In just two years, Tunisia has transformed from the birthplace of the Arab uprisings adopting one of the world’s most progressive constitutions and winning a Nobel Prize for peacefully navigating a political crisis, to an authoritarian, populist regime backed by a police state that frequently jails its political opposition and throws Black migrants to die in the scorching desert heat. While it is indeed important for civil society and political parties to now channel their efforts toward preserving and restoring the gains of the 2011 revolution, it is also important to reflect on the two-year anniversary of President Kais Saied’s imposition of the state of exception by drawing lessons from the current political crisis and addressing its root causes.
During the first decade that followed Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, the country’s situation was far from ideal. The country faced serious economic challenges, an increasingly impoverished population, and deteriorating social services—most starkly highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ruling political class was oblivious to these problems, and instead of focusing on building new democratic institutions and significantly reforming key areas such as the economy, security, and justice, it focused on remaining in power.
Actors involved with the democratic transition need to start asking the difficult question of how this democratic collapse happened, and why it happened so fast
Democratization is neither a smooth nor linear process. Tunisia, in its very first years of democracy, faced significant challenges due to its fragile institutions, lack of a constitutional court, and a nascent democratic political culture. Still, however, these elements do not nullify the importance of Tunisia’s democratic transition, and the urgent need for its reconfiguration. The events following the coup on July 25, 2021, revealed a concerning level of passivity, and in some instances, complicity, in the face of authoritarian measures. In light of this observation and the rapid erosion of the rule of law and human rights, actors involved with the democratic transition need to start asking the difficult question of how this democratic collapse happened, and why it happened so fast.
How did Tunisia lose so much of its hard-won democratic gains in a matter of two short years? As someone who has been involved with Tunisian civil society for years, I see this as a critical opportunity to learn from the challenges we have faced over these past two years—especially if we wish to see a democratic revival in the country. If anything, the following lessons could offer hope for the future of our institutions, especially as they withstand this political crisis.
An urgent need to adopt a minimum democratic threshold
President Saied’s strength derives from the lack of unity among his opponents. Unions, the free press, civil society, and political parties all face serious threats and dangers, but they have struggled to present a united front due to ideological differences as well as a rising climate of fear. Some, moreover, do not want to collaborate with political forces that played a significant role in leading the country into this crisis in the first place by neglecting to establish checks and balances that could have prevented such a regression.
As we find ourselves sinking deeper into despotism, economic turmoil, and mistreatment of Black migrants, those who believe in democracy, pluralism, the rule of law, and human dignity must come together and agree on a minimum democratic threshold toward which to work
Albeit these challenges, the urgency of the situation necessitates finding a common ground and a viable framework for coordination. As we find ourselves sinking deeper into despotism, economic turmoil, and mistreatment of Black migrants, those who believe in democracy, pluralism, the rule of law, and human dignity must come together and agree on a minimum democratic threshold toward which to work.
New actors, moreover, are emerging outside the traditional framework of political parties and civil society organizations such as the T3allem 3oum (“know how to swim”) campaign on police impunity or the Stop Pollution Collective in Gabès, that are effectively addressing regional and specific issues. They, too, should contribute to defining this minimum democratic threshold without losing their identity or diluting their unique modes of activism.
Incompetence and populism are a potent cocktail
Opponents of President Saied initially believed that his popularity would decline due to his inability to address Tunisia’s deep and complex crises. Critics pointed to his disregard for the economy through his impractical economic solutions (such as penal reconciliation and communitarian enterprises projects) or his failure to resolve basic regional problems (like the waste crisis in Sfax). President Saied’s popularity, however, appears to be immune to the lack of progress two years after July 25. The economic situation has worsened, leading to recurring shortages of essential goods; his political failures, like the low participation rate (12 percent) in the legislative elections, further seem to reinforce his grip on the country, rendering the already constitutionally weakened parliament even less legitimate.
That is because Kais Saied’s popularity is premised not on building, but rather undoing; it is not dependent on his ability to improve people’s lives but rather to deflect their wrath toward their “enemies.”
The “two birds one stone” technique employed by President Saied exploits the legitimate frustration toward the political class and its failures in order to justify imprisoning political opponents under trumped up charges and attacking elected institutions with no explanation
The “two birds one stone” technique employed by President Saied exploits the legitimate frustration toward the political class and its failures in order to justify imprisoning political opponents under trumped up charges and attacking elected institutions with no explanation. By doing so, he effectively eliminates counterpowers and silences critics while bolstering his popularity. Over the course of two years, President Saied took a series of significant actions that had far-reaching implications for Tunisia’s democratic institutions. He froze and dissolved the parliament, shut down the intermediary committee responsible for examining the constitutionality of draft laws, dismantled the anti-corruption authority, dissolved the high council for the magistrature, and reshaped the election authority, raising serious concerns about its independence and impartiality.
His harnessing of people’s dissatisfaction has been turned to judges, where he resorts to fiery speeches and arbitrary measures, capitalizing on the population’s mistrust of a judiciary that failed to play the constitutional role of protector of rights. He labels the media as “lying” “mercenaries,” and threatens them with oppressive decrees. Civil society, most likely Saied’s next target, is merely an “extension of foreign powers which seek to control the Tunisian people through their money,” according to Saied’s rhetoric.
Moreover, his scapegoating of the “hordes” of Sub-Saharan migrants who, according to Saied, are a source of “violence, crime and unacceptable acts” and part of a “criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape of the country.” His statements have unleashed state repression and racist treatment against migrants, in addition to serving as a powerful leverage in negotiations with European countries exclusively preoccupied about migration issues.
