On the 25th of July, 2021, I found myself amidst a small gathering of friends in my apartment situated in the tranquil neighbourhood of Cite de Pins, in the La Marsa district. We were a diverse group of foreign diplomats and local Tunisian friends, engaged in light-hearted chatter. Suddenly, an unusual restlessness fell over my Tunisian companions as their eyes clung to their phones. The shocking news was trickling in – in a tumultuous turn of events, the country’s new strongman, President Kais Saied, had dismissed the government and suspended the Parliament. With this act, he seized de facto control of the country.
As the music faded into silence, I offered to drive a few of my friends home. As we navigated the heart of La Marsa, we were greeted by a sea of people, their voices unified in shouts and songs that echoed through the night. It was a scene replicated across Tunisia – thousands had descended onto the streets. A tangible sense of anticipation filled the air, a breeze subtly whispering hope. Yet, in the coming months, Tunisians would see their president start to dismantle their democratic institutions, pushing the country, once a bastion of democracy in the MENA region, back towards the spectre of dictatorship—a past they thought they’d left behind.
From 2019, when President Kais was elected, up to July 25th, 2021, a palpable sense of dwindling hope began to permeate Tunisian society as prices soared and salaries stagnated. The promise of democracy seemed like a distant dream. However, an unmistakable air of exceptionalism was exuded by every Tunisian encounter. In comparison to any neighbouring countries, the gears of democracy were indeed turning here, albeit imperfectly. Despite its incessant internal conflicts, the Parliament functioned; the judiciary, while lethargic, served its purpose. Tourism was experiencing a resurgence, bouncing back after a handful of terror incidents. Yet, an overarching sense of stagnation clouded over everything. A recurring sentiment of despair toward the political class was ubiquitous.
Despite their reservations about the suspension of Parliament and the move towards rule by presidential decree, the Tunisian people nonetheless greeted this shift with cautious optimism. Accustomed to their budding democracy since the 2011 Arab Spring, they viewed President Kais’s decision as a possible catalyst for change, a measure that might bring some improvement to their lives. This is what brought them out onto the streets that night. Following the consolidation of power into his hands, President Saied initiated rule by decree, President Saied began governing by issuing decrees, bypassing the parliamentary process. Critics, including several opposition figures and journalists, were detained or even incarcerated. In July 2022, Saied orchestrated a successful referendum that allowed him to formulate a new Constitution, transforming the presidential office into an exceptionally potent entity and reducing the influence of both the Parliament and the judiciary. President Saied has projected the idea of a presidency that maintains a direct connection with ordinary citizens, believing the role of the parliament is to support this direct governance, not balance it.
The legislative assembly has now been relegated to an advisory position, proposing laws they believe align with the President’s vision. Despite the National Assembly reconvening in March, the election saw an abysmal turnout of less than 9%. The scant participation in these elections can largely be attributed to the main opposition party, Ennadha, declining to participate, compounded by the fact that most candidates were unfamiliar to the public. Tensions escalated when Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the opposition Ennahda party, was detained under accusations of conspiring against state security and making inflammatory remarks. His arrest and subsequent imprisonment, deemed “troubling” by the US, incited international condemnation. President Saied has also been under fire for urgently demanding the removal of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, asserting they were part of a “conspiracy” aimed at shifting Tunisia’s demographic makeup. Some critics suggest strongman Saied is using black Africans as scapegoats for the country’s issues, pandering to his base in the process. Unfortunately, in Europe, we know this discourse all too well.
Tunisia’s economy is troubling, struggling with a slower-than-expected recovery, worsened by growing trade and budget deficits due to rising global commodity prices. Potential shortages in domestic products and increased inflation are anticipated due to potential delays in an IMF package. The nation’s Finance Minister, Samir Saied, warns of an inflation rate surge to 10.5% in 2023, from 8.3% in 2022, due to tax hikes and reduced food and energy subsidies. In addition, in the first quarter of 2023, Tunisia saw a significant rise in unemployment, with the number of jobless individuals exceeding 655,000, up from roughly 625,000 in the last quarter of 2022. According to data published by the National Statistics Institute INS, the unemployment rate reached 16.1% in Q1-2023, marking an increase from the previous quarter’s rate of 15.2%.
In this context, Italy is stepping up as a critical European ally to Tunisia, vowing significant investments and assistance in negotiating an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout. This heightened Italian involvement aims to stabilize Tunisia’s perilous economic situation, which is on the brink of bankruptcy. Italy’s proactive stance is driven by an urgent need to maintain stability in Tunisia, a crucial factor in curbing the growing number of migrants making their way to Italian shores. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani has assured that Italy will represent Tunisia’s interests in IMF negotiations, advocating for prompt loan disbursement. At this point, Italy seems unconcerned with the disassembly of democratic institutions and the unjust incarceration of political opponents in Tunisia. The priority, instead, appears to be halting migration at the Tunisian borders. Rome seems to be simply following the traditional European realpolitik playbook – making deals with less-than-ideal partners – demonstrated by their willingness to write checks. Such a policy has been historically proven to be ineffective.
Even with President Kais amassing significant control, there’s been a stark absence of progress. Conditions have notably gone from bad to worse. While he may still hold a degree of public favour, the trend is on a clear downward slope. Through any lens one uses to evaluate his presidency, it seems to be characterized by persistent failure.
Tunisia’s predicament should be interpreted within the broader settings of the Arab Spring. What happened in Tunisia throughout the last 12 years resembles – to some extent – the situation in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. However, while these countries were plunged into civil wars, Tunisia experienced a constitutional coup. In this light, the failure of Tunisia essentially embodies the collapse of the Arab Spring. While no democratic backsliding is a good thing, one cannot help but observe that a constitutional coup is still significantly less destructive than an outright civil war. Despite the disruption and the democratic backslide, the structural fabric of the state remains intact, potentially providing a platform for future recovery and reform.
This situation serves as a stark reminder that the countries swept by the Arab Spring have generally struggled in this period with their democratic transition. In most cases, their nascent democracies have been unable to fully take root, often due to a combination of institutional weaknesses, economic difficulties, and persistent societal divisions. Tunisia, however, came notably close to
overcoming these hurdles, managing for a time to maintain a fragile but functioning democracy. This is a testament to the resilience and determination of the Tunisian people, and it also offers a glimmer of hope that, even amidst the current crisis, Tunisia may yet find a way back to a democratic path.
The ongoing crisis in Tunisia symbolizes a broader pattern that the collective West is likely to face ahead: novel forms and expressions of autocracy. These are often supported by our strategic rivals and pose an increasingly formidable challenge to democratic values. The cradle of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, which once infused optimism about the viability of democracy in the MENA region, is now ironically indicating the possible waning, and even the prospective demise, of this epochal movement.
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