Until very recently, Tunisia was hailed as a model of democratic progress, achieving a Global Freedom Score of 71 out of 100 on the Freedom House indicator (1). Yet, this democratic progress is now unraveling, reversing a ten-year positive trend initiated by the Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring. In particular, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tunisia has been struggling economically. Unhappy with their government’s response to the pandemic, a group that calls themselves the “July 25 Movement” called for protests (2). On July 25 (Tunisia’s Independence Day) the group sprung into action: protesters honed in on the offices belonging to Ennahda, “the Islamist party that has a majority of seats in parliament.” (3) That night, in response, President Saied—once a prominent constitutional law professor—“fired the country’s prime minister…and froze parliament’s activities” arguably to help restore peace (2). The president was able to do so by using a constitutional measure giving him the authority to assume executive power. The president said those actions were necessary “to address economic stagnation” and the weak “response to the coronavirus” (4). He also mentioned he would nominate a new prime minister and allow parliament to function again but did not give a timeline as of when.
Fast forward two months and not only is parliament still frozen, but, on September 22, President Saied declared he would now rule by decree “and ignore parts of the constitution.” (5) His opponents have been outspoken about this power grab and denouncing it as a coup to seize absolute power. President Saied claims instead that his actions are constitutional and denies claims of authoritarian ambition. In response, more than one hundred members of the Ennahad party have resigned “in protest at the leadership’s performance.” (4) Three days later, four political parties – the Democratic Current Party, Ettakatol, the Republican Party, and Afek Tounes were forming a coalition against President Saied. The secretary-general of the Democratic Current Party stated the purpose “was to express the party’s refusal of the monopolization of power.” (6) In “How Democracies Die”, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt created “Four Key Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior”. The first indicator is “Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game”(7). President Saied’s suspending parliament and then the consolidation of power by ruling by decree is a clear sign of authoritarian characteristics.
1. “Tunisia: Freedom in the World 2021 Country Report.” Freedom House, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/tunisia/freedom-world/2021.
2. Press, The Associated. “Tunisian President Fires Prime Minister after Violent Protests.” NPR, NPR, 26 July 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/07/25/1020523338/tunisian-president-fires-prime-minister-after-violent-protests.
3. Amara, Tarek. “Protests across Tunisia Target Ennahda Party over Political Crisis.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 25 July 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/protests-across-tunisia-covid-19-surges-economy-suffers-2021-07-25/.
4. Amara, Tarek. “More than 100 Officials from Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Party Resign amid Crisis.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 25 Sept. 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/more-than-100-officials-tunisias-islamist-ennahda-party-resign-amid-crisis-2021-09-25/.
5. Al Jazeera. “Will Tunisia Return to Authoritarian Rule?” Politics News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 27 Sept. 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/program/inside-story/2021/9/27/will-tunisia-return-to-authoritarian-rule.
6. MME Staff. “Tunisian Parties Launch Movement against President Kais Saied’s Power Grab.” Middle East Eye, 28 Sept. 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/tunisia-coup-parties-launch-movement-against-president-saied.
7. Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “Chapter 1: Fateful Alliances.” How Democracies Die, Crown, New York, 2018, p. 23.
Eliot, Wyatt. Kais Saied, the Tunisian President Accused of Undermining Democracy, Financial Times, 30 July 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/aacfb785-de60-49c6-8d27-b4b4255a796f. Accessed 5 Oct. 2021.