Ten years of democratic transition left a majority of Tunisians unhappy about their country’s fate. Over the decade, growing anger occasionally spilled over onto the streets, but politicians always contained it through consensual deals and short-term remedies. A number of political and economic reforms came as top-down policies, often perceived as neo-imperialist measures imposed by the West. Consequently, a large section of the population sees democracy as synonymous with state collapse. Here, democracy means anything from Parliament to political debates, from political parties to the Constitution, etc. Then, in the summer of 2021, a particularly violent Coronavirus wave hit Tunisia, leaving thousands sick – or, worse, deceased — and shocking the nation. This is what legitimized President Kais Saied’s July 25th power grab, marking the end of an era.
The country was actually facing a serious legitimacy crisis when the President decided to act. Indeed, most Tunisian political parties lack on-the-ground constituencies and they only represent a few handfuls of partisans. The Parliament is home to several MP’s who are disconnected from their voters. The successive governments that ruled Tunisia since 2011 were mostly the results of informal negotiations that had little to do with electoral results. And the list goes on. However, does it mean Saied has more legitimacy than those he toppled? Not necessarily. He is extremely popular, independent polls confirm, though that is because the former ruling clique is widely hated. It is also because, during the summer, Tunisia was plagued by the pandemic until the vaccines arrived at the end of July, with many seeing the President as responsible for bringing them and saving the nation.
Since then, Saied has monopolized most powers. Parliament is suspended, and so are important articles of the constitution. Multiple dubious arrests took place, and military tribunals have become more active against civilians. Moreover, Tunis is under pressure from its traditional partners (e.g., the US, UK, EU, and most G7 countries) as well as the Bretton Woods institutions. Additionally, the country continues to be a battleground for regional players, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, and Qatar. And, to the surprise of many July 25th supporters, the economic problems didn’t end after these ‘exceptional measures’ were promulgated. Once the excitement is over and the economic realities come to the fore, the President himself will have to confront the fact that he, like those he dismissed, doesn’t have immediate solutions and not even a real constituency. To legitimize his policies, Saied uses the populist narrative of speaking in the name of the people and acting on their behalf. But now that he is in charge, he needs to act and deliver.
On the bright side, the ongoing war on corruption is sending shock waves to the most powerful and serves as a reminder that no power is eternal and the rule of law is the best guarantor. The September nomination of a civilian government mostly made up of accomplished individuals whose qualifications bypass any political and business — or security services — affiliation, more than a third of whom are women, is an appeasing gesture. The fact that, almost three months since President Saied’s move, there has been no bloodbath and barely no arbitrary arrests (they remain exceptional), while mass demonstrations continue, indicates that Tunis has not moved to authoritarianism —yet. On a more anecdotal level, al-Jazeera’s offices were raided the day following the power grab, though their journalists are free to operate and broadcast from Tunisia. A group called “Tunisians Against The Coup” were not able to stage their press conference inside a conference hall, so they did it outside, on the street, and none of them got arrested.
This complex picture leads to a question: where is Tunisia heading? Two contradictory paths seem to lay ahead.
The optimistic one is that the President will know when to stop, especially if a sustained opposition to his rule emerges from the broader public, affected by the economic crisis, as well as from the powerful labour and business owners’ unions (UGTT and UTICA), which feel threatened by his actions. At the same time, Western pressures on states known for bankrolling and supporting authoritarianism like the UAE and Egypt will bear results, and they would leave Tunisia alone. A dialogue between the country’s main stakeholders would then resume, a new political framework would be put in place, and a roadmap for early elections established. This would prove that democracy can self-regulate: when crises deepen, extraordinary measures are taken, and then democratic life is back on track. It would take time for stability to return after a decade of instability, but Tunisia may remain open to new ideas and continue to be a less oppressive place to live in. That would be a better system than the despotic one, and possibly an example for neighbouring Libya and Algeria to follow.
The pessimistic scenario is the one where ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ The more pressures from inside and abroad, the more stubbornness the President will show. Opposition would be dealt with by force, and the popular legitimacy becomes the legitimacy of the sword. Here, as the security and military establishments gain prominence, they will be tempted to amass more authority themselves. In this scenario, authoritarianism’s regional champions would be the main bankrollers, possibly joined by China, which would in turn encourage Tunisian authorities to defy their Western partners. But an authoritarian system in a republic already plagued by corruption and a fractured bureaucracy, situated in an instable region, is not a recipe for stability. The State’s structural weaknesses would not be reformed, and human rights would be smashed. Tunisia’s model would be over.
It is therefore in the interests of Tunisians and their international partners that a negotiated solution to the current crisis is found. Tunisian organizations and officials’ complaints about neoliberal diktats need to be taken into consideration in the North. The demands for more openness to dialogue coming from local groups and Western governments, on the other side, should be followed by the Tunisian authorities. This way, the achievements of the last decade would not be lost and the mistakes could become lessons for the future.