As fears mount over democratic backsliding in Tunisia, the role of the international community is becoming increasingly delicate. Tunisian President Kais Saied has engaged in a series of power-grabbing moves since July of last year, including freezing parliament, sacking the prime minister, suspending the constitution, and ruling by decree.
Most recently, Saied unilaterally replaced the Supreme Judicial Council, which is meant to oversee the judiciary, and took on the power to dismiss judges and ban them from going on strike. He has also embarked on an official constitutional reform process meant to culminate in parliamentary elections this December.
Saied replaced the Supreme Judicial Council and took on the power to dismiss judges and ban them from going on strike.
Meanwhile, the country’s economic crisis has persisted. International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials are currently in talks over a bailout agreement while also securing loans from other donors, including the World Bank. Yet such economic bailouts will not solve all Tunisia’s problems, particularly if the government does not obtain buy-in from the opposition in order to undertake difficult reforms – which the IMF is demanding.
Additionally, policy-makers in the United States and other Western countries are divided over whether to unequivocally condemn Saied’s unilateral power-grab and/or threaten to withhold aid unless he takes certain actions.
Saied’s proposed constitutional reform process has been criticized for not being sufficiently inclusive. According to the plan, Tunisians are first meant to be “digitally consulted” in an online survey in order to gather ideas for a new constitution. Then, a commission appointed entirely by Saied will draft a new constitution meant to be put to a referendum in July.
Observers have pointed out that one-third of Tunisians do not have access to the internet, impeding online consultation, and that the president’s selection of the drafting committee gives him unchecked power over the shape of the new document. The plan also leaves parliament shut down for more than a year. Human rights groups have also criticized Saied’s muzzling of opponents through arbitrary house arrests and use of military courts to try civilians who have publicly denounced the government.
One-third of Tunisians do not have access to the internet.
Saied was the second president to be elected following the adoption of the 2014 constitution, which inaugurated the second Republic. The previous constitution had been in place since the end of the French protectorate in 1956 and was abrogated following the removal of Ben Ali in 2011. Unlike its predecessor, the 2014 constitution was drafted through a consensual process that nearly broke down in 2013, largely due to disagreements between the secularist and Islamist political camps. At the time, it was hailed for being the most liberal constitution in the Arab world.
Despite this milestone in transitioning away from authoritarianism, officials failed to undertake the necessary reforms to address the dire economic and social problems that plagued the country. These included excessive public sector employment and persistent indebtedness that contributed to high inflation levels, and at certain points, caused a sharp depreciation of the Tunisian dinar. Furthermore, unemployment has been in the double-digits, with youth unemployment (aged 15-24) reaching nearly 40 percent.
By the time Saied was elected in September 2019, voters were fed up with the economic stagnation and intransigence among the political elite, especially within parliament. Indeed, it was his appeal as an outsider that undoubtedly led to his election. Among other things, political obduracy led to the failure of proper implementation of the constitution, particularly the formation of a constitutional court, making it easier for Saied to carry out his power grabs.
The government’s inability to manage the pandemic has caused a severe health crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic that set in during the spring of 2020, about six months after Saied’s election, exacerbated these economic woes and caused GDP growth to contract by nearly 9 percent that year. Unsurprisingly, the government’s inability to manage the pandemic also caused a severe health crisis.
It was in this context of general discontent and unrest that Saied moved to seize more power for himself. Violent protests have continued intermittently since then, reflecting the public’s frustration and provoking an increasingly aggressive posture by security forces. By now, the opposition has become too divided to stop Saied as he charges forward with his roadmap that many fear is restoring the overly-powerful executive and limited freedoms of the Ben Ali era.
The international community’s reaction to Saied’s actions has been complicated by two factors. First, he has retained a fair amount of popular support despite his anti-democratic measures. The results of a recent household survey indicated that nearly 80 percent of respondents held a positive view of the president’s decisions since he initially froze parliament.
Overall, Saied appears to have become a highly polarizing figure.
Overall, Saied appears to have become a highly polarizing figure between those who see his acts as saving Tunisia’s democratic transition from the multiple economic, political, and health crises, and those who see them as damaging the transition and negating the country’s democratic gains.
This polarization relates to the second complicating factor for the international community: harsh condemnation and/or conditional foreign assistance could give Saied a platform for stoking populist sentiment, possibly provoking more violence. Some Western policymakers worry that Saied could use reform discontent as an excuse to crack down on his enemies while claiming to root out corruption.
International actors who support a democratic transition in Tunisia are thus caught in a dilemma. Condemning the president could further empower him, but not condemning him will do nothing to disempower him and restore a balance of power, particularly given the opposition’s inability to offer alternative solutions and policies.
Yet Saied, too, is in a quandary. Entering into further bailout arrangements with the IMF and other international donors may hurt his popularity, given the perception among some Tunisians that such loans perpetuate Western dominance. Yet without these loans and reforms, it will be impossible to keep the economy afloat. Indeed, disillusionment with his proposals is already starting to set in among his supporters as the economy continues to stagnate.
Condemning the president could further empower him, but not condemning him will do nothing to disempower him.
In considering how to engage with Saied, policy-makers in the West should keep two things in mind.
First, allowing Saied to pursue his track of constitutional reform is dangerous, not only for the apparent lack of inclusivity in his plan but also because the 2014 constitution does not need reforming. The existing constitution goes far in protecting individual liberties, while Saied’s reform process includes implementing a revised constitution that would restore a powerful executive and limit individual rights. Moreover, even Saied’s supporters recognize that a new constitution will not necessarily help them get a job.
Second, the political transition that began in 2011 will not succeed until the government addresses the critical economic issues that Tunisians face. Human rights advocates and pundits have criticized the Biden Administration for not following through on its promise of a human rights-centered foreign policy. They fear that the administration’s failure to more forcefully condemn Saied’s actions will lead to further democratic backsliding across the Middle East and North Africa.
The calls to use Saied’s economic desperation as leverage to impose democratic reforms are not misguided, but the US and other international partners should focus just as firmly on making sure the government puts measures in place to get the economy back on track first and foremost.