Tunisia, long hailed the Arab world’s sole democratic success story, is sliding towards authoritarianism and tyranny at the hands of President Kais Saied. In recent months Saied has moved to monopolise all three branches of political power in the country : the legislature, executive and judiciary.
In the wake of mass protests against the government’s inept handling of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, and in what he claimed was a bid to fix Tunisia’s woes, Saied suspended parliament on 25 July, stripped MPs of immunity, sacked the Prime Minister and the government, and imposed arbitrary travel bans on public figures he deemed corrupt.
Last week, less than two months after this assault on the country’s political ecosystem, Saied declared he would rule by decree and ignore parts of the constitution. These moves should sound loud alarm bells for proponents of democracy worldwide.
Saied’s blatant power grab is supported by the authoritarian Arab states of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the pretext that it constitutes a legitimate secular war against the Muslim Brotherhood, its ‘offshoot’s (principally Tunisia’s main political party, the Ennahda Movement) and political Islam: a hackneyed narrative packaged for domestic and international consumption and long used by leaders to consolidate an iron grip on the region.
Saied’s recent actions in Tunisia could be early signs of a shift in the country’s foreign policy and traditional political alliances, away from the United States and the European Union – which have backed Tunisia’s democratic project ever since the 2010/2011 revolution that ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – and towards Arab regimes that have done everything in their power to crush their own people’s democratic aspirations over the past decade. Beyond the region, this could also signal a shift in alliance towards Moscow and Beijing, both of which have supported strongman rule across the Middle East and Africa.
Tunisia’s foreign policy has traditionally been governed by the Protocol of March 20, 1956, which recognised its independence from France was recognized. France and the West have since remained strong allies of this small north African nation.
But Saied’s moves look set to reconfigure this partnership, and could eventually provoke significant backlash from countries like France, Tunisia’s largest economic ally. This could include the suspension of financial support, demands for the repayment of Tunisian debt, and support for those segments of the Tunisian population that oppose Saied.
Tunisia is in a dangerous and uncertain predicament that could have negative ramifications for the region. At best, the country is at risk of increased instability and potential violence: pockets of resistance to Saied’s audacious moves are already emerging.
Tunisia’s pro-democracy vanguard and civil society are in the process of remobilizing again to thwart a return to the pre-2011 dictatorship, and to save their country from descent into internal conflict. At worst, Tunisia could fall into total chaos, as has happened in Lebanon. This too would create fresh avenues for authoritarian regional and international powers.
How to address Tunisia's political crisis?
The international community must not take Saeid’s wooden composure and hollow reassurances that he will protect the country’s democracy at face value, but instead look to the unmistakable progression of unilateral measures he has been taking. Underestimating these gradual power grabs by autocratic-leaning figures is how many dictatorships historically emerged.
The Biden administration must use its influence to insist that Tunisia respect people’s rights as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Tunisia is a signatory, and reassert that is not permissible for the President to use the claim of ‘national sovereignty’ as justification for political and human rights violations.
There is a Tunisian solution to Tunisia’s crisis, but it is one that requires the vocal and firm support of the international community. Tunisia will emerge from this crisis once a new social contract is built between the various political factions, with all parties cooperating in the pursuit of minimum political guarantees for the Tunisian people, and the common goals of freedom, justice and economic revival.
Europe and the United States should raise the volume of financial aid to Tunisia and not limit it to structural reforms, as they did in the era of former dictator Ben Ali, nor to facilitating the democratic transition, as was the case right after his ousting. Instead, aid should deliver a holistic, integrated support package: one that covers these two aspects but also bolsters the country’s institutions while reforming state structures, especially defense, security, justice and administration. Aid must also support socioeconomic development to ensure sustainable growth and a reduction in youth unemployment.
This is the path to stability, sustainable development, lasting democracy and countering radicalization. There is still a possibility for Tunisia to change course, and to redirect itself back onto the democratic path that was the fruit of more than a decade of struggle by its people. The international community must come out to support Tunisia before it’s too late.
Adnen Hasnaoui is president of the Maghreb Institute for Sustainable Development, an NGO working to support the implementation of UN sustainable development goals in north Africa.