B.A. Global Affairs, Jindal School of International Affairs
O. P Jindal Global University
E-mail – email@example.com
On a quaint afternoon in a relatively less known street of a relatively less known town in a relatively less known country, a rugged-looking young man set himself aflame. The man died weeks later. But the flames of the inferno he lit certainly did not die down with him. They burned in the town, then in the country, and eventually engulfed the entire region. They burned in people’s hearts as they took to the streets in defiance of unaccountable, despotic, and autocratic regimes.
Yes, I am talking about the Arab Spring.
The movement originated in Tunisia in 2010, a country with a population of about 11 million, situated in North Africa along the Mediterranean coast. Then it spread to Egypt, followed by Syria, Morocco, Libya, and Yemen. The participants in the movement aspired for greater participation in the political process and increased social freedoms. (History.com Editors, 2018)
The Arab Spring was seen as a beacon of hope for a region in turmoil. However, it failed to deliver on its promise of political reform as the countries of Yemen, Syria, and Libya were engulfed in full-scale civil wars, arguably leaving them worse off than before. Eventually, Tunisia was the only effective democracy to emerge from the ashes of the fire that was the Arab Spring. Fast forward 10 years, in 2021, the sole democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring faces a critical threat.
What is happening in Tunisia?
On the evening of July 25, 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended parliament for 30 days, sacked the Prime Minister, and declared himself Chief Executive. The move came after weeks of protests that shook the nation. The demonstrations were ignited by public discontent owing to devastating public health situation in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic since June, ridiculous levels of unemployment, and an economy in free fall. (Karam, 2021) President Kais Saied argued that the measures were temporary. The intention was to bring about the normal operation of state institutions and return social peace to the country. Additionally, many opposition politicians and influential critics of the government were arbitrarily put under travel bans and house arrest without due process.
The Tunisian public was largely supportive of the President’s actions. (G“7 Nations Urge Tunisia President to Appoint PM,” 2021). This was not surprising in the wake of seemingly perpetual economic crisis and a critical covid situation in Tunisia. Especially since a dozen democratically elected governments in as many years were unable to effectively combat the country’s economic woes. “G7 Nations Urge Tunisia President to Appoint PM,” 2021)That very evening, people took to the streets to celebrate. Many opposition party leaders denounced the move as a coup. However, major powers like the EU and US played it safe and did not outrightly call out the move.
The President, a former law professor, argued that the move was legally sound. That was, however, not the case. Saied cited Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution (“Constitution of Tunisia,” art. 80, title 4), which permits the President of Tunisia to take exceptional measures to “ward off imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions, security or independence”. (Karam, 2021). Such measures require the president to consult the Prime Minister and the speaker of the Parliament. The speaker, Ennahda’s (Renaissance Party) leader Rachid Ghannouchi, denied having been consulted. In addition, the Tunisian President is required to notify the President of Tunisia’s constitutional court, which is also the ultimate arbiter of whether the dissolution was legal. But the court exists only on paper. Moreover, Kais Said sounded an ominous warning to adversaries: “Whoever fires a single bullet, our armed and security forces will retaliate with a barrage of bullets.” The next day, on July 26, soldiers cordoned off the Parliament building. Later, crowds gathered in front of the building. Infighting between those who supported the move and those who were protesting against it soon broke out.
