Tunisia: a dangerous slide away from democracy
When President Kais Saied dismissed the prime minister and suspended parliament last July, many were reluctant to call it a coup. Party politics had become so dysfunctional that many saw in the move a possibility to restore the revolution’s promise of democracy. But since then Saied has granted himself extensive, unchecked powers. Recently, he has started to criminalise those who oppose him. The upcoming constitutional review process promoted by Saied is unlikely to challenge presidential power. Meanwhile Tunisia’s vast economic problems remain unaddressed, raising the fear of unrest and resulting repression that will tilt Tunisia further away from democracy.
The sentencing in absentia of a former president to a four-year jail term; the investigation of four former prime ministers on electoral violation charges; the incommunicado detention of the deputy president of the largest political party: this doesn’t sound like a country on its way back to democracy.
All these have happened recently under Tunisia’s President Kais Saied, who last July dismissed the prime minister and suspended parliament. Saied claimed his moves were necessary to deal with deadlocked and fragmented parliamentary processes. In July, he said he was acting to restore the constitution and keep alive the revolution that in 2011 brought democracy to Tunisia.
But in September Saied suspended most of the checks and balances enshrined in the constitution and gave himself power to rule by decree. Instead of playing the role the times demanded – to stabilise his country’s democracy – he looked like a leader tempted by power and willing to sacrifice democratic institutions to accumulate as much of it as he could.
Calling it a coup?
Saied’s actions in July were popular among many, and people took to the streets to celebrate, while others protested against. 2019 elections had resulted in a fragmented parliament and party politics had become dysfunctional. Many people viewed politicians as being self-serving and preoccupied with fighting each other rather than tackling the immense economic and social problems Tunisians face daily. These problems worsened under the COVID-19 pandemic that struck Tunisia hard and devasted its crucial tourism industry.
While people had wholeheartedly backed the 2011 revolution and subsequently defended it at key junctures when anti-democratic forces tried to drag it off course, a decade later too many were still not seeing any tangible improvement in their lives. The issues that motivated their anger – unemployment, poverty, inequality, corruption and the failure of political institutions to respond to these problems – remained. Protests never stopped. 2021, which ended in the president’s power grab, started with mass protests led by young people in the capital, Tunis, over their inability to afford basic goods and services.
It was for these reasons that many among Tunisia’s civil society were initially reluctant to describe Saied’s actions as a coup. Some genuinely saw in these moves a possibility of getting back to the radical intent of the revolution. Some powerful forces, like the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), initially indicated tacit support. The deadlocked parliament and squabbling political parties had few defenders. Some in local civil society felt that when international commentators called it a coup, this was unhelpful. Inside and outside Tunisia, many chose to hope for the best.
A roadmap to nowhere?
It took six months, until mid-December, for President Saied to unveil his roadmap for transition. He was facing growing international pressure to do so, and by that stage pressure from the UGTT too. For many, September brought a tipping point: by deciding to rule by decree, Saied was going much further than they wanted.
By the time he announced his roadmap, Saied had appointed a new Prime Minister, Nadja Bouden, an academic with little political experience, and a new cabinet. There is no prospect of these standing up to his power; if they did, he could simply replace them.
Under Saied’s roadmap, a referendum on a new constitution will be held in July 2022, exactly one year on from his coup. It will be preceded by consultation, online and through local committees, starting in January. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December 2022, meaning parliament will have been suspended not for a month but for a year and a half.
The processes by which the inputs gathered from consultations will be shaped into a new constitution are entirely opaque. What role civil society or political parties might play is unclear. Saied can be expected to pick and choose the advice he wants to hear. He has in the past talked about scrapping political parties and downgrading parliament, and has said that Ennahda, Tunisia’s biggest party, which he has blamed for many of the problems, will be excluded from the process. Few would be surprised if presidential power emerges from the process even stronger.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Amine Ghali is director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, a civil society organisation aimed at promoting civil society’s contribution to democracy and transitional justice in Tunisia and the wider region.
I have recently noticed growing opposition from civil society to the July events. At the beginning there was a kind of euphoria, but now civil society is more critical of what happened, possibly because people have started to notice that Saied has not yet fulfilled his promises.
