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Geopolitics

Tunisia's Drift From Democratic Revolution To Authoritarianism

The Tunisian president is cultivating his ambiguities and pushing his constitutional reform, without proposing a roadmap to get the country out of the crisis. Refusing to speak to the media, he has an increasingly populist tone with messianic accents.

Anti-riot officers standing next to demonstrators holding the Tunisian flag in front of the Parliament in Tunis

Demonstrators gathered in front of the Tunisian parliament to protest against the exceptional measures ordered by President Kais Saied on July 25.

Laura-Mai Gaveriaux

-Analysis-

TUNIS — President Kaïs Saïed likes to surprise. Everyone expected an event on December 17 to mark the 11th anniversary of the founding event of the revolution, the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. It was finally in a speech on television on the evening of December 13 that Saïed announced that parliament would remain for a year until the next general elections, using a new electoral law — which amounts to a de-facto dissolution of the parliament. Only one thing is certain: he retains the full powers he assumed on July 25.

Until then, Tunisians are invited to vote on a constitutional reform project, an "electronic popular consultation" that will be held from January to March and will be sanctioned by a referendum in July 2022. Because according to the tenant of Carthage, the current semi-presidential regime based on the 2014 constitution is the source of all the ills from which Tunisia suffers.


Saïed has largely theorized his aversion to parliamentarianism during the campaign of 2019, hammering a conception based on "the people" — the sovereignty of the people, the will of the people — without delivering a methodology or program to decipher his intentions. From this enigmatic vision of governance, the observer deduces a penchant for direct democracy, local committees, virtue ethics rather than the politics of means and ends. As a candidate, he peppered his interviews with references to Rousseau, an eminent thinker of the Republic, who did not place great hopes in democracy.

Imminent danger

Since then, the president no longer answers journalists and only expresses himself on Facebook and sometimes with solemn addresses on television, never during the day. He speaks in lyrical flights of fancy in literal Arabic — perceived as more noble than the local dialect — aimed at a population sensitive to the academic status of the former law school lecturer.

Between the famous "coup de force" of last summer and the publication on October 22 in the "Official Journal of the Tunisian Republic" of the decree ratifying this autocracy without calling it by its name, the country has operated within a legal framework that exists only de facto. It's a contradiction for the lawyer, who claims his action is based on the strict letter of the Constitution and Article 80.

This article provides for exceptional measures in case of "imminent danger" to national security. In the absence of a Constitutional Court, a veritable mirage of the democratic transition, and whose umpteenth attempt to be formed last April Saïed himself blocked, he can interpret the text as he pleases.

Despite a critical COVID-19 situation and a very deteriorated economic outlook, the narrative of "imminent danger" remains vague. Saïed has the advantage of defusing accusations of a constitutional coup. He does so in a learned tone, in formal Arabic — aimed at a population sensitive to the academic status of the one who poses as providential savior.

A muffled coup

These ambiguities have fed, from the very first hours, a lack of understanding on the part of the liberal democracies, which saw themselves as privileged partners of the only country to have survived the misnamed "Arab Spring." It’s the one closest to a political model that the United States or France are capable of understanding by virtue of their history.

And they finance it to a large extent. The army is totally dependent on Washington — 85 million dollars a year under the "foreign military financing" program, for a budget of about 1.2 billion. And Paris had just granted a credit of 81.2 million euros. This surely explains the unwelcoming tone against the Tunisian president, while the military dictatorship of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt has never posed a problem to these two bastions of human rights.

Saïed was raised to the rank of liberator and redeemer.

Misunderstanding, again, when the Western media send their special correspondents to follow crowds protesting against a revolutionary kidnapping. Instead, amongst scenes of jubilation, Saïed is raised to the rank of liberator and redeemer. It ignores the level of exasperation of Tunisians vis-à-vis their political class. The spectacle is often distressing in the Assembly, with low level discussions enameled with verbal violence, sometimes even physical.

In the hours leading up to the bizarre muffled coup, large demonstrations blamed the debacle on the Islamist party Ennahda, which has been in power since 2014. There were demands for the resignation of its historic leader, Rached Ghannouchi, president of the Assembly since 2019.

