This article is part of the Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Initiative, MEI’s look at the evolving threats to freedom, political rights, and civil liberties, as well as the struggles to achieve fair, transparent, and representative governance across the MENA region.
Tunisia’s current system of government is by all indicators continuing to move even farther away from a liberal democratic form envisioned in the 2014 constitution. This is particularly true in the post-July 25, 2021 period after President Kais Saied suspended parliament and assumed full executive and legislative powers. However, analyses that focus solely on Saied miss some of the broader social and political trends that were already rejecting the way Tunisia’s post-2011 “democratic transition” has unfolded. They also miss the nexus that has converged to maintain the current system, in particular between security forces, some sycophantic media, and key figures within the political, business, and civil service sectors.
Prior to Saied’s centralization of authority, there was increasing fragmentation within the executive branch, among state institutions, within and between political parties, within civil society, and even between regions of the country. While the normative ideal of liberal democracy presumes that competition for, contestation of, and checks and balances on power inevitably produce a relatively stable and legitimate governing system, the fragmentation seen at nearly every level of Tunisian society produced little of either and instead saw stagnation in terms of development and no cohesive national project. Since 2011 there have been nine prime ministers, even more ministerial reshuffles, and numerous parliamentary blocs forming, dissolving, and regrouping in parallel to equally mercurial party formations — all while spending on desperately collapsing public services in education, transportation, and health decreased in real (i.e. inflation and exchange adjusted) terms. With such political volatility and lacking a coherent vision for development, state institutions were unable or unwilling to make bold but necessary decisions on spending and real per-capita GDP fell steadily each year from $4,399 in 2014 to $3,498 in 2020.
That was the vacuum in which Saied’s centralization of authority (or alternatively the centralization of authority proposed by the then increasingly popular Abir Moussi) appealed to large numbers of Tunisians. This was exacerbated by the fact that competition and contestation in post-2011 Tunisia was not limited to domestic actors alone, as international financial institutions and foreign states have played vital roles in sustaining funding for Tunisia’s government and civil society activity — funding explicitly tied to policy choices often opposed by the public. For example, EU macrofinancial assistance has come with explicit conditions on Tunisian energy policy and public employment that have been at odds with popular protests over the cost of living and public hiring policies. Such unpopular austerity measures have also been among the conditions for International Monetary Fund loan programs since 2013. The World Bank’s hundreds of millions of dollars in loans for local governments in Tunisia since 2015 have come with a development model for decentralization that is at odds with those of local activists.
To be clear, democracy itself is not losing popularity — in the fall 2021 Arab Barometer polling, 72% of Tunisians still preferred democracy to any other system. But the same polling also found that a plurality of respondents believed that the system needs to be totally “replaced” rather than “reformed.” This seeming contradiction — Tunisians preferring democracy yet wanting to replace the system — is open to multiple interpretations. However, it is clear that many Tunisians don’t believe their “democracy” has actually been very democratic even before President Saied dismissed parliament.
The post-2011 consensus
The fruits of 2011 largely benefitted a new political elite: businessmen for whom the ruling family and/or strong state institutions had been an obstacle to greater profits, but also human rights activists and leaders of repressed political parties who had struggled for decades against the regime managed by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Many of these figures joined political life and won positions as heads of key state institutions or as members of parliament. In contrast, the masses of people whose “everyday resistance” to the regime did not make headlines or earn them the label of “dissident” did not win positions of power in the post-2011 system: football fans who faced down police repression; participants in the Gafsa mining region’s 2008 revolt against an exploitative and deadly development model (a preview of the 2010-11 revolts); student unionists fighting to reclaim universities that had become the regime’s repressive and disciplinary tools; workers who, in the momentum of 2011, kicked out old management and chose their own or instituted self-management schemes; farmers who reclaimed land taken from them by the state.
These actors and their struggles played important roles in bringing down the former regime, yet they have often been sidelined by political actors in the post-2011 era, including by President Saied despite his initial pro-revolution rhetoric. The representative, liberal democratic system with free and fair elections and a new constitution that had been ushered in appeared to many Tunisians as having failed to solve — or even greatly exacerbated — the pressing problems experienced by ordinary people. On economic development, on policing, on regional injustices, on corruption, the few positions on which the “people’s representatives” in parliament found any consensus were either tangential to or at odds with “the people’s” demands. The lack of parliamentary consensus on appointing a constitutional court ironically facilitated Saied’s unchecked suspension of parliament on July 25, 2021, while the parliamentary consensus on a new anti-terrorism law ironically is providing a legal fig-leaf to the current wave of arrests of former MPs. While some analysts very early on diagnosed this consensus-seeking among elites as coming at the expense of social issues, many others preferred to hold onto a rosy narrative of Tunisia’s democratic exceptionalism in the region.
