The 2010 revolution in Tunisia did more than just birth the Arab Spring, it birthed democracy for the first time in the country’s history. Previously under Ottoman and French rule, Tunisia became a one-party state under Habib Bourguiba directly after its independence. Power eventually shifted into the hands of the notorious Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, whose repressive policies and extensive censorship led to the massive revolution that sparked the Arab Spring throughout the region. Unlike other states that experienced this phenomenon, Tunisia was the only democracy to emerge. Between 2021 and 2022, Tunisia’s “free” rating has been reduced to “partly free” under Kais Saied, with the country dropping 5 points. The president’s policies have now led Tunisia to face an authoritarian reality they’ve seen before, and worked hard to get rid of in the past. Democratic erosion under Saied can be directly attributed to his brand of populist governance, which is embodied in the recent passage of a revised constitution that greatly expands presidential power.
Though democratically elected in 2019, Saied’s actions to the present have exemplified not a democratic leader, but a populist one. His initial victory was already seen as a rejection of established political parties as Saied was a retired law professor. His campaign was built around anti-elite rhetoric that blamed the current party in power, Ennahda, for failing to solve national economic issues. This rhetoric translated into action after his election, as he declared a state of emergency in 2021 that suspended Parliament and dismissed the Prime Minister. This eventually led to a full dissolution of Parliament in March of 2022.
This state of emergency culminated in a constitutional referendum in July 2022, in which Tunisians voted on the passage of Saied’s newly revised constitution. This new constitution gives the president expanded power over Parliament and security forces. More specifically, it gives the president immunity during his tenure, the power to terminate the government and remove any members, and dissolve Parliament. Saied claimed that these changes were necessary to weaken the corrupt political elite and “save the state”.
The referendum was passed in a “landslide”, approved by 92.3% of voters, according to an exit poll. Turnout was reported to only be at 21.85% though, a result of boycotts, disinterest, and forms of electoral manipulation; consequently, his opposition viewed this victory as delegitimizing to Saied’s constitution, and his regime at large.
The specific implications this referendum will have on Tunisian democracy may not yet be fully understood, but just looking at Saied’s brand of populism foreshadows a problematic future for the state. Saied personifies the characteristics of a populist according to Muller, an anti-elitist and anti-pluralist leader that has claimed to represent the will of the people. He characterizes Muller’s analysis of a populist in power, specifically those that have enough power to establish a new constitution. She explains that populist constitutions seek to keep the leader in power, exactly what the July referendum accomplished. He has given himself almost total power in deciding government personnel, put himself in control of all security forces, and allowed for the president to demand any future revision of the Constitution.
The president also maintains a loyal base of citizens that have put their trust not in democracy or its institutions, but in the man himself. A voter interviewed at the July referendum called Saied a “good man and a gentleman” before admitting he did not actually read the constitutional revision before voting on its passage. This demonstrates the power of the populist rhetoric, and the extent to which Saied himself has consolidated a position for himself within the Tunisian political and social infrastructure.
These significant changes to the country’s democracy have not gone unnoticed by non-supporters, though. According to a survey conducted by Zogby Research Services in 2021, 81% of Tunisians are either “very concerned” or “a little concerned” about democracy after Saied’s state of emergency in June 2021. Saied’s expanded influence has come in the wake of extremely high levels of distrust in Parliament and the Ennahda party, with both groups polling below 10%. It is this rising mistrust in the establishment that the president has been able to capitalize upon to promote his own vision of governance, despite some of these growing concerns among the majority.
Tunis, the capital of the country, has continued to see protests held by multiple opposition groups months after the constitutional reform. One of the most notable groups that have protested against Saied’s reform has been the National Salvation Front, a coalition of opposition parties including the Ennahda, the Amal Party, and the Movement Party. This decisive split between Saied and members of the establishment serves to legitimize the president’s populist standing in the eyes of him and his supporters. As support for these traditional parties and institutions decrease, distinction between himself and his established counterparts will continue to serve Saied’s interests.
The outcome in Tunisia will be a battle between populism and democracy; the unknown and the known; the past and the present. It will indicate the foremost priorities of the Tunisian people, and whether or not they believe Saied will be able to achieve his promised institutional changes and reach economic security, or if he will eventually lead the country back into decades-long repressive authoritarian rule.