Restoring trust in the very idea of democracy will most likely constitute the most arduous task for the years to come
With this in mind, president Saied and his entourage might be tempted to tap deeper into people’s anger and use it to their advantage. This approach bears no limit, and some fear the establishment of totalitarian rule. Who will be next once all the institutions are powerless, when all free voices are in prison, and when all Sub-Saharan migrants are pushed out of the country? Who will be to blame then?
Closing institutions and jailing opposition members is not the most detrimental aspect to Kais Saied’s enterprise. In addition to setting an extremely dangerous precedent, Tunisia’s president severely undermined public trust in elections, media, civil society, unions, and political parties, among others. Restoring trust in the very idea of democracy will most likely constitute the most arduous task for the years to come.
Public opinions are the main battlefield
A healthy return to the democratic path necessitates a fundamental element: the conviction among Tunisians that a sustainable, prosperous, and equitable society, shielded from abuses by both state and the economic elite, can only be achieved through democracy and the rule of law.
The responsibility of changing this narrative should lie primarily with the Tunisian civil and political society. This can be achieved by adopting a “thick interpretation” of the rule of law, moving beyond the mere attributes of “formal legality, democracy, checks and balances, and individual rights,” which might be perceived as abstract and elitist. Instead, rule of law should go beyond the formal and procedural aspects and consider additional substantive elements. It should encompass notions of justice, fundamental rights, human dignity, and contain broader incentives, such as access to better public services, protection against abuses from the economic elite, and ending police impunity for example.
In essence, a successful narrative would demonstrate that the rule of law is only viable when broader interpretations of it are included in this definition.
A successful pro-democracy narrative would also be able to counter the argument that the popularity of Kais Saied’s July 25 measures demonstrate that Tunisians no longer desire democracy. It is essential to show here that the country was indeed on a path to democracy; a path filled with obstacles and an uncertain outcome, but nevertheless a project where actors such as parliament, the media, and civil society could contribute to, even if it was far from perfect and inclusive.
At the international level, especially within Europe, it is crucial to counter the European foreign policy approach that choses stability over human rights, with an almost obsessive focus on migration issues.
A need for real political parties and more grassroots organizations
After the 2011 revolution, many political parties were created, their numbers now being in the hundreds. Many of these parties, however, were “ephemeral” shells with no real connection to their constituencies, often centered around a charismatic leader and created solely to participate in electoral races, only to vanish shortly after.
Restoring democracy in Tunisia necessitates establishing real political parties with distinct ideologies and a solid vision for the country built on a sound understanding of the national, regional, and global challenges. These parties should be organized around robust internal structures, transparent and democratic modes of governance and internal decision-making processes where women, youth, and minorities are not simply tokens for diversity. Furthermore, these parties should have a broad popular and regional outreach and should serve as political schools for future generations, nurturing new leaders.
Once divided in the aftermath of the July 25 measures, civil society organizations are currently leading increasingly critical actions against the authoritarian drift and are gradually overcoming their fractures
Likewise, the number of civil society organizations increased exponentially following the revolution and the adoption of the progressive Decree 88, which allows Tunisians and resident foreigners to establish civil society organizations, lobby authorities, conduct activities freely, and receive foreign funding. As a result, there are today more than 20,000 registered organizations, though only a few thousands are still active. Once divided in the aftermath of the July 25 measures, civil society organizations are currently leading increasingly critical actions against the authoritarian drift and are gradually overcoming their fractures. However, with the exception of a few historical associations that have a regional presence, those actions remained confined at a central level with no real popular or regional outreach.
The focus for civil society should be on fostering grassroots organizations that rely on networks of committed volunteers and strong connections with their constituencies. Such organizations should move away from being solely project and donor-driven and instead prioritize their deep engagement with the communities they serve. In turn, these grassroots organizations can become strong advocates for a “thick interpretation of the rule of law,” linking the concerns of their constituencies to broader democratic challenges that the country is facing.
However, achieving these goals amidst the backdrop of political crises and deep divisions within political parties and civil society organizations is a significant challenge. Encouraging people to join civil and political projects becomes difficult when activism comes at a steep price, with parties being banned from gathering, their activists behind bars, and these structures constantly demonized, including by the head of state.
The recent democratic decline in Tunisia has brought to the forefront several pressing issues that demand thorough exploration and examination. One critical aspect to reflect on is the country’s transition from a revolution to a democratic project, characterized by developments as the slow progress of transitional justice. Indeed, because it is natural for a nascent democratic project to be fallible, it is simultaneously necessary to continue to reflect on its progress and errors.
Because it is natural for a nascent democratic project to be fallible, it is simultaneously necessary to continue to reflect on its progress and errors
Moreover, corporatism, which has deeply entrenched itself within state institutions and led to political capture, is another crucial concern that reinforces the status quo. Notably, the unresolved and seemingly inextricable economic crisis serves as a significant obstacle to civil participation and the democratization process in Tunisia.
It is alo crucial to recognize the influence of external factors that have profoundly impacted Tunisia. The global rise of right-wing populism, amplified by the polarizing effects of social media, has contributed to the country’s challenges.
While reflecting on these issues is essential, the immediate priority lies in reshaping the organizations that should serve as the driving force behind democracy—civil society, political parties, and unions. Strengthening these institutions is vital to fostering an environment conducive to democratic values and principles.
Lamine Benghazi is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on rule of law and the judiciary in Tunisia, with particular attention to criminal justice reform, transitional justice, and the independence of the judiciary.