Geopolitics

Tunisia, Where The Arab Spring Blossomed And Democracy Now Withers

North Africa correspondent Frédéric Bobin analyzes Tunisian President Kais Saied’s recent decision to suspend parliament and sack Prime Minister Mechichi and what it means for the legacy of the Arab Spring — for Tunisia and for the region.

Ennahdha supporters facing the riot police during a protest in Tunis on July 26
Ennahdha supporters facing the riot police during a protest in Tunis on July 26
Frédéric Bobin

-Analysis-

In Tunis, suspending an elected parliament and ordering the army to cordon off the surrounding area is a symbol that speaks volumes. Tunisia, the true pioneer of the 2011 Arab Spring movement, is trapped, both geographically and ideologically, between neighboring countries that saw it as a hope for democracy. So much so, in fact, that what is happening in Tunisia has ramifications across the region.

President Kais Saied's coup de force that came on Sunday was justified using Article 80 of Tunisia's Constitution, which allows the president to take "any measures necessary" to prevent "imminent danger" to national institutions. But Saied's actions carry symbolic importance well beyond the country's borders: If the "Spring" has been derailed in its own birthplace, then how can the hope for democracy be maintained elsewhere in the Arab world, where authoritarian powers have been vying to regain control ever since 2011?

Looking back, in 2021, at a decade of revolutions in the area, pessimism abounds. In Syria, the tyranny of Bashar Al-Assad remains amidst a costly war of unprecedented violence. In Libya, Gaddafi's victorious revolutionaries tore each other apart, fracturing the country and throwing it into chaos. In Egypt, al-Sisi, who authored a coup d"état against Mohamed Morsi — the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated elected president — has come to embody a return of the old guard.

Further west, in Morocco, the dreams of the "February 20" movement have been dashed by a relapse into Mohammed VI's monarchy, which in the last two years, has returned to its authoritarian ways. Algeria largely avoided the democratic earthquake that shook the region in 2011 in hopes of nurturing its own Hirak (protest movement), which came about eight years later. Now, that movement too is falling prey to the repressive restoration of the "system."

But there was still hope for Tunisia, an island of reform that withstood authoritarian headwinds. When the Algerian hirak-ists were looking for a way forward in 2019, they turned to Tunisia for inspiration. The country stood out against the harmful stereotype that democracy was impossible in Islamic lands — that autocracy always loomed on the horizon in the Arab world.

All of this begs the question: If democracy corrupts and impoverishes, why bother?

But now what? How can the region's freedom fighters continue to find encouragement in the "Tunisian exception"? President Kais Saied promises that his regime is an exception to the norm and that the situation is transitional. Yet, his actions still threaten the future of the rights and freedoms of Tunisians. Could it be that the final blow to the Arab Spring has been delivered by its very own trailblazer?

Of course, we must be wary of the tendency, by outside observers, to make incorrect assumptions due to bias and over-generalization. Still, two undeniable realities seem to confirm the fate of Tunisia's democracy: The first is that the Tunisian population has responded to Kais Saied's "coup" with joy and celebration in the streets of Tunis. Tunisians, it seems, could no longer tolerate the poisonous status quo, with its paralyzed institutions, out-of-control health crisis, pervasive corruption, growing poverty, and the diminishing middle class — signs of the ultimate decay of a state infrastructure that had once been a source of national pride.

All of this begs the question: If democracy corrupts and impoverishes, why bother? On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the revolution, an opinion poll conducted by the think-tank Joussour found that 43% of respondents would consider democracy to be an "achievement" only if it meant that the "economic and social situation improves." The public, in other words, may be open to the new version of Tunisia that Kais Saied, the "providential man," is attempting to bring about.

In front of the parliament building in Tunis — Photo: Fauque Nicolas/Abaca via ZUMA

The people feel the need, it appears, for a return to order — even a strong one — with many of their complaints directed at the Islamist-affiliated Ennahda party. It has continued to play a leading role in the post-2011 coalition governments and has therefore been accused, rightly or wrongly, of being responsible for many of the trials and tribulations facing Tunisia.

The second reality is that Kais Saied is a new and ambiguous political phenomenon. He does not fit the mold of the classic figures of regional autocracy, who are typically members of the military or the police, or have a familial or dynastic connection. A constitutional law professor, Saied in many ways represents the spirit of the 2011 revolution. Tunisian youth supported him when he was elected in 2019 for that very reason, bearing in mind his hostility toward representative democracy that runs contrary to those who support parliamentary rule. Saied, instead, prefers a direct democracy where legitimacy comes from local authorities, as opposed to national political parties which, in his eyes, undermine the goal of universal political participation.

This is a small, temporary dictatorship, and we can only hope that it does not turn into a big permanent dictatorship.

But do these facts change the reality that Tunisia's democratic project is under threat? Even the army — an institution that has thus far remained separated from politics — now seems to be moving closer to state institutions. Still, many Tunisian analysts want to believe that the game is not yet over.

"Kais Saied's brand of authoritarianism may run contrary to the spirit of the revolution, but it is not the return of the old regime — it is its own kind of populist approach," says Khadija Mohsen-Finan, professor at the University of Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Political scientist Hamadi Redissi agrees: "This is a small, temporary dictatorship, and we can only hope that it does not turn into a big permanent dictatorship. We may have just witnessed the last breath of an idea of democracy that's dying across the Arab world."

In early April, Kais Saied was received with great pomp by President al-Sisi in Cairo. Beyond their differences, a common cause seemed to unite them: hostility toward political Islam. Yet this opinion has often been used as a cover for authoritarian restorations. The question is, has Kais Saied found himself sucked into a regional movement that was not his to begin with?

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