The President imposed a nationwide curfew from 7 PM to 6 AM and banned gatherings of more than three people in public places. (Beaumont, 2021). Subsequently, twenty plain-clothed officials raided the office of Qatar-based media outlet, Al Jazeera, which is seen as emphatic to the largest opposition party, Ennahda. The move was, one can argue, a long time coming. The Parliament and the Presidency increasingly found themselves at odds with each other in recent times. The President had refused to swear in 11 new ministers since January 2021. (The Economist, 2021). Kais Saied had made no efforts to hide his resentment with the parliament, which he termed to be a danger to the country. He envisages a regime in which the President possesses more powers. Elections, in his opinion, should be framed so that people directly elect local delegates solely based on merits and not their ideologies. These delegates are to then appoint local representatives who would go on to appoint members of a national assembly. (The Economist, 2021)
On August 20, the presidential decree which suspended the parliament was extended until the situation improves. (AfricaNews, 2021) In his address to the nation on September 12, Kais Saied indicated plans to change the country’s Constitution. “Saied said he respected the 2014 democratic constitution but that it was “not eternal” and could be amended” (Al Jazeera, 2021). Legally speaking, The President can not amend the constitution without a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, which he didn’t have prior to suspending it. Saied also pledged to form a new government “as soon as possible”, after selecting “the people with the most integrity”. He declined to give a specific timeline, however. (Al Jazeera, 2021)
The Tunisian General Labour Union finally broke its silence on September 11, 2021 and stated that it opposed the idea of suspending the Constitution (Al Jazeera, 2021). This move comes as a respite for those against the President’s power grab as the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is a major player in Tunisian politics. It is looked up to by the population and was also the recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring. President Said dealt another blow, arguably a knockout, to Tunisian democracy on September 22, 2021 by issuing the infamous Decision 117. The Decision places itself above the existing constitutional order and abolishes any form of checks and balances on the President’s power. Keeping Judicial intricacies aside, the President now single-handedly controlled the executive and legislature and was immune to interventions by the Judiciary. In other words, Decision 117 meant that Kais Saied was in effect, a dictator. (Al-Ali, 2021)
Unlike his previous misadventures with political institutions in Tunisia, Decision 117 received a mixed response from the public. On 26 September 2021, around 2000 protesters gathered in the Capital of Tunisia to call for an end to the power grab. This was the first major demonstration against the President since he dissolved the Parliament (Reporter, 2021). However, on October 3rd, a larger crowd of demonstrators showed up in solidarity with Saied at the same location. (Reporter, 2021b)
President Saied appointed Najla Bouden Romdhan as the country’s new prime minister on September 29, 2021, making her the first woman Prime Minister of Tunisia as well as the entire Arab World. However, the Prime Minister will only have nominal powers and can only be expected to toe the President’s line. The move was most likely an attempt by the President to pacify and hopefully win back the confidence of secular, feminist, and modernist sections of Tunisian society, many of whom applauded his move (Shitrit et al., 2021). This would not be the first time a Tunisian leader would have used women’s rights to deflect criticism of authoritarian rule. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first President was an ardent supporter of women’s rights and was responsible for some of the most progressive legislation in the Arab world as he simultaneously undermined democratic institutions and ruled the country for three decades. (Shitrit et al., 2021)
On December 13, 2021, President Kais Saied announced that the country would hold a referendum to amend the constitution in July 2022, which would be followed by Parliamentary elections in December. The commission to draft the constitutional amendments would be appointed entirely by the President.
Who is Kais Saied?
Kais Saied rose to prominence post the 2011 revolution. He was one of the few establishment figures to show up in solidarity. There are videos of his visits to the protests on social media as well. In addition, Tunisian television became a frequent witness to his commentary on the structure of the new Constitution.
Mr. Said won the hearts and minds of the Tunisian People by virtue of his austere authority. Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Mr Amna Guellali remarked the prophet like belief many Tunisians had come to attribute to Said’s words on the Constitution. Soon, a large number of Tunisians begin urging him to run for President. (Yee, 2021)
He refused to do so, until 2019.
Saied claims that he changed his mind and decided to run for President when a poor man approached him in tears, imploring him to run. A moment he compares to a religious vision.
Standing as an independent candidate in the 2019 elections, he ran a campaign against corruption and defeated Tunisian business tycoon and seasoned politician Nabil Karoui, who was involved in corruption scandals and ran his campaign from behind bars.
