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Foreign Policy

Possibly the Tunisians by no means wished democracy

On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the country’s prime minister and suspended parliament for 30 days. As a result, security forces were stationed around the parliament building in Tunis to prevent the legislature from passing through. The next day, the President forced the incumbent Justice Minister out of office, dismissed the Defense Minister and ordered the closure of Al Jazeera’s offices. He also banned gatherings of three or more people.

Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of the now closed parliament and long-time leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party, described Saied’s action as a “coup”. The President contradicted this, referring to Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which gives the head of state the power to do exactly what he has done when “the country’s integrity and security and independence are directly threatened”. However, there is significant disagreement over whether Tunisia’s current dire economic problems, parliamentary drift and a debilitating COVID-19 wave actually pose such an imminent threat. This seems like a problem for the Constitutional Court to rule on – but unfortunately there is no court because either no one can agree on the appointment of judges or the President has blocked their appointment.

On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the country’s prime minister and suspended parliament for 30 days. As a result, security forces were stationed around the parliament building in Tunis to prevent the legislature from passing through. The next day, the President forced the incumbent Justice Minister out of office, dismissed the Defense Minister and ordered the closure of Al Jazeera’s offices. He also banned gatherings of three or more people.

Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of the now closed parliament and long-time leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party, described Saied’s action as a “coup”. The President contradicted this, referring to Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which gives the head of state the power to do exactly what he has done when “the country’s integrity and security and independence are directly threatened”. However, there is significant disagreement over whether Tunisia’s current dire economic problems, parliamentary drift and a debilitating COVID-19 wave actually pose such an imminent threat. This seems like a problem for the Constitutional Court to rule on – but unfortunately there is no court because either no one can agree on the appointment of judges or the President has blocked their appointment.

Putsch or not, that couldn’t happen in Tunisia. Tunisia is (or was) the “lonely success story” of the Arab Spring. But such clichés, which have been used repeatedly by the international media for a decade, have always been a problem themselves. They shaped Tunisian politics to rule out other options, such as relapses, and envisaged linear developments from protests to elections to a constitution. As breathless editorials described a peaceful transfer of power to a “real democracy”, they brushed off the complexities of Tunisian politics in particular and the transition to democracy in general.

It is unclear that Saied’s seizure of power means the end of the country’s democratization. Tunisians have faced the abyss before, even during a lengthy political stalemate in 2013. Then, in 2015, the newly elected President Beji Caid Essebsi preferred a government that would have excluded Ennahdha and her allies. Unfortunately for Essebsi and the secularists of his Nidaa Tounes party, parliamentary math did not work in his favor and forced a broader coalition. Eventually goodwill developed between the president and Ghannouchi, but what seemed more important than personality to force a compromise was the fact that neither Essebsi nor Ghannouchi had the popular support necessary for the other’s sake forcing – an obvious advantage of a divided society.

It was laudable and noteworthy that Tunisia did not fall into violence in 2013, that a functioning coalition government was formed in 2015, and that there was a peaceful transfer of power after Essebsi’s death in 2019 – although none of these achievements necessarily meant Tunisia would move forward. Serious analysts knew this because they understood the country’s economic challenges, lingering identity issues, the yen for the old order of elites, and Parliament’s inability to deliver on the promise of the January 2011 Revolution.

Oddly enough, however, some of these experts and observers continued to directly describe Tunisia as a success – creating an unwritten and unacknowledged expectation that the country’s progress would inevitably continue. This was especially curious given the continued erosion of democratic institutions over the past decade in countries considered to be consolidated democracies – including the United States.

In the few days since Saied transferred executive power to himself, there have been protests in both support and opposition to his actions. The former are more interesting. Messages from Tunisia show that those who greet the president are fed up with poor governance and a lack of economic opportunities. Overlay these problems with the fact that a recent wave of COVID-19 has devastated the country’s health system and many more people are willing to bet on an authoritarian who promises to improve their lives with more unencumbered power.

The willingness to part with hard-won achievements after a decade of democratization seems to be part of Tunisia’s special political culture. No, I am not referring to the disappointment that Arab and Muslim societies are not proficient in democracy; Rather, I would like to draw attention to the cultural heritage of the great Arab state, which promised (but rarely, if ever, provided) security, education and opportunity. The analysts, journalists and civil society activists that Westerners come into contact with in Tunisia want to create a fairer and more democratic society. But what about Tunisians in general? Many – or at least those on the street in the last few days – seem to have a rather ambivalent relationship to democracy. They seem to want a more efficient state that creates jobs and a social safety net regardless of the character of the political system. It is possible that, after a decade of greater personal freedoms Tunisians enjoyed, the lack of prosperity has led a potentially significant number of them to try a version of authoritarianism again.

Of course, it remains completely unclear what will happen in Tunisia and what foreign powers can do about it. In view of the great attention paid to Tunisia by the press and the experts since the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 in connection with the commitment of US President Joe Biden to a values-based foreign policy, there is at least some pressure on the United States to respond. But here lies the riddle: Washington sees Tunisia more through its supposed success. Experts and activists are calling for more help for Tunisia, precisely because it has allegedly made the transition to democracy. The United States has also built a security relationship with Tunisia based on combating extremism. Should the United States withhold or cut back this aid now? This seems appropriate in terms of values, but perhaps risky in terms of security, as Tunisia has a preference for extremists and instability in the neighboring Sahel zone. This is not an easy circle to square.

In one of the more unexpected developments in US Middle East policy, Tunisia could end up being a warning when it comes to building policies around one type of regime, as political systems can change quickly.

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