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
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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Economy

Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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