One of Saied’s early promises was to fight corruption and bad governance, none of which has yet happened. In addition, he has taken actions and decisions that he did not announce on 25 July. His actions – mainly against the Ennahda party and other leading political parties – initially abided by the constitution, but then he started acting against the constitution and reversing milestones of our democratic transition.
According to the official discourse, echoed by some political actors, our current constitution is so bad that we need a new one. But in my opinion – and civil society’s – it is not that bad. More importantly, the constitution-drafting process following the 2010 uprisings had broad consensus, and the new constitution was approved by a lot more than the required two-third majority of the National Constituent Assembly – it received the votes of 200 out of 217 deputies. But now we seem to be moving from a participatory process to a restrictive one.
At least part of civil society will continue to advocate for more and better steps to be included into the roadmap, including a presidential election, which we may need to hold since the roadmap included the drafting of a new constitution, which will result in a new distribution of powers between the president and the head of government.
We will also push for a more participatory approach, because holding a referendum on the constitution is not enough, as it will only allow people to respond to a yes/no question.
Unfortunately, one of the main features of this new governance system is lack of consultation, not only with civil society but also with political parties. So far, the space for the consultation process has not been wide enough. One of its features is online consultations, which are not the kind of consultation we have become used to over the past 10 years.
Even if there were many things that didn’t function as they were supposed to, there was at least some form of consultation, a form of give and take, between politicians and civil society, experts and the international community. That ecosystem we once had does not exist anymore. Civil society organisations will push for better forms of cooperation between decision-makers and civil society.
Civic space is shrinking. Although civil society is not yet under direct threat, we believe that our turn is coming. We have noticed that Tunisian decision-makers hate intermediary bodies, so they have shut down parliament, attacked the judiciary and boycotted the media. We are probably next on their list, so we need to be very alert. There are rumours that politicians will introduce legal changes that will affect civil society organisations, which we won’t accept.
We must defend civic space while we still have some space to interact with decision-makers in the absence of parliament, the traditional intermediary body.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Amine Ghali. Read the full interview here.
Tidying away dissenters
Recent moves suggest Saied is tidying away political opponents before any elections. At the time of writing Noureddine Bhiri, former justice minister and deputy president of Ennahda, is currently in hospital after being grabbed by a group of non-uniformed men and detained, apparently on terrorism grounds, although no formal charges have been brought.
The four former prime ministers accused of electoral violations are among 19 people referred to trial. Another of the 19 is Moncef Marzouki, who was chosen as president by the constituent assembly that followed the revolution. This comes on top of Marzouki’s in absentia jail sentence on the grounds of ‘undermining the security of the state from abroad’ and causing ‘diplomatic harm’. This looks like history repeating itself: Marzouki was previously sentenced under pre-revolutionary tyrant President Ben Ali.
Saied is further betraying the revolution by making use of the repressive laws that preceded it. Even calling the coup a coup can risk censure: among those in jail is social commentator Selim Jebali, serving six months for calling Saied a ‘dog’ and a ‘coup maker’. Immunity has been stripped from members of the suspended parliament. Now Saied has turned on senior judicial officials, accusing them of being linked to ‘criminal gangs’.
While people are serving jail sentences for proffering mild insults against him, Saied continues to use his presidential platform to smear whoever stands in his way. He has, for example, called Marzouki one of the ‘enemies of Tunisia’. Saied and Marzouki have become locked in a heated clash of egos; Marzouki is only able to give as good as he gets because he currently lives in France. If he was home in Tunisia, he’d be serving his sentence now.
The obvious question is how inclusive Saied’s consultation process can be if opposition voices are criminalised and locked away or subdued through self-censorship.
Political manoeuvring in whose interest?
There’s something else troubling about Saied’s use of the presidential podium to hurl insults at critics: it doesn’t do anything to help the people in whose name he claims to govern.
Saied makes the classic populist claim that he acts in the interests of ‘the people’. He seeks to position himself as the true heir to the revolution. He even changed the official date of the revolution’s celebration from 14 January, when Ben Ali was removed from power, to 17 December, the day Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight.
