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Do Old Habits Spell the End for Tunisia's Democratic Experiment?

16 Feb 2022
By Professor Sally Totman and Mat Hardy
A Tunisian flag flies at a protest in 2011. Source: Gwenael Piaser, Flickr,

Tunisia’s president is shutting down the country’s judiciary. Has the tradition of one-man rule finally put paid to the most successful Arab Spring democracy?

Among the horrors of the Syrian conflict and the dramatic lynching of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, it is an often overlooked fact that the Arab Spring had much humbler origins in Tunisia. It began not with some American-funded democracy project, activists on social media, or a band of exiled rebels, but as an act of desperation by an ordinary citizen in an unimportant rural town.

In the last days of 2010, a 26-year-old vegetable peddler named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a despairing protest of police brutality, municipal corruption, and the lack of economic opportunity. The sole income earner for his family of eight, Bouazizi’s lingering death struck a chord with the Tunisian masses. Demonstrations of solidarity and the ensuing authoritarian responses started a chain reaction that toppled dictators and brewed wars across the region from 2011 onwards. Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was the first to go, fleeing to a bolthole in Saudi Arabia.

As the years went on, the birthplace of the Arab Spring looked destined to be its sole beneficiary. While Egypt’s democratic experiment quickly failed and Libya and Syria melted down, Tunisia’s freedoms made slow but steady progress. International rankings, such as those performed by Freedom House and The Economist, illustrated that the country was moving towards a democratic reality. Free elections for the parliament and presidency were held in 2014 and 2019, and it seemed that Tunisia had broken the shackles of autocracy.

But no longer. Despite being able to vote, the lives and wealth of ordinary Tunisians were not markedly improving. Terrorist attacks in 2015 damaged the country’s recovering tourist economy, and the global financial chaos wrought by COVID-19 had further effects. Food, fuel, and other commodities were subject to the same rising prices as elsewhere in the world. For cynical Tunisians, it seemed that democracy really just meant the chance to choose which oligarchs and nest-featherers would profit, while their own situation continued backwards. Discontent was brewing, and old political habits were waiting to be resumed.

In July 2021, Tunisia’s elected president, Kais Saied, utilised emergency powers to dismiss the parliament and step in as the supreme authority. Citing parliament’s ineffectual handling of COVID-19 and a general economic crisis, Saied promised to “save the state” from the partisan interests that were leading to social unrest and corruption. This initial parliamentary suspension was supposedly only to last for 30 days but was quickly rolled over, and later announced as indefinite. In the months that followed, Saied did away with parliamentary process, sacked ministers, jailed critics, cracked down on public dissent, and generally started ruling by personal decree. In September, a rewriting of the constitution was proposed by Saied, with the potential to shift the country from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic.

In early February, Saied took another step towards supreme authority by neutralising the judiciary, whose members had criticised the legality of the president’s power grab. Saied ordered the offices of the High Judicial Council building to be locked and explained that he intended to dissolve the body due to its entrenched corruption. “Their place is not where they sit now, but where the accused stand” said Saied in a public television address. In the face of concerned international response, this was later reframed as a need to “reform” the council rather than do away with it.

There was little acceptance of this line. “This has been a big step in the wrong direction” explained the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. “The dissolution of the High Judicial Council is in clear violation of Tunisia’s obligations under international human rights law.” Given the mild language usually adopted by UN officials, this is a strong critique. Since Saied’s suspension of parliament, the United States has been squeamish about using the word “coup,” but Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made early calls for “a return to the democratic path.” The moves on the judiciary did elicit a further response from a State Department spokesperson, who said that “the United States reiterates our calls for an accelerated political reform process in Tunisia that responds to the aspirations of the Tunisian people.”

While all this was occurring, Tunisia was sliding inexorably into bankruptcy. Slow negotiations with the IMF over the economic reforms necessary for a bailout have seen Tunisia’s debt grow to nearly match its GDP. Delays in paying the salaries of state workers in January saw the president raiding the savings of the state’s postal service in an attempt to head off rumblings of discontent from powerful union groups. But the cupboard will soon be bare.

For political observers of the Middle East and North Africa, Saied’s playbook is an obvious one, and his actions draw on the experiences learned over decades of one-man rule in Tunisia. Upon gaining independence from France 1956, Tunisia spent the next 55 years being ruled by two consecutive autocrats. This included multiple constitutional reforms to extend presidential term limits, raise the maximum allowable age of the president and generally anything else necessary to stay in power. Sham referendums were used to dress this process up as the genuine will of the people — Ben Ali’s constitutional reform, proposed in 2002 to extend his term, supposedly received 99.52 percent public approval.

The use of emergency powers is also a common tactic in the region, where in the face of some threat, power is concentrated into the presidency, ostensibly so that swift and binding decisions can be made during the crisis. Under such powers, normal judicial and parliamentary process are suspended, free speech is curtailed, and any semblance of due process during arrest or detention is removed. These emergency periods can last for decades, long after the original threat has vanished. The logic cycle — that anyone who disapproves of this situation must therefore be an opponent of the state — is continually exploited. The 2015 terror attacks brought the reinstatement of emergency rule in Tunisia, and Saied has capitalised on this legacy, denouncing some political opponents as terrorists and locking them up. In December, former President Moncef Marzouki was tried in absentia and given a four-year sentence for “assaulting” the security of the state. Other adversaries can only dream of actually getting a trial. Many have seemingly disappeared during their indefinite detention.

If there is a hope for Tunisia, it is a paradoxical one. There is a feeling that in his rapid consolidation of personal power, Saied may have alienated so many key players and interest groups that his control hangs by a thread. Without the oleaginous charisma of his predecessors and bereft of any economic treasure to distribute, a deepening crisis is seeing his base eroded. Initial public approval of his dismissing an indolent parliament is turning to frustration with the course he is charting. Could a second crisis and uprising unseat him?

For ordinary Tunisians scraping a living the democratic experiment has been an unsatisfying one. They may have started the Arab Spring, but the promise of freedom and economic opportunity has not panned out. Even though they built the best foundation for post-autocratic statehood, 12 years after Mohamed Bouazizi’s horrific protest, Tunisians now see themselves disappearing into a financially poorer version of their past.

Sally Totman PhD is an Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at Deakin University.

Mat Hardy PhD is an Honorary Fellow at Deakin University and a Fulbright Scholar.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.