The new system
In the nearly two years since beginning his centralization of power, Saied’s mode of rule and the increasing police and judicial repression of politicians and journalists have understandably drawn sharp condemnations from human rights groups and democracy advocates. At the same time, many of Saied’s own supporters have lost faith in his capacity to replace the system in a way that is meaningfully different from what came before. While Saied’s new “hyper-presidential” constitution includes room for a legislative body with vastly reduced powers, the extremely low participation rates in the online consultation about the constitution, the referendum on the constitution, and the elections for the new legislative body suggests there is little popular faith that these legislative changes will accomplish anything positive — or that voting will have any effect on government. The latter may be interpreted as an acknowledgment that many people no longer believe they have any power over their own government, which is a deeply pessimistic reflection of the state of democracy.
And yet despite the centralization of authority in the executive, or rather because of it, existing fragmentation within Tunisian society is increasing. This includes the spectacular spike in racist violence against black Africans fueled by Saied and his supporters, which itself has provoked sharp polarization. Saied’s supporters also continue to cheer the arrests of opposition politicians, regardless of the glaring lack of due process afforded to suspects. Another example is that the minority who did vote in favor of Saied’s new constitution voted nearly unanimously: 95% in favor. This number is similar to the numbers Ben Ali and similar monarchical presidents in other countries used to win in elections that were neither free nor fair. Under those systems, voting was treated not as a practice of contesting power, but as a small interest group extending its power over the rest of society and sharing the spoils through the political machine. Contestation of power, though heavily repressed and often out of sight, happened elsewhere: within the single ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party, within state institutions, within unions or by unionists against employers and officials, in football stadiums, and towards the end of Ben Ali’s rule online on websites blocked by the government.
Until recently, Saied has had to do relatively little to repress the political opposition because they have remained largely unpopular. Now however, although the opposition remains unpopular, they appear to be working together better than in the summer of 2021, or at least media outlets that once ignored them are giving them more attention as media institutions themselves feel more threatened with repression. More importantly, the recent arrests of high-profile political figures have come with accusations by authorities that the accused were conspiring with foreign diplomats against state security. Regardless of the relative merit or baselessness of these accusations, they reflect President Saied’s acute attentiveness to perceived threats to his political project.
Without other organizational power such as a party to rely on, President Saied is highly dependent on security forces to carry out his orders and for the information he receives, meaning that while power is highly concentrated, the presidency is also isolated. This dependence in turn has further empowered security forces, who have since 2011 escaped civilian control or judicial accountability in what amounts to impunity. With fewer restraints on their powers, it is likely the latest waves of repression represent to some degree a score-settling by some factions within the security sector. As executive power continues to accumulate within the presidency and the security forces (a trend with some antecedents as far back as 2015), other political actors within business, media, and the civil service will increasingly look to these institutions to curry favor or preserve their own positions of power, thus reinforcing the trend. Meanwhile the judiciary’s capacity to hold the executive accountable is languishing even further, with the president’s new powers to fire judges weighing heavily on those who must oversee cases in which President Saied has made highly charged and prejudicial public statements about the accused.
These trends all point to a continued disintegration of the power of ordinary people to direct, change, or even affect how they are governed through formal mechanisms or organizations. If people power is to intervene in shaping policies, it will come through informal means. But because of the increasing repression, only the most dire of circumstances affecting the health and livelihoods of people are likely to break through what may be a new wall of fear. While the Arab Barometer polling found that 72% of Tunisians still preferred democracy to any other system, an even larger percentage — 76% — said they strongly or somewhat agreed with the sentiment that as long as the government solves the country’s economic problems, it doesn’t matter what kind of government is in place.
Fadil Aliriza is the founder and editor-in-chief of Meshkal.org, an independent news website in English and Arabic covering Tunisia, and a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s North Africa and Sahel Program.
Photo by Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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