After a decade of democratic development following the fall of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime, Tunisia has now experienced considerable authoritarian backsliding. Since the constitutional law professor Kais Saied won his landslide victory in the presidential elections of 2019, he has sacked his prime-minister,dissolved parliament, and is working on amending or scrapping the constitution altogether. For close observers of Tunisia, these drastic changes did not come as a surprise. Many had warned for years that unless the economy got back on track, the whole democratic endeavor was at risk.
Saied has taken every opportunity to remove any and all constraints on his power.
Focusing on what Saied’s politics tells us about populism, the president ran on an anti-establishment platform that attacked the party system and parliament, and promised to bring power back to the people. Since coming into office, however, he has taken every opportunity to remove any and all constraints on his power. A depressingly familiar story, populism tends to be anti-institutional, rather than outright anti-democratic. It abhors any form of divisions of power and works to strengthen the executive by claiming a direct link between “the people” and the anointed leader.
There are, however, differences between Saied’s brand of populism and the more familiar varieties. Saied’s persona is grey and toned down, almost dull. His nickname “Robocop” connotes the lack of affect in the way he speaks. In fact, Saied won a crushing victory over his rival Nabil Karoui –– a media-mogul and businessman more typical of populist politicians –– dubbed the “Tunisian Berlusconi.” Rather than projecting charisma and dominance, Saied emphasized his academic credentials as a constitutional law professor. By doing so he taps into a deeply rooted Tunisian respect for rule of law and the constitution. He is in good company with his presidential predecessors, as both Bourguiba and Ben Ali employed the term constitution (destor), even as they placed themselves above the law.
Furthermore, while Saied channels anti-establishment furor and is not above claiming that his political enemies areburning the country, there has been no sign of scapegoating of precarious minorities so far. In populism, the decline of the nation and the loss of greatness is invariably blamed on some external, even if intimate, other. America was great, Donald J. Trump bemoaned, but then the Mexicans came. Narendra Modi continually evokes a grand Hindu past, supposedly demolished by Muslim invaders. Populist rhetoric claims that national elites are complicit in a dark conspiracy with marginalized elements of society. It focuses and energizes anxieties and fears already prevalent among the population at large.
In populism, the decline of the nation and the loss of greatness is invariably blamed on some external other.
The Arab world has its own brand of this tendency: al muaamara al kabira or “the great conspiracy.” Conjured up by Arab leaders and street vendors alike, we are told that the CIA or Mossad orchestrate even the most seemingly banal events from the shadows. This tendency reflects an anxiety, rooted in historical experience, of constant Western meddling and invasion. By contrast, during my fieldwork in Tunisia between 2014 and 2019, rarely did I hear any expressions of such a conspiratorial nature. Seldom were domestic problems ascribed to some external or internal nefarious “other.” This can partly be explained by the historical lack of external involvement in Tunisian affairs, relative to other countries in the region. It also reflects deep-seated tensions with democratic politics.
Two kinds of narratives dominated during my time in Tunisia. The first claimed that the revolution had failed because it had been hijacked by either by coastal elites or Islamists. Either way, it needed to be restored – whether by democratic or undemocratic means.
The second kind of narrative directed frustration at the state of affairs inward. “We Tunisians are corrupt and violent,” I would often hear from young and old alike. “We are not ready for democracy” appeared to be the often-unspoken implication. This is another dark side of the post-colonial condition: a nagging sense of inferiority. It also reflects the lingering propaganda of decades of dictatorship. But, I suggest, there is also something else that is revealed. It reveals a fundamentally democratic anxiety: can the people rule itself? “Before the revolution, only Ben Ali and his family was corrupt, now we are all corrupted,” a young Tunisian woman told me. “Power corrupts,” the saying goes. If democracy is the decentering of power, is it not also the decentralization of corruption?
Democracy moves politics out from the shadow and into the light. By doing so, it can reveal many unsavory aspects of society that previously had been hidden. It can make visible things that were only dimly felt during the days of dictatorship. Following the revolution, thousands of young Tunisians left to fight for Islamists in Syria. Many came back and brought violence and bloodshed with them. Democracy did not stem the tide of corruption and violence in Tunisia, it only made them more perceptible.
Saied channels two competing and popular desires: the desire to realize the true potential of the revolution, and the desire to return to the comfort of the authoritarian silence. Yet to believe that giving unbridled power to one man is the way out of the democratic labyrinth is no less a delusion than the notion that somehow removing immigrants will lead back to a golden age. Dictatorship does not solve the problems of democracy. At best it only hides them for a time.
What Saied represents is nothing less than the terror of the democratic condition.
Tunisian populism is not exceptional, even less peripheral in relation to larger global trends, but rather reveals the enduring tensions of democracy that remains obscured in more established democracies. In places where democracy is not taken for granted, the people have not yet gained the confidence in themselves to externalize all of their dark impulses onto some imagined other. What Saied represents is nothing less than the terror of the democratic condition: the fear that individually and collectively, we the people will not be up to the task of governing ourselves. This anxiety is rarely acknowledged by the defenders of democracy and is therefore all the more easily exploited by would-be tyrants.
The strength of Tunisia’s civil society, and above all the looming economic meltdown, will likely mean that Saied’s days are numbered. If and when democracy returns, its champions inside and outside of Tunisia need to be more clear-eyed about its inherent contradictions. Nor should we fall into our own tendency of scapegoating populism and its proponents. Populism channels perennial democratic fears: fears that outsiders will corrupt the purity of the people, fears that the elected rulers will devour the people, and finally fears of the people themselves. We all carry these fears within ourselves, and we must acknowledge them in order to confront them.