Tunisia democratic backslide

Author is CEO of Islam & Liberty Network. These views are written in his personal capacity.

Tunisia has been considered a beacon of representative democracy in the Arab world. It is now experiencing a democratic backslide. Tunisia conducted a referendum on 25th July 2022. At least one quarter of Tunisians have voted in a controversial referendum that gave absolute powers to the President Kais Saied to enforce a new constitution. This constitution, which was backed up by 90% of those voted in the referendum, is set to replace the constitution that Tunisia adopted in 2014, after a long national debate following the Arab Spring in 2011.

Tunisia is known as the birthplace of Arab Spring in the world and as a democracy, is an exception to the autocratic Arab World. After 25th July, its democratic credentials have damaged, though not irreparably. Why Tunisia reached at this stage is a complex question and in this short space, I will try to explain it to the uninitiated. As a non-Tunisian, I have formed my views based on my conversations with a number of Tunisians and my own visits to this great North-African nation, which has been a cradle of civilization and where Ibn Khaldun was born. I would specially thank my colleague Tasnim Idriss as a source of these insights, whereas I personally take the responsibility of these views. From an authoritarian state under Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011, Tunisia quickly sprang into a competitive political landscape. In my last visit to Tunis in March this year, I was told that the country of 12 million has an astonishing number of 247 political parties. With a free space for media and civil society organizations, this certainly showed that thecountry had achieved an impressive level of “political freedom”, a term that is used to symbolize presence of volunteer association and representative democracy. With its reformed constitution of 2014, and by some account, even before this, Tunisia exhibited a great degree of religious freedom. The nation is said to be equally divided along the French secular tradition and Islamic influence advanced by the Islamic organization, Ennahda and its founder, Rached Al-Ghannouchi, who is revered as an idol among the democratic Muslims around the world. Despite these differences, the nation exhibited mutual respect and tolerance of difference of opinion. Unlike Egypt, where the Brotherhood moved to quickly Islamize the public life, and was soon outcasted, Tunisian leadership exhibited remarkable political maturity. For most of the years following the Arab Spring, Tunisians lived under coalition governments. Political parties across the spectrum worked out their differences and were able to govern the country albeit with frequent changes in the government. Tunis saw 9 governments in 10 years. These achievements notwithstanding, there are major failings of Tunisian experiment, which is far from over.

First, Tunisian political parties did not undertake efforts to reform the economic system. As our research showed, Tunisia had more incidents like the self-immolation of Bou Azizi in last few years. It continued to suffer high level of youth unemployment, which crossed 25%. The per capita income has stagnated. The government continued to run huge public deficits, bringing Tunisia in the list of top five countries, on the verge of default on public debt.

Second, Ennahda did not develop alternative leadership. Prolonged dependency on Al Ghannouchi significantly damaged the democratic credentials within his country. By an extension, a general despondency towards political leadership
amongst the public created space for a populist leader, and that is why they elected the law teacher Kais Saied as their new president. He was quick to announce populist measures like artificially reducing prices, which increased his appeal. The political leadership also could not improve upon governance which increased frustration of citizens.

Third, the Tunisian judicial system was not fortified with the creation of the constitutional Court that could have thwarted the design of an authoritarian president. He used a special constitutional provision- considered illegitimate by many experts- to suspend and later dissolve the Parliament in March 2022. Its creation was delayed and the only option left for Tunisians to start the resistance on streets once again. Many of them continued to do so even as the restrictions on free speech increased. 

Fourth, in the last few months, especially as wheat supplies from Ukraine were choked, which supplied 56% of wheat to Tunisia, ordinary people interest in politics and capacity to protest has weakened. With food on the table getting harder with each passing day, people grew indifferent towards political parties.

Fifth, it is against the interest of all autocratic Arab states, and especially the Gulf states to see an Arab nation becoming a progressive democracy. By an extension, it also offers a challenge to the Western foreign policy for which autocratic rulers always offer low level of complexity when it comes to strategic partnerships.
Is Tunisian experiment over?
I am of the opinion that nations are not pre-destinated. Many nations which are democratic today have lived through a tyrannical past. Many rich nations were poor a few decades ago- and they may again become poor- at least relatively.
Today’s Tunisia has experienced a democratic backslide, but it is unlikely to return to autocratic times. Just 12 years ago, the country had no political party and severe restrictions on free speech. Today’s Tunisia has rich political and social capital. The political parties- and civil society organizations- should bring their act together and rise above polarized views to offer a message of hope- and prosperity- to all Tunisians. This will eventually help in reviving democratic credentials of this great nation. If Muslim majority nations like Tunisia do not have representative democracies, they will remain chained to the interests of local and global elite.