Emerging as a democracy after the Arab Spring, Tunisia was a source of hope and a leading example for the development of democracy in the Arab world – something highly supported by the European Union and other countries in the Western world. However, since its establishment as a democracy in 2011, Tunisia has struggled to fully develop as a strong democracy. This stalling in development has allowed Tunisia to remain vulnerable to attacks on its democracy, from both the outside and within. Recent attacks on Tunisian democracy have originated from deep within the institution, as the current president Kais Saied has attempted, and is succeeding in, changing the voting mechanisms and structures to play into his favor.
Surrounded by countries that do not practice democratic forms of government, such as Libya and Algeria, Tunisia is rendered geographically vulnerable to attacks against its fairly new democracy from outsiders. Although the Arab Spring did impact these surrounding countries culturally, they did not see the same regime or governmental changes that Tunisia did and remain in the category of “Not Free” countries. While Tunisia is not categorized as “Free,” it holds the title of “Partly Free,” setting it apart from its neighbors. However, Tunisia can only retain this title of “Partly Free” if it is able to fend off attempts to undermine its democracy, particularly those from the surrounding area. As a new democracy, Tunisia is heavily dependent upon outside support, specifically from the EU, who has an interest in stabilizing the Arab world. The EU provided a great amount of support in the initial establishment of Tunisia’s democracy, but in the years following has not provided the amount of aid and guidance that a growing democracy demands. This leaves Tunisia open and vulnerable to future attacks.
Additionally, Tunisia faces domestic attacks on its democracy, recently seeing these attacks in the form of stealth authoritarianism stemming from the current president Kais Saied. President Saied has already moved to dissolve parliament and is now attempting to change voting procedures before the December elections. If successful, Saied will be able to tilt the scale in his favor and consolidate his power even further. Saied has dismissed opposing opinions and attempts to defy him as illegal activity. Additionally, Saied has given himself the power to rule by decree, a move that has sounded alarms in the democratic world. Saied has also used his newfound executive power to dissolve the existing judiciary and appoint his own hand-picked members to serve on a new judicial council. This seems to be another move to consolidate Saied’s power, as a hand-picked judiciary often remains loyal to the one who put them in power, regardless of whether their actions are democratic or not.
While Saied justifies all of his extreme actions in the past year, especially within the past month, as necessary to preserve Tunisian democracy, his narrative starkly contrasts with the actions of “Free” countries. In overusing his executive power and failing to practice forbearance, Saied has stepped out of the bounds of a president and into the realm of an authoritarian leader. His moves to dissolve parliament, freeze the assembly and rule by decree are not actions a country moving towards democracy would make, in fact they are quite the opposite. However, since Tunisia is a new democracy, it is difficult for its citizens to recognize these actions as attacks when the popular narrative they are hearing is that it is for the good of the country. These citizens can remember a time when Tunisia faced great instability and extreme political polarization that led to a halt in its country’s institutions. Due to this, these citizens may be willing to sacrifice some key democratic ideals in pursuit of stability, even if it comes at the cost of authoritarianism. Facing attacks both foreign and domestic, it seems like Tunisia’s hope lies within support from strong democratic influences, such as the EU, who can help guide and stabilize the lone democracy that arose from the Arab Spring.