With Tunisia, predictions seem to have gone wrong more frequently than is normally the case. Posterchild of the Arab uprisings, the country was deemed to be at high risk of an authoritarian turn in the wake of Egypt’s counter-revolution in mid-2013. Rumors across the Arab world and in European capitals abounded on the high probability of a similar anti-islamist turn of events in Tunis, stirred by popular anti-government mass mobilization, capitalized by anti-islamist political entrepreneurs. In 2013, mobilizations took place in similar formats as the Egyptian Tamarod movement, and the country was shaken by political assassinations of two secular politicians. Terrorist attacks risked derailing the democratic transition, and by hitting the touristic sector, contributed to worsening the country’s economic relaunch.
And yet, not only was the terrorist threat successfully tackled, also thanks to international cooperation (through the G7+ formula), but the political system did democratically navigate an uncharted democratic territory, it established most rules of the game and paved the way for peaceful alternation of power. Not all critical democratic features were put in place, however: due to inter-party disagreements, no functioning Constitutional Court was established, something that proved highly detrimental as it left the young democracy exposed to vulnerabilities and fragilities that were not too difficult to exploit and manipulate.
The prediction Tunisia – in light of its limited size and geopolitical relevance, dependence on external regional and extra-regional powers – could not resist the winds of democratic backsliding or authoritarian turns once Egypt fell was disproved, back in 2013.
Fast-forward few years and in 2019 democratic elections bring to power an obscure academic who has increasingly hollowed out Tunisian democracy from inside. Initially namely, most commentators and Tunisian public opinion underrated the presidential candidate and failed to identify in Kais Saied a risk for democracy. The current President of the Republic was elected in October 2019 against Nabil Karoui, a well-known tycoon: he was depicted a low-key, conservative academic, especially popular among the youth, running with an ill-defined and under-specified political platform in favor of conservative social values (against homosexuality and against women’s inheritance equal rights), populist anti-corruption mantra and promising to get away with parliamentary democracy in favor of direct democracy (i.e. plebiscitarian) coupled with locally decentralized governance.
The prediction that the President, once elected, would keep going with business as usual, domestically and in the country’s external relations, proved shortsighted. It was not until his power grab in the summer of 2021, when he dissolved Parliament and suspended parliamentary immunity, that most observers realized how far-fetched those assumptions and predictions had been. Tunisia had namely its first incumbent takeover or self-coup, with the help of the military, which gave in to the President’s request to close the gate of the Parliament.
Defying expectations and predictions of its non-partisan nature and defender of the constitutional order, the army – historically apolitical and mostly for this reason the most trusted institution in Tunisia – has enabled the presidential power grab. Since July 25, 2021, it has been a slippery slope for the reputation of the army itself that has acted in line with presidential asks, including being in charge of post-2021 Covid response, taking up ministerial posts such as health and agriculture, and, on a darker note for its democratic credentials, it has become more active in prosecuting dissidents in front of military courts and coercively repressing sub-Saharan migrants on the borders with Libya. Under Kais Saied, the army has expanded its remit, has increasingly benefitted from the state budget allocation for the Ministry of Defense as well as in terms of the number of new hires. It is now safe to say that the army has become a non-neutral player in the political arena and has partially lost its moral compass and longstanding legitimacy.
Economically, the country’s malaise is far from being the outcome of Kais Saied’s inertia, as it is the result of five decades’ import driven model, which require ample foreign currency reserves and has led to increasingly high trade deficits. However, as the country has suffered from persisting high inflation since the outbreak of the war against Ukraine in February 2022, President Saied has limited himself to scapegoating alleged speculators since March 2022. No economic or fiscal policy was undertaken aimed at reversing the food commodities’ shortages. On the contrary, by reducing imports due to foreign currency reserves’ contraction, and by increasing fiscal imposition on salaries, further eroding Tunisians’ purchasing power, Saied’s government has contributed to worsen food shortages and increase food insecurity, a far cry from presidential narratives of food sovereignty.
