In response to corruption and economic struggle, the 2010-2011 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia sparked unrest and a call for democracy and reform within the entire Arab region. While protests in many other Arab countries ultimately resulted in civil war or a slip back into authoritarianism, Tunisia’s revolution has largely been considered the lone success story of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring brought regime change to Tunisia, which transitioned to a democracy after the first democratic election of President Beji Essebsi in 2014. It has since held two free and fair elections, with the election of current President Kais Saied in 2019, and approved “one of the world’s most progressive constitutions”. However, the Covid-19 pandemic caused many countries in the Middle East and around the world to see an increase in democratic erosion, using the situation as a cover for repressive rule. In Tunisia specifically, President Saied’s actions during the pandemic have highlighted the weaknesses of its recently-established democracy. In an attempt to take executive control over the country as the economy and health system went into free fall, Saied suspended the parliament in July 2021 and dismissed the prime minister. These antidemocratic actions, however, are the result of deeper systematic democratic erosion and the failure to address Arab Spring demands. This has, moreover, led to a rise in populism and increased disillusionment with democratic institutions among the Tunisian population.
One of the key demands of the Arab Spring revolution was creating better socioeconomic conditions, such as lowering the unemployment rate and reforming economic corruption. However, political corruption and legislative gridlock has created a lack of progressive reform. In the very beginning of Tunisia’s political transition, the National Assembly was praised for its consensus between its secular and Islamic parties. This consensus came at a time of intense political polarization between Islamists and secularists during the constitution drafting stage, but through compromise and constraint they were able to form a national unity coalition which adopted a new constitution and carried out democratic elections in 2014. Since then, however, even the most organized parties like Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes have become increasingly fragmented and polarized. With an ideologically divided National Assembly, there has been no willingness or common consensus for socioeconomic reform.
Furthermore, much of the political party leadership make up a group of political elites that have continued a tyranny of corruption. Instead of addressing some of the main issues of the Arab Spring, they have attempted to curtail these changes because of their inherent participation in these issues. Many politicians within the ruling political elite have been called out for participating in conflict-of-interest business deals. Along with this, the public has widely distrusted the top-down approach to crackdown on corruption. The independent Truth and Dignity Division (IVD) tasked with fighting corruption has been at the mercy of parliament attempts to obstruct transitional justice, with many viewing this as an attempt to protect the prosecution of the political elite. Along with a lack of corruption reform, the economic situation in Tunisia has worsened under the new democratic system. This has been partially linked to corruption, as corruption deters investment in the private sector and has hindered socioeconomic development. With the political elite enabling continued corruption and a stagnant economy in the post-Arab Spring era, many argue that democratic reform within the country has not gone far enough to appease the wishes of the Tunisian people. This has led many Tunisians to become disillusioned with the ability for political parties and a democratic system to represent their needs. As a result of this failure to address corruption and reform under democratic institutions, President Saied was elected on a populist platform in 2019, pledging to combat political corruption and improve the electoral system. Acting upon these promises on July 25th, he invoked Article 80 of the constitution to suspend the parliament and depose the prime minister, arguing that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the nation’s economy was an extenuating circumstance that allowed for the use of emergency powers. A poll from July 28th showed that more than 87 percent of Tunisians approved of Saied’s “state of exception” measures and 86 percent supported the suspension of parliament. Disillusionment in the current democratic institutions has therefore allowed executive overreach by President Saied to be justified, only further aiding in democratic erosion. However, President Saied’s ability to clean up corruption and improve the economy will determine the course of Tunisian democracy and whether or not he will maintain enough public support for the upcoming constitutional referendum in July 2022.
Hi Zoe! I’m familiar with the Arab Spring and democratic backsliding in the Middle East but I was unaware of the situation in ‘Tunisia. Your article clearly outlines how President Kais Saied came to power democratically, a new phenomena for the country, but has ultimately begun to abuse his power. The disillusionment with the political process and democracy in Tunisia is what is most threatening though because of Saied’s new populist appeal. This is a pattern we’ve seen though, in which new democracies elect presidents that when given the power to remove themselves from checks and balances, they do.