Saied’s call for expanding diplomatic and economic relations with China has prompted skepticism. Although his outreach to Beijing is presumably designed to deflect western pressures for economic reform, China’s ambassador recently reiterated his government’s position that Tunisia must sign the IMF deal that Saied has repeatedly rejected. These remarks have prompted quiet ridicule among Tunisian analysts about the nature and limits of Tunisian “sovereignty.”

The hard-nosed logic of realpolitik also defines the Biden administration’s overall approach to Tunisia. While mention was made in Congress of growing concerns regarding Saied’s power grab, there is little expectation that the White House is ready to prioritize the issue of democracy in its relations with Saied’s government, or for that matter with other Arab states, as was amply shown by Secretary Blinken’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia.

A similar assessment of US Middle East policy was also offered by several experts from Tunis-based US democracy assistance organizations. They are clearly unhappy about the administration’s failure to signal a clear and consistent position in opposition to Saied’s repressive measures. At the same time, they argue that absent any sign of a sustained popular movement—and given the enduring divisions among Tunisia’s political elite—US democracy assistance must be adapted to the current, if difficult, realities. Animating this pragmatic focus is a conviction that the revival of democracy in Tunisia will require a long-term strategy, one that works through rather than against emerging political institutions and forces.

A Sociopolitical Explosion?

Any such medium- or long-term perspective cannot ignore the very real possibility that a sociopolitical explosion could erupt in Tunisia at any time. If an explosion does occur and the police (and, especially, army) respond with deadly force, the domestic political and social balance of power that has thus far sustained the president’s bid to recast the political system could be disrupted, or even turned upside down. Such a dramatic development would put the military in a delicate spot given what appears to be the still widespread conviction that the army remains the most trusted national political institution.

That an upheaval has not yet occurred remains a puzzle for many of the Tunisians with whom this author met. One longtime scholar of Tunisian society offered an intriguing explanation, pointing to the role of the informal sector, which is estimated to account for more than 30 percent of the economy. Informal socioeconomic and familial networks, he suggested, could be helping average Tunisians get through each arduous day. While this may well be true, the overall situation in this beleaguered country feels fragile and thus vulnerable to sudden or unpredictable shocks that could come from any direction.

This article has been republished with permission from Arab Center Washington DC.

Hasan Mrad /
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