The Road Ahead
The West celebrated the rise of Tunisian democracy and labelled it as a success story. It has certainly not been a success story for the Tunisian people. Corruption remains endemic to post revolution Tunisia while the economy is in ruins (The Economist, 2021). Public debt increased from 39 per cent of the GDP in 2010 to 88 per cent. In 2020, the economy shrank by 8 per cent and unemployment officially stands at 18 per cent, 30 per cent for graduates. Furthermore, the pandemic wreaked havoc in the country earlier this year. In these circumstances, the Tunisian people ostensibly became disillusioned by the democratic process that had failed to deliver anything except freedom of expression. They overwhelmingly backed a seemingly reasonable man who promised change, even if he were to backtrack a little from the democratic gains of the Jasmin revolution. This support has started to crack as President Saied has swayed further and further into dictator territory and at the same time doing little to deal with the problems that led people to back his power grabs in the first place. On the Economic front, his strategy has so far included “asking chicken sellers and iron merchants to lower prices, telling them it was their national duty.” (Yee, 2021). The Tunisian government has also paused negotiations with IMF for an economic bailout. Furthermore, The Opposition seems to be uniting against the President. One of the ways in which the President aims to assure his people’s backing is by prying off regional geopolitics. The largest Political Party in Tunisia, Ennahda has earned the enmity of regional anti-Islamist powers in Cairo and Abu Dhabi due to its affiliation to the Muslim brotherhood. Ostensibly, the recent crackdown on the party has made Kais Saied the darling of Egypt and Saudi Arabia and reports suggest that he is already in talks with the Saudis for a bailout.
In case Kais Saied were to lose his legitimacy in front of the populace, it would be interesting to see how far he would be prepared to use the military to remain in power. It would also be interesting to see how far the military is prepared to support the President. Either way, the events of the next couple of months would be detrimental to the fate of democracy in Tunisia as well as the region.
AfricaNews. (2021, August 24). Tunisia’s president extends suspension of parliament until further notice. https://www.africanews.com/2021/08/24/tunisia-s-president-extends-suspension-of-parliament-until-further-notice//
Al Jazeera. (2021, September 12). Tunisia president indicates plans to amend constitution. Politics News | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/12/tunisia-president-indicates-plans-to-amend-constitution
Al-Ali, Z. (2021, September 24). Tunisia’s president just gave himself unprecedented powers. He says he’ll rule by decree. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/09/24/tunisias-president-just-gave-himself-unprecedented-powers-he-says-hell-rule-by-decree/
Beaumont, P. (2021, July 29). What is going on in Tunisia? All you need to know. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/28/what-is-going-on-in-tunisia-all-you-need-to-know
“Constitution of Tunisia,” art. 80, title 4
The Economist. (2021, July 29). Tunisia’s democracy totters as the president suspends parliament. The Economist. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2021/07/26/tunisias-democracy-totters-as-the-president-suspends-parliament
G7 nations urge Tunisia president to appoint PM. (2021, September 7). BBC World Service. https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/cwlw3xz0lmvt/tunisia
History.com Editors. (2018, January 10). Arab Spring. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/.amp/topics/middle-east/arab-spring
Karam, S. (2021, August 26). Understanding the unravelling of Tunisia’s revolution. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/understanding-the-unraveling-of-tunisias-revolution/2021/08/25/19d32aa6-05b3-11ec-b3c4-c462b1edcfc8_story.html
Reporter, G. S. (2021, September 23). Tunisia’s president to ignore parts of the constitution and rule by decree. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/22/tunisias-president-to-ignore-parts-of-the-constitution-and-rule-by-decree
Reporter, G. S. (2021b, October 3). Thousands rally in support of Tunisian president Kais Saied. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/03/tunisia-police-arrest-mp-and-tv-host-who-called-president-kais-saied-a-traitor
Shitrit, L., Hirsch-Hoefler, S., & Elad-Strenger, J. (2021, October 13). Tunisia has its first-ever female prime minister. That’s not as good for democracy as it sounds. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/10/13/tunisia-has-its-first-ever-female-prime-minister-thats-not-good-democracy-it-sounds/
Yee, V. (2021, September 27). Populist Hero or Demagogue: Who Is Tunisia’s President? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/26/world/middleeast/tunisia-president-kais-saied.html
Yee, V. (2021, October 10). ‘What Have We Done With Democracy?’ A Decade On, Arab Spring Gains Wither. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/10/world/middleeast/tunisia-arab-spring-anniversary.html
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.