The image of the evening that will remain in the annals: the old leader, once perceived as a hero of the opposition to Ben Ali, arrested at the closed gates of the Bardo museum by soldiers. It was a decline that did not fail to delight Tunisians on social media. It’s a real irony given the role played by Facebook in the outcome of 2011, fond of mocking memes and gossip, and a setback to the hard-won freedom of expression.

A fortification against Islamism?

Tunisian president Ka\u00efs Sa\u00efed sitting in his office and signing a document

President Kais Saied signing on the lineup of the new government on January 2, 2020

Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

Is Kaïs Saïed crowned with the title of bulwark against Islamism? It’s an intention that he has never displayed, having made Ghannouchi his political enemy without pronouncing his name.

"On the substance, he [Saïed] is perfectly compatible with Ennahda," says an anonymous expert. "He is a conservative, opposed to equality between women and men in inheritance on the basis of Koranic law, in favor of the criminalization of homosexuality and not downright against the death penalty."

"Surely, he trusted the plans of God."

These positions explain, in part, the broad support in these layers of society that constituted the breeding ground of Ennahda, before they were unable to manage the country and fell into disgrace.

"In 2019, I was among the first to distribute leaflets for him," says Mahfoudh J. "Even if the raïs [“the leader” in Arabic] said not to campaign, surely because he trusted the plans of God."

The 30-year-old embodies the typical Saïed voter. He is originally from Douar Hicher, a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Tunis that was an epicenter of the 2011 uprisings; he has a degree in English, but no job. Remaining a fervent supporter of the president, he publishes on his Instagram profile photos of Saïed embracing peasants, workers and rural women. They’re stagings that have become rituals at each of the president’s outings, embellished with slogans with messianic accents.

​Muslim identity

Acquiescent to anti-Western discourses, Mahfoudh rejects a French colonial era of which he knows little, but which led him to adopt the "Muslim identity" as a cultural rallying point. Thus, everything in Saïed's words echoes his frustrations and ideological referents. Above all is the emphasis placed on youth, and the restitution, to the most disadvantaged, of the resources captured by a perverted elite.

The main theme of Saïed’s campaign is the denunciation of this corruption with vague outlines that have become the haunting motive of all of Saïed’s communications. This is without proposing any concrete program to curb it. On the other hand, since July 25, his speech is structured only on a Manichean vision of society: the moral recovery of the country, against those he does not hesitate to qualify as "disease, insects, rotting".

In tune with this virulence, the collective climate is one of stigmatization of anything that closely resembles a "rich person," a "possessor," a "sell-out” — civil servant, magistrate, lawyer — the urban middle class, in short. For two months, and on the eve of the start of the economic year, business leaders were sanctioned by a more or less official "travel ban," at least never backed up by a decree or individual court decisions.

​Cumbersome allies

Apart from the few cases that have been ongoing for more than a year (notably those concerning suspicions of illegal financing during the 2019 legislative elections), no major investigation has been launched. Not even concerning Ennahda, despite the lifting of parliamentary immunity and countless evidence raised by committees of lawyers on the involvement of some of its members in the political assassinations that shook the country in 2013. The purge of Islamists, which some predicted on the morning of July 26, did not take place.

Instead, Samir Taïeb, a former minister of agriculture from the left, spent three weeks in pre-trial detention, along with six others, as part of an investigation into the award of a public contract. A report by the Observatory of Public Contracts — which Les Echos was able to consult — submitted to the examining magistrate on November 25, almost explicitly clears him.

The Public Prosecutor's Office appealed the request for release after one of its magistrates conceded, in front of several of his lawyers present in the room, that he had received "pressure." The secretary general of the Ministry at the time, affiliated with Ennahda, was heard as a simple witness.

Economic impasse

Throughout this campaign, the Islamist forces have propelled Saïed’s ambitions. As soon as he appeared as a serious contender in the polls, he took care to distance himself from his cumbersome allies, while recovering their electorate.

His confidence rating is eroding.

His greatest achievement is to have succeeded in convincing a large part of the democratic forces, a fringe of the left and feminists, that the evil was worth the remedy. His confidence rating is eroding, facing the changes that are slow to come for the living standards of Tunisians.

As for what makes the country tick, it remains a mystery. If not a complementary finance law for 2021, cryptic, adopted without debate, no one knows what the president’s plans are to get Tunisia out of the economic impasse. He is about to bring about his old lawyer's dream of leaving his name on a constitution. This does not feed a country, but it keeps the commentators busy.

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