Tunisia’s 2011-2021 decade can be summarised as follows: the introduction of democracy, the fall of a semi-socialist state, the deterioration of citizens’ economic conditions, the rise (and fall) of terrorism, and the Covid-19 pandemic. People, however, tend to forget about democracy and focus only on the negative aspects. As such, a new narrative is gaining ground: the crisis started in January 2011, when demonstrations against President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali intensified -and never ended. This is growing into the country’s official narrative built around the notion that it was a “chaotic decade”, democracy never materialized, and the country ought to be rebuilt anew.
It is a radical change with the consensual predispositions of Tunisia’s pre-2021 protagonists. There were several sub-crises within the larger crisis (i.e., during the 2011 and 2014 elections, after the 2013 political assassinations, in 2019, etc.), when politicians would raise the stakes and threaten each other, often mobilizing their supporters to take to the streets. Still, these sub-crises were always settled through agreements before politics resumed. Nonetheless, as political compromises piled up, an increasing number of citizens started feeling side-lined, feeling the economic burden and also because those compromises were antithetical to any ideological rationale.
After July 25, 2021, though, new rules appeared. It is now a zero-sum game with, on the one hand, a President who controls both armed and security forces and significant state resources and, on the other hand, political groups with limited popular legitimacy and shrinking financial means. President Kais Saïed seems determined to get rid of a political class he considers useless and influenced by foreign interests. The opposition, from Ennahda’s neo-Islamists to the neo-Benalists of the Parti Destourien Libre (PDL), does not recognize the President’s legitimacy and is demanding an end to his rule by decree. The leadership of the main labour union, the UGTT, is attempting to carve an alternative “third path”, but negotiation channels are close to none. Most observers agree that the President flat-out refuses to compromise.
President Saïed wants to annul the 2014 Constitution. He consequently appointed a constitutional committee to draft a new one. This would be Tunisia’s third constitution in six decades. The first one was drafted by a constituent assembly in an authoritarian setting, neglecting important population groups. The second one was the work of a democratically elected constituent assembly that got, nevertheless, discredited over time, falling prey to harsh criticisms. The new one is the product of a single man and an opaque team, hastily drafted after an online survey that less than 10% of the population participated in and following a handful of meetings by a consultative body whose deliberations were not made public.
The referendum and its aftermath
Listening to Saïed and his supporters, one has the feeling that the country’s problems will end once the new Constitution is promulgated. In other words, the “New Republic” is being endorsed as a key to transform Tunisians’ lives. This is more or less what the political parties promised in 2011 when they pushed the socioeconomic debate towards a political one, leading to a constituent assembly that millions of Tunisians elected or for which they aspired. A few months after the assembly started its work, the disappointment of the masses whose life did not improve came to light, and polls indicated a general loss of confidence.
This time, however, there has been a general apathy toward politics from the onset. Very little about the new constitution and the country’s public affairs is circulating across the public sphere. As such, the turnout for the referendum on the national charter is likely to be minimal. Moreover, since the vote will take place in the height of the summer, on a national public holiday, only a few people are likely to bother casting their ballots. Last but not least, there was no inclusive process around this constitutional reform, and, whatever hopes there are this time around, they are likely to be shattered soon.
As a matter of fact, the country’s economic indicators have gone into free fall. While Tunisia has been in a constant transition since 2011, albeit with several discontinuities, the last few months showed a peculiarly poor economic performance. By sacking the government and restarting the constitutional process, President Saïed has added new layers of instability, which ultimately led the major credit rating agencies to downgrade Tunisia’s ranking. Hence, it is hard to imagine any significant change in Tunisians’ living conditions in the foreseeable future. Much like in 2011, the higher their expectations, the higher their deception.
What about freedoms?
What has been noticeable in the last twelve months is the deterioration of freedoms and human rights in Tunisia. According to Freedom House, The Economist, and V-Dem, just to name a few, Tunisia has been demoted from “free” to “partly free”. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among other international organizations, keep issuing reports denouncing the country’s authoritarian drift. Alarming headlines are also flooding Western media. Tunisia’s main union of journalists continues to warn that democracy is under threat, as do many political and civil society groups. There are exaggerations, of course, especially when comparing Tunisia to Egypt, but things could change.
The constitution presented in the July 2022 referendum could send Tunisia back to a centralized presidential system, one that was avoided after 2011 specifically to prevent the resurgence of a strong authoritarian leader. It is feared that a dictatorship would be established by force and by law after the referendum, or perhaps after the end of Saïed’s rule, mainly because democracy has become synonymous with chaos for many Tunisians over the last decade.
Indeed, it has now become a common perception among the public that life used to be better before the Arab Spring, with many hoping that the end of democracy will bring back a bygone — yet idealized and mythicized — sense of prosperity and stability. But such a view is missing two points. First, the economy under dictatorship was a closed one, and it would be problematic to close it again, especially given Tunisia’s porous borders and economic globalization. Second, former dictator Ben Ali was an intelligence officer who created a strong police state that imposed stability. There are remnants of this security apparatus today when it comes to surveillance and repression, but it is largely a shadow of its former self. If an authoritarian system is remade, it will be over a less protected economy and with weaker means of control. Prosperity and stability will be hard to recover.
Nonetheless, there is still room for manoeuvre among the country’s social and political forces. So far, violence has been more rhetorical than physical; people can assemble and protest largely without hinderance; and the opposition is trying to self-organise. Even if the proposed constitution passes and Tunisia enters a more authoritarian phase, there would probably be societal and political checks to adjust the process.