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Euroviews. The EU should know the rise of autocracy in Tunisia won't be fixed with short-term band-aids

People take part in a protest against President Kais Saied's policies in Tunis, 5 March 2023
People take part in a protest against President Kais Saied's policies in Tunis, 5 March 2023 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Ghazi Ben Ahmed, Founder, MDI
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The democratic backsliding that the opposition is describing as a coup has not provoked a significant enough reaction from Europe. That might threaten the stability in the Middle East on the whole, Ghazi Ben Ahmed writes.

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The EU is clearly concerned that Tunisia is heading for political and economic collapse. 

As a result of widespread disillusionment, democracy has been in decline, and authoritarian populists have seized power in various corners of the world.

Sadly, Tunisia is no exception. 

Tunisia’s transition to democracy following its 2011 Jasmine Revolution — the first in a series of democratisation protests that became broadly known as the Arab Spring movement —only lasted for as long as average citizens still believed it would deliver a better life. 

Today, it is in shambles as President Kais Saied has cemented his authoritarian rule. Following this democratic recession, Tunisia was not invited to the second Summit for Democracy co-hosted by the US on 29-30 March. 

Frustrated by corruption and growing inequalities, Tunisians also turned to populism

In 2016, the year of Brexit and former US President Donald Trump's arrival to power, disillusionment surged to a climax in OECD countries. 

Many people worldwide became increasingly sceptical of the ability of their governments to act effectively in protecting their health and promoting positive economic policies and prosperity for all.

Those excluded from globalisation, in Europe or the US, pushed the elites who had failed to listen to them out of power. 

In Tunisia, where dividends of democracy were slow to materialise, citizens’ ire grew, and they lost confidence in democratic institutions as instruments capable of providing concrete solutions to their problems. 

These tensions were compounded by massive and widespread corruption and rising inequalities, creating terrible frustrations while dangerously feeding populism.
AP Photo/Hassene Dridi
A Tunisian holds a bird cage containing his national flag during a demonstration to mark the eighth anniversary of the democratic uprising in Tunis, January 2019AP Photo/Hassene Dridi

These tensions were compounded by massive and widespread corruption and rising inequalities, creating terrible frustrations while dangerously feeding populism. 

In Brazil, one of the key reasons for former President Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power in 2018 was the massive amount of corruption that tainted the administration of his opponent Lula’s Workers’ Party, which was in power from 2003 until 2016.

From an 'incorruptible constitutionalist' to an illiberal autocrat

Tunisia’s Saied was elected in 2019 on a platform where he painted himself as a warrior against the country’s "corrupt, incompetent elite," and he did enjoy a reputation of incorruptibility as a political outsider. 

While all post-revolution governments basically faltered, Saied — an unknown constitutionalist — had maintained his popularity until his power grab on 25 July 2021, when he suspended the parliament, dismissed the PM, and proceeded to demolish all political life in the country. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and its severe impact ... and Russia's war in Ukraine left no room for concern about what the situation in Tunisia meant for stability across the Middle East on the whole.
AP Photo/Slim Abid
Tunisia's President Kais Saied leads a security meeting with members of the army and police forces in Tunis, 25 July 2021AP Photo/Slim Abid

The democratic backsliding that the opposition is describing as a coup has not provoked a significant enough reaction from Europe and the US. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and its severe impact, inflation, tensions with China, and Russia's war in Ukraine left no room for concern about what the situation in Tunisia — the only democracy to have arisen from the Arab Spring — meant for stability across the Middle East on the whole.

Thus, US President Joe Biden’s recent proclamation that “the challenge of our time is to demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people and by addressing the greatest problems facing the wider world” is not enough to bring assurance to citizens around the world that democracy is the key to our future prosperity. 

Money might be a stop-gap measure, but it's no long-term solution

Democracy is a living, fragile thing that needs to be nurtured and protected on an ongoing basis. 

Post-revolution periods have always witnessed economic crises and turbulence. 

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Eastern Europe’s transition from Soviet rule saw economies decline throughout the 1990s before they were able to generate economic growth with significant help from the European Union based on a long-term vision.

The EU and Italy’s move to unblock a $1.9 billion (€1,74bn) IMF loan to Tunisia with no strings attached may just delay the problem by a few months.
AP Photo/Francisco Seco
Migrants from Tunisia wait in a boat as they are assisted by Spanish NGO Open Arms crew members during a rescue operation near the Italian island of Lampedusa, August 2022AP Photo/Francisco Seco

Today, sadly, it seems easier for the EU to follow the lead of Italy's government and push for a short-term patch of an IMF loan rather than address Tunisia and North Africa's instability through changes in EU neighbourhood policies, starting with migration and mobility. 

Experiences around the world have shown that authoritarian rule seldom leads to inclusive growth, dynamic economies, and the tackling of corruption. 

Therefore, the EU and Italy’s move to unblock a $1.9 billion (€1,74bn) IMF loan to Tunisia with no strings attached may just delay the problem by a few months, unleashing an even bigger wave of migrants towards Europe.

Two major shifts might bring about progress

Tunisia is in the process of achieving a double catharsis that will allow it to look forward to the future more serenely. 

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The first catharsis comes with the bitter failure of the Islamist party Ennahdha and its acolyte, the Karama ("Dignity") party, as their first concern when they took power was to demand high financial compensation from an already bankrupt country. 

The population saw that theocratic systems exploited religion and touted hollow promises about improving their welfare. 

Also, this coalition emerged at a time during which Tunisia was one of the top providers of jihadists in the world. Post-Islamism is seen as a decoy designed to make Ennahdha look like a moderate party, in contrast with an overactive Salafist movement.

All these are populist ploys that seduced young people impatient to live their dream no longer have the same effect they once had.
AP Photo/Hassene Dridi
People demonstrate against Tunisian President Kais Saied's comment on migration, 25 February 2023AP Photo/Hassene Dridi

The second will only come from the failure of authoritarian populism, characterised by economic myopia, visceral hatred of the "corrupt" secularist elites, and hostility toward democratic institutions and the so-called “Western interference.”

The same authoritarian populism is guilty of anti-immigrant racism — especially against sub-Saharan Africans — conspiracies against the domestic "traitors," and "supplicants of foreign forces," and hatred of the media allegedly in “the hands of occult forces”.

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All these are populist ploys that seduced young people impatient to live their dream no longer have the same effect they once had.

Tunisia's democracy must be brought back to its feet, and soon

This double catharsis will make it possible to exorcise the lost decade and approach a new phase in which a peace-loving Tunisia with a history that spans several millennia will be able to seriously tackle all of its problems. 

The rent economy, vested interests, cronyism, economic protectionism, and massive corruption in particular.

Tunisia’s democracy must be restored expeditiously, and Europe and the US must help the country deliver it more effectively with long-term systemic solutions. 

The second Democracy Forum should highlight Tunisia’s democratic transition and ensure that it can address the country’s most pressing challenges. 

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The Forum states : “We will champion a vision of our world that is grounded in democratic values: transparent, responsive, and accountable governance; rule of law; and respect for human rights.” 

History will tell us if this is just wishful thinking.

Ghazi Ben Ahmed is the Founder of the Mediterranean Development Initiative (MDI), a Tunis-based think-tank founded in 2013 to help support economic and social development in the Mediterranean region.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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