This may seem trivial, but it suggests that Saied wants people to celebrate not the ousting of a president, but rather the ongoing revolution of which he has appointed himself leader.
But so far he’s done little to help the people he claims to speak for. Saied says he acted out of frustration with the self-serving manoeuvres of an out-of-touch political class, but can’t he be accused of exactly the same? Since taking unchecked power, he has been absorbed with institutional politics, reworking the political system and stifling political opponents. Meanwhile people’s demands for change in their everyday lives remain unserved.
Saied has accused his opponents of corruption and positioned himself as the person to clean up Tunisia’s politics, but he has offered little new; rather than a scourge to eliminate, corruption seems to be just a label he uses to disqualify opponents.
When it comes to Tunisia’s troubled economy, huge problems remain unaddressed. Debt is now 80 per cent of GDP, inflation is high and the unemployment rate is 18.4 per cent, up from 15.1 per cent before the pandemic. But Saied has no fresh plan.
Economic proposals published in December are just the usual package of austerity cutbacks that should keep the International Monetary Fund happy but make struggling Tunisians worse off: food and fuel price increases, new taxes and a public sector pay freeze. The lack of new ideas and insistence on failed old formulas is the opposite of what people have been protesting for. Economic policies like these are guaranteed to fuel further protests. The UGTT has already rejected the government’s proposal for a 10 per cent public sector wage cut and claims the government does not have the funds to pay wages.
If people backed the coup because they expected deep-rooted economic and social problems to be addressed, what will happen to Saied’s popularity when they don’t see change? With institutional channels blocked, the only recourse people will have to express dissent is to protest. Once Saied has exhausted his political capital, what will he have left to fall back on other than further repression? Around the world, this pattern has been seen time and again.
Here’s a telling example: in December, protesters scored a rare victory when authorities in Sfax province agreed to deal with the rubbish that piled up during a landfill site dispute – see our story. But this came only after security force repression led to the death of a protester. Before becoming president, Saied visited the area and encouraged people to protest; these were the very poor and excluded people, ill-served by the system he swept away, he claims to speak for. But in 2021, with Saied in unchecked power, the first response was to try to repress the protests violently.
Time to avert disaster
The danger is that, if democracy is discredited, when people lose faith with Saied, an even more authoritarian leader will succeed him. People might embrace anyone who promises to speak to their problems.
To help avoid such a fate, Tunisia’s democratic allies need to be more demanding. The European Union and its member states have done little, preoccupied, as usual, with the preservation of ‘stability’ and prevention of migration. Meanwhile undemocratic states in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, predictably are not standing back, and are giving Saied their support. They would be happy to eliminate what they must perceive as the embarrassing presence of a democratic country in the region.
Some levers seem available. Tunisia remains due to hold the prestigious summit of La Francophonie, the international alliance of French-speaking countries; it was planned for late 2021 but postponed until 2022. The event should be taken away from Tunisia unless demonstrable progress is made towards respecting rights and restoring democracy. Tunisia’s allies need to make the point that there is no path to reviving democracy where opponents are jailed, the president cannot be criticised and presidential power goes unchecked.
Meanwhile protests continue to take place, both for and against the coup. Tunisian civil society remains divided, when what’s needed now is collective action to push for the opening up of the constitutional review process. Those against as well as for Saied must have a say. It’s in everyone’s interests, apart from Saied’s, to make sure the fundamental decisions on the system they live under are not left in the hands of one person.
President Saied should be pressured to go further than his December roadmap: he must offer real detail on what will happen with the feedback from the consultations and provide space for politicians, civil society and citizens across the spectrum to critique and shape the process. Any referendum must be genuine and accompanied by free debate. And dialogue must extend to the economic plan as well. The stakes are high, but it isn’t too late to stop dysfunctional democracy giving way to outright dictatorship.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
President Saied must immediately stop criminalising opposition and respect people’s right to debate his policies and express dissent.
President Saied should commit to a full social dialogue on any new constitution, involving a diverse range of civil society and political parties.
Tunisia’s allies and the international community should pressure President Saied to respect fundamental freedoms and open up the constitutional review process to democratic participation and scrutiny.
Cover photo by Fethi Belaid/Pool via REUTERS/Gallo Images