The idea that democracy is the only possible system has lost all plausibility. Even the most consolidated democracies are struggling, and none of them can claim to be successfully coping with globalization, inequality, and immigration. In many ways, democracy – or the way it has been conceived in the post-World War II (WW2) era – is in a period of intellectual and practical decline.
Tunisia’s democratic transition was always threatened by the devastating effects of its economic crisis, which triggered the 2010-2011 revolution. Therefore, when Tunisians went to vote in 2019, they did so in a profoundly dramatic macroeconomic context, marked by high unemployment, skyrocketing public debt, and political fragmentation. Many citizens lost faith in the parties and the 2011 Arab Spring revolution amid a seemingly hopeless lack of prospects among the youth. Young Tunisians had held the most hope after the fall of Ben Ali and by 2019, had also lost the most.
Young Tunisians had held the most hope after the fall of Ben Ali and by 2019, had also lost the most.
It was in this context that Kais Saied was elected president in 2019. By the summer of 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic only served to exacerbate Tunisia’s problems.
It can be argued that Saied, a university professor until 2016 who understood Tunisian youth’s anger from his daily interactions with students, won the presidential election of October 2019 because he ran a rather unusual campaign – one that would likely face considerable criticism were an American or a European to adopt it. Saied made no promises. He presented no programs and ran without the backing of any official parties. His only guarantee was a sincere determination to relaunch Tunisia on the right path.
Tunisians had few ideas about where to place him in the ideological spectrum. Some described Saied as conservative or a traditionalist, and therefore sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood-related Ennadha. Yet, while he did appear to hold traditionalist ideas in his speeches, Saied did not have any party membership or allies.
Those who describe him as conservative must then reconcile with the fact that he has received considerable support from middle-class youth and university students. The president won with the kind of margin that would make most western politicians drool: over 72 percent of the votes on the second round.
During his political honeymoon in early 2020, Saied pleased his voters, earning the reputation of someone who gets things done – a “decision-maker”. Previously disappointed by an excessive political fragmentation that prevents solid majorities in parliament, Tunisian public opinion improved. Perhaps it was this pragmatism that led Saied to his decision to dissolve Parliament in July 2021.
Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, dismissed the government and Parliament, and lifted members of Parliament’s immunity in the wake of widespread protests against the executive, accusing the Islamist party Ennahda of pushing the country into misery. This decision parallels the Egyptian revolt against elected President Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013.
Tunisia was in political disarray, a chronic economic crisis, and a worsening Covid-19 pandemic.
At the time, Tunisia was in political disarray amid intra-party vetoes and bickering, a chronic economic crisis that democracy proved unable to resolve, and a worsening Covid-19 pandemic. Saied has since been accused of staging a soft coup – but a coup, nonetheless. He had used his legal training to frame his decision by invoking Article 80 of the Constitution, which gives the head of state the power to freeze the executive and legislative bodies in the event of an emergency or proven crisis. After all, his university career centered on constitutional law, and Saied justified his controversial move by citing the fundamental charter. It is up to legal scholars to decide whether this choice was warranted.
The Arab World’s First Female Prime Minister
In October 2021, Saied extended his reach by appointing a new government. Arguably, the most interesting aspect of the new authority’s composition was the decision to appoint Najla Bouden as Tunisia’s – and the Arab world’s – first female prime minister. But is it enough to remove the fears of an authoritarian drift in the country? While the appointment of a woman in the role of Prime Minister can only be good news for Tunisia, the context in which this appointment has occurred begs for cautious enthusiasm.
Saied’s suspension of parliament and weakening of the executive imply that, in practice, the new Prime Minister will not enjoy the full powers that the Tunisian Constitution guarantees. Public opinion remains focused on the pursuit of change through the economic and social reforms that the President announced during his electoral campaign. They are Tunisia’s most urgent priorities. While the outgoing prime minister wished Bouden well, critics, including some Tunisian feminists, accused Saied’s appointment of a woman to lead the executive as a “PR stunt” and “political posturing”.
Critics accused Saied’s appointment of a woman to lead the executive as a “PR stunt” and “political posturing”.
It could be argued that by surrounding himself with technocrats, Saied is limiting the role of parliament. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Bouden has an important role to play. Bouden, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Tunis, has gained important experience in the management of international aid. She was responsible for the implementation of the World Bank program at the Ministry of Education. A more optimistic interpretation of her appointment could be seen in the context of needing to reassure donors and foreign governments that Tunisia is committed to tackling corruption, its serious economic crisis, and the commitments that it has made with donors and international institutions.
Now, Saied must hope to close a bailout agreement with the International Monetary Fund while securing some $8 billion in additional loans from international lenders. That task might serve as the true test for the President. So far, most of the population has sided with him, but if he and his prime minister fail to produce tangible economic results soon, that political support will wane quickly and test his democratic resolve.
Bouden’s appointment as Prime Minister may be viewed as part of Saied’s strategy to secure better terms from lenders. In February 2021, her predecessor Mechichi asked his ambassadors to intervene with the rating agencies to explain Tunisia’s situation, calling for understanding and support after Moody’s downgraded the country from B2 to B3 with a negative outlook – one step away from a catastrophic C rating, which would entail the country’s passage into the Paris Club and the subsequent loss of what little remains of its sovereignty.