Governance failures abound: despite initial pledges to fight against corruption and rethink the country’s economy, historically dominated by crony capitalism and low-skilled labor force, Saied’s government has refrained from undergoing any economic reform, be it the list of demands by the IMF (reduction of public employees’ costs and privatization of state enterprises) or any decentralization push, enabling governorates to support local investments and economic activities. While publicly rejecting the conditions set by the IMF for the 1.9 billion dollar loan, the government has reduced subsidies: 33 percent reduction of food subsidies and 25,7 percent for fuel subsidies, remaining however still significantly higher than in 2020-21.
In a report published on July 24, 2023, the independent organization IWatch has scrutinized all 49 promises made by the president since 2021, ranging from promising to guarantee the independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression and assembly, to ensure higher purchasing power to ordinary Tunisians. The president has so far kept 10 percent of them, while he has acted against them in one third of the cases, in particular as far as the autonomy and independence of institutions is concerned.
He has done so, first by delegitimizing independent institutional bodies, accusing them of being corrupt and infiltrated (by islamists), thereby paving the way for either their dissolution or replacement with provisional or weaker bodies, in an ongoing process of power consolidation in the hands of the presidency.
Just to name a few examples, in 2021, a presidential decree suppressed the body that, in the absence of the constitutional court, was responsible for the assessment of the constitutionality of legislative drafts. In February 2022, the President dissolved the Superior council of the judiciary, which guarantees the autonomy of the judicial branch, by replacing it with a provisional one, now directly supervised by the President. His promise of decentralization has been hollowed out when, in March 2023, municipal council were replaced by special delegations, now directly under the responsibility of the Interior Ministry, as was the case during Ben Ali, and not under the Ministry of Local Affairs, now completely deprived of authority. The Interior Ministry has become the official channel of communications of the president, the undertext of this –you are now under police orders– being visibly clear. Similarly, the talk is now of ‘Tat’hrir al idara’, or purification of the administration, a purge operation the newly appointed prime minister, Ahmed Hachani, will be tasked to carry out.
The scapegoating process will therefore continue: first the parliament, then political parties, now judges. Magistrates and judges have become increasingly scrutinized with the President suggesting they target specific individuals or groups. This has been the case with the Pole judiciare de lutte contre le terrorisme, established with the 2015 Counter-terrorism Law, and now increasingly used against political activists, dissidents and journalists. In February 2023 arrests have been made against seventeen people (“affaire des 17“) accused of “conspiracy against the state” and already identified as guilty by the President, who accused them of masterminding a plot to assassinate him. A second wave of arrests included highly prominent politicians from the Ennahda movement: among them, Rachid Ghannouci, Habib Ellouze, Ali Laarayedh, with accusations ranging from “apology of terrorism” to “money laundering”.
Journalists have been targeted with a presidential decree aimed at countering fake news (Decree 54), employed as a censorship tool enabling the repression, intimidation and prosecution of political and media figures, amounting to over twenty trials against journalists. One of the pretexts to attack media coverage of the government’s actions has been the handling of sub-Saharan migrants’ crisis. In February 2023, Kais Saied denounced a conspiracy to change the demographic balance in Tunisia, blaming it on the Sub-saharan migrants themselves, most trapped in the border regions in the southeast with Libya or the west with Algeria. The racist presidential narrative triggered a violent social media campaign which also translated in physical violence against them, amounting to over 840 people attacked throughout the country. This became notoriously visible in Sfax in July 2023, when Tunisian authorities hit, raped and deported in the South-Est desert dozens of sub-Saharan individuals.
Scapegoating migrants as an external-domestic threat has not sufficed to steer attention away from the worsening social conditions Tunisians live in. The wave of coercive repression, intimidation and deterrence has namely not stopped mobilizations, mostly linked to social and economic rights: in May 2023 an increase by 45 percent of protests was registered as compared to the previous year.
Few commentators make predictions these days about Tunisia, with the exception of its financial resilience deemed to be now overstretched and foreign reserves hardly covering the country’s needs in the autumn. Whether Kais Saied will be able to pull a last minute trick out of the autocratic hat, or whether Tunisia will face a default and financial and social collapse is anyone’s guess.
Ruth Hanau Santini is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at University of Naples L’Orientale.
Cover photo: a billboard depicting Tunisia’s Kais Saied hangs on the side of a building in the east-central city of Kairouan, on July 26, 2022 (photo by Kabil BOUSENA/AFP.)
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