Once every five years or so, Tunisia finds itself in the headlines around the world. Last time, in 2015, it had to do with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. Before that, it was the events of the Arab Spring that led to President Ben Ali being overthrown. Today, ten years following the “Dignity Revolution,” the country’s president, Kais Saied, has frozen the nation’s parliament for a month, depriving its members of their immunity, dismissing the prime minister, minister of defense and minister of justice, and announced that he would govern the country through presidential decrees. All these decisions, which were made during Tunisia’s Republic Day celebrations, were a response to the demands of a certain part of the society—represented among others by the July 25 Movement—to restore order, dismiss the discredited parliament and call new elections.
Ten short years ago, the Tunisian people took to the streets to demand the overthrow of the authoritarian regime that had been in power for 24 years. This time, however, the society roundly supported the president’s decisions as people came out to fly the Tunisian flag and wave banners with patriotic slogans as well as charge the headquarters of Ennahda, an Islamist party that has held a majority in parliament since the 2019 elections. A number of commentators have already noted that the events in Tunisia signify the final defeat of democracy in the Arab world, the end of the Arab Spring, the complete and utter failure of the West’s policies in the region. Others see the traces of the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand and Turkey and Qatar on the other, suggesting that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were taking revenge on their opponents for Field Marshal Haftar’s failed offensive in Libya.
While both of these interpretations are entertaining, they are striking in their complete disregard for the internal logic of the events that are taking place. At first glance, it would seem that COVID-19 is the main culprit. Indeed, recent COVID-19 incidence and morbidity figures are disappointing. The number of new cases continued to grow over June–July 2021, exceeding 9000 per day. Tunisia has a population of approximately 12 million people, so we can assume that the incidence rate roughly corresponded to that of Moscow during the same period. In the days leading up to President Saied’s extraordinary decisions, the number of COVID-related deaths had hit 200 per day. The epidemiological situation in the country was thus among the bleakest in the region.
There is no point arguing whether things are better in other countries or whether Tunisia is better at keeping the relevant statistics and is carrying out more tests for coronavirus. More important is the fact that the epidemiological situation had little to do with Saied’s decisions, and those in parliament were most heavily criticized not for their health policy but for their corrupt activities. In particular, Ennahda was accused of using its majority in parliament to advance its positions in administrative structures, business and politics, building ramified networks of nepotism in all three areas.
This is not the first time that Ennahda MPs have been accused of such wrongdoing, as similar accusations were levelled at the party during the 2013 national crisis. Just like in 2013, the party has come under fire, among other things, for its complete managerial incompetence and the inability to ensure public and national security—now you can add epidemiological safety to the list.
Interestingly, some of these charges are strangely reminiscent of those that were levelled against President Ben Ali in 2011. Of course, he was never accused of being managerially incompetent. He was, however, criticized for his clannishness and corruption. In fact, if you look at how political processes developed in Tunisia in the 2010s, an amazing pattern will emerge. The decade following the revolution can be split into three periods. The first is 2011–2013, which saw the strengthening and coming to power of Ennahda as well as the formation of a powerful anti-Islamist opposition led by Nidaa Tounes. This period ended with a profound political crisis and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. The second period, 2014–2019, coincides with the presidency of Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of Nidaa Tounes. It was during this period that Nidaa Tounes effectively collapsed, while Ennahda continued to grow in strength, eventually taking power in 2019. The third and final period, 2019–2021, has been marked by the unrelenting confrontation between the president and parliament and would appear to be ending with the temporary removal of Ennahda from power.
We can thus suggest that domestic politics in Tunisia over the past decade has been dominated by the confrontation between the so-called secular forces and those who claim to be Islamists. Both these designations are, of course, euphemisms—the former referring to representatives of the old elites and those who live in the capital and along the coast, while the latter to members of the new elites from the inner and southern regions, who also enjoy the support of those living in poor suburbs of the big cities. The confrontation between these two groups attests to a deep internal divide in the Tunisian society into two halves that not only compete with one another but also with completely different views on such issues as the civilization to which the country rightly belongs.
The confrontation between the two parts of society was effectively the raison d’être of the country’s political forces. Any strengthening of either side was quickly followed by a weakening caused by internal fighting, coming as a result of their opponents rallying together at a given time: we saw this first with Ennahda, then with Nidaa Tounes, and then again with Ennahda. Another consequence of this polarization is the dominance of narrow party interests over national interests and the continuing distrust of the two parts of society and the political elites towards each other.
Another important circumstance is worth mentioning here. Today’s events are in many ways a consequence of the National Dialogue. While the National Dialogue proved to be an effective tool for overcoming the crisis and demonstrating the effectiveness of the institutions of the Tunisian civil society which acted as its organizers and guarantors eight years ago, it also highlighted the weaknesses of the political parties. Even before the crisis, the Tunisian people did not place a great deal of trust in political parties, and whatever trust there was eroded completely following the National Dialogue. To some extent, Ennahda proved to be an exception, since its long history and the persecution that the Islamists had endured during the 1990s and the 2000s led to a high degree of solidarity with the party and among its supporters.
Looking at the features of the Tunisian political process, we can thus see the decisions of President Kais Saied not so much as a manifestation of the (largely dubious) global trend of consolidating authoritarianism or a regional trend of ousting Islamists from power (which can also cast into doubt, given how strongly Islamists are represented in almost all parliaments in Arab countries) as an expression of the Tunisian logic of political development.