Voters appear to approve of Saied’s maneuvers, even if the President might be accused of ruling in the tradition of Ben Ali rather than the 2011 revolution.
The new government has been tasked with leading the country to new elections on December 17, 2022. Interestingly, voters appear to generally approve of Saied’s maneuvers, even if the President might be accused of ruling in the tradition of Ben Ali rather than the 2011 revolution. Nevertheless, Bouden’s appointment did carry over a significant – if often overlooked – element of the 2011 Arab Spring. It had elements of a gender revolution. For the first time in the Arab world, women were on the front line of the protest – something that had not happened with previous opposition movements.
The other effect that the Arab Spring produced is a changed political culture in the Arab world. Even as the overall assessment of that period is not a favorable one, and despite the fact that even Tunisia has lost some of the “democratic” gains earned through the revolutions – even if just temporarily and superficially. The Arab Spring shattered the Nasserian ideal of the strong and charismatic leader.
Arguably, Egypt’s leadership has become even more pharaonic in scope. But the even bigger role that the dreaded mukhabarat (secret police) has played since the overthrow of the democratically elected Morsi government in 2013, makes it even more apparent that charisma has nothing to do with President al-Sisi’s leadership. And that makes him and his imitators more vulnerable.
Nevertheless, constitutional or not, Saied’s move could be used by political scientists to suggest that Tunisia has moved from the Arab Spring to an Arab Winter. Quite simply, Tunisian society was not ready – or worse, not capable – for democracy.
Rarely have democratic experiments succeeded without significant economic support.
An argument can be made for Tunisia’s democratic readiness and the lack of a program, direction, and ideology in its revolutionary movements. The converging disparate opinions of what political freedom entails call for “more democracy” – a vacuum that encouraged and enabled the long marginalized Islamic parties to exploit the anti-democratic virus in Tunisia.
An established democracy can survive an economic crisis, but rarely have democratic experiments succeeded without significant economic support. The Americans funded the Marshall Plan in post-WW2 Europe because they understood that without significant financial aid for reconstruction, the fragile foundations of democracy would fail in favor of socialist revolutions, which the Soviets were ready to encourage.
Timing also did not help. The West, especially some of Tunisia’s closest western economic partners (France, Italy, and Spain), were fearing “spring revolutions” of their own as their economies were reeling from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Certainly, Tunisians would have benefited from a concerted economic aid package similar to the Marshall Plan.
There were also the serious suspicions that the West has cultivated among progressive Arab peoples with its military interventions in Iraq and its unchallenged support for Israel. Moreover, the rich Gulf States were highly distrustful of democratic movements and acted accordingly to sabotage the Arab Spring, fomenting international and inter-confessional proxy wars as in the cases of Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
The absence of an economic aid package weakened even the best-intentioned and organized democratic transition process, frightening the West into pulling back for the sake of stability. Chaos might be more democratic, but it does not look good on TV. Meanwhile, with the West in retreat, Russia and Turkey have stepped in as the European (or Euro-Asiatic) powers. This has encouraged political stability through unwavering support for a specific “political horse” and through economic aid such as the respective examples of Syria (Assad) and Turkey (the Muslim Brotherhood-backed GNA in Tripoli) have suggested.
Rather than interpreting Saied’s anti-democratic steps as an attempt to revive the epoch of the Ra’is (Leader), what is more evident of the Arab Spring’s apparent failure in Tunisia is how its economy has not made any progress. According to the World Bank, Tunisia’s GDP grew an average of 1.5 percent between 2011 and 2019. In 2020, the pandemic “burned” 8.9 percent of its GDP. In per capita terms, wealth today is 20 percent lower than before the Ben Ali dictatorship ended in 2010. In terms of purchasing power parity, Tunisia remains below the levels prior to the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, unemployment hovers at 18 percent, doubling for youth and women.
Tunisians have realized they’re not better off than they were in Ben Ali’s times 11 years ago.
11 years after they dismissed their corrupt dictator, Tunisians have realized they are not better off than they were in Ben Ali’s times, characterized by corruption, public waste, and the absence of a future. 10 years after the death of Ben Ali, nothing has changed for those who walk through the gates of a factory or find themselves desperate for a salary on a daily basis.
Standing on its own, democracy does not offer solutions to fix the Tunisian economy. Currently, the economy is so fragile and vulnerable to international dynamics that it lacks an autonomous potential for innovation and the creation of well-remunerated jobs.
Ultimately, Tunisia’s democratic experiment has a better chance of succeeding if the political reforms are preceded by economic ones that enhance opportunities and facilitate international integration. Russia’s immediate post-Soviet transition under Boris Yeltsin has made that abundantly clear. Faced with an intractable social and economic crisis – made all the more precarious by the Covid-19 pandemic, Saied has made a risky choice. It is imperative that this decision works internally and internationally in order to get the country back on its feet.