An important question in the context of recent events in Tunisia, of course, is whether the president’s actions can be considered a political coup. For the time being, Tunisia’s partners abroad tend to avoid this definition. Some Ennahda supporters, most notably Radwan Masmoudi, who has long unofficially linked the party with the Washington establishment, have called for the White House to recognize the incident as a coup d’état and, in accordance with the U.S. legislation, suspend assistance to the country, including in the fight against COVID-19.
The situation, however, is rather complicated. In taking his decisions, Kais Saied referred to Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which grants the president the right to demand exclusive powers in the event of a threat to national security. But there are two setbacks here: 1) it is far from clear that such a threat actually exists; 2) exceptional powers can only be granted to the head of state by agreement with the speaker of parliament who in this case is, of course, categorically against it, having stated that no one approached him about the issue.
It is also important to note that a key point in the adoption of the current Constitution was the provision to prevent any person from usurping power in the country. One of the through lines of the negotiations on the development of the Constitution in 2011–2014 was the need to insure the country against the establishment of authoritarianism. These are the arguments that make some respected figures in Tunisia, such as Yaz Ben Ashur, say that a coup d’état has indeed taken place in the country.
But there is another way of looking at it as the Constitution fails to provide for the kind of situation we are witnessing today. Instead, the president had to appeal to the spirit of the Constitution. After all, the Constitution is designed to support a strong and democratic republican state. But how can a state be strong and democratic if it is rife with corruption and laden with an impotent state apparatus? We are essentially talking about Carl Schmitt’s state of exception here. Moreover, the president is not suspending the activities of the legislative assembly forever—but only for a month. This by no means constitutes a usurpation of power.
All this allows us to offer a number of possible scenarios.
Scenario 1: Chaos. Concentration of power in the hands of the president brings about hardly any improvements in the situation. High-profile corruption cases are seen as an instrument of settling scores within the political elites, while the Ennahda Party, having recovered from the initial shock, mobilizes its supporters to defend the “values of the revolution.” This could lead to fresh protests and a gradual increase in political violence. If events unfold in this way, attempts will likely be made to repeat the successful experience of the National Dialogue, although it is far from clear how prepared the main actors will be amid these conditions.
Scenario 2: A la Ben Ali. The president receives additional support from abroad to fight the coronavirus and—with the help of the law enforcement—he gets the healthcare system functioning again. The security services initiate criminal cases against the most odious corrupt officials. All this allows Kais Saied to maintain a high level of public confidence and introduce amendments to the Constitution that would expand presidential powers and outlaw Ennahda. New parliamentary elections are called and contested by weak parties, which will lose a number of serious political functions. The regime is primarily propped up by the security apparatus, just as it was in the old days. This scenario can be seen as similar to the one that Ben Ali oversaw in the early 1990s, reproducing in general terms the schemes the President used to consolidate his power.
However, this scenario has three weak points.
First, it does not take into account the fact that Tunisian society has changed. Not because the country has enjoyed ten years of democracy or what poets like to call the “sweet air of freedom” (especially since this sweetness was tainted by an endless series of crises), but because the civil society has become more robust during this time. The statement released by the Tunisian General Labor Union (a key syndicalist in the country) in response to the president’s actions stresses, albeit in rather restrained language, the need to preserve the democratic foundations of the political system. Similar sentiments can be found in the statements of other major civil organizations.
Second, this scenario does not account for the fact that a significant part of society still supports Ennahda and that the party has managed to significantly bolster its positions over the past few years—not only among the general public but also in government bodies and in business. One may be tempted to compare the party with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt here , but such a comparison does not really work. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power for less than two years, while Ennahda had ten in Tunisia. What is more, having crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi allowed the Salafist al-Nour Party official recognition. Ennahda’s competitors do not have nearly the same amount of influence and authority among the religiously motivated electorate.
Third, Ben Ali was a product of the intelligence services, while el-Sisi was a career military man. However, the Tunisian Army has never played a significant role in politics, and Kais Saied has no ties whatsoever with the intelligence services; whether or not they embrace the former university professor as one of their own remains to be seen.
Scenario 3: Hopeful. The actions taken by the president are mostly welcomed by the public, while the Islamists do not have the time to mobilize supporters to the extent they need. In addition, Tunisia’s society, tired of incessant crises, is not ready for a repeat of 2011. Constant consultations with the Tunisian General Labor Union and other influential organizations allow the president to maintain public order. In turn, corruption cases brought against MPs provide a reason to question the legitimacy of the parliament itself and call new elections since, after all, this is the will of the people. In addition, a referendum on introducing amendments to the Constitution to expand the president’s powers—another ground for parliamentary elections—may be called. The new-look Ennahda will have far fewer seats in parliament than before, while the majority of votes will go to secular centrist parties that support the president.
This is likely the preferred scenario for many, although it has a number of weaknesses, too.
First, it is clear that it will take longer than a few months to institute all these changes. Six months or a year are a minimum of what is needed. The question is whether Kais Saied can keep the wheels turning for that long. If he fails, Scenario 1 may become a reality, and a new, stronger figure may be installed in power.
Second, pushing Ennahda to the political margins means that some kind of alternative needs to be presented. However, secular parties have failed to come up with anything in recent years, and there is no reason to believe they will be able to now.
Third, such a scenario assumes that the president will have the unconditional support of the Tunisian General Labor Union and other civil society institutions, which is also not a given.
The three scenarios presented here merely outline the possible trajectories. We may see something completely different. That said, it is obvious that the coming month will be pivotal for Tunisia’s future. Not only will the response of the country’s internal forces to the president’s initiatives become clear, but the initiatives themselves will evolve into something resembling a political program. There is no doubt that such a program exists: at the end of the day, Kais Saied was talking about the need to strengthen presidential power as well as elements of direct democracy when he was running for office.
From our partner RIAC