The tunisian crisis between populism and authoritarianism

In order to understand the current institutional and democratic crisis in Tunisia, it is necessary to trace a few steps back

Tunisia is a sovereign country, whose choices are based on the will of its independent people.” This is what the President Kais Saied said last 6th of April during a ceremony to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the death of “Tunisian’s father”, Habib Bourguiba.

While on July 25th, 1957, Bourguiba put an end to the long years of monarchy, on July 25th, 2021, President Saied started a new historical phase, shifting between populist words and authoritarian actions. In order to understand the current institutional and democratic crisis, it is necessary to trace a few steps back. The 2011 revolution made Tunisia the “exception”, being the only case of successful democratic transition, becoming an example of a possible alternative to dictatorial regimes. Notwithstanding that democracy has brought benefits to the country, what Tunisia is currently facing is the crisis of the democratic principles and, according to some, a return to authoritarianism. The main reasons that led thousands of Tunisian young people to protest in the streets in 2011 were the need for better economic and social conditions and the removal of corruption from politics.

Despite the democratic turning point, the demands of citizens have not seen their fulfilment yet: even before the outbreak of the pandemic, the economic situation has always been dramatic, obliging young graduates to leave the country in the hope to find a job. In addition to this, the political class has continued to be increasingly oblivious to these issues, caring only for their own interests. The constant and increasing lack of trust in the institutions and the government has resulted, during the presidential electoral consultations in 2019, in a search for actors outside the political establishment, in response to a rejection of political parties. This is when the figure of an academic, Kais Saied, has emerged, whose piece de resistance has been to organise an electoral campaign by leveraging precisely on these feelings and on the demands of an increasingly dissatisfied population.

Saied's rhetoric was based on the idea that the population should once again be the main actor of politics, thus aiming at a sort of popular democracy that would reverse power, so as not to only favour the elites. Not surprisingly, the slogan of his electoral campaign, already used in 2011, was that of "Ash-sha'b yurid" (“the people want”). Redeeming the promises of the thawra, the revolution, was the promise made by Kais Saied, placing himself as the "repairer" of Tunisian politics. However, if convincing Tunisians with his words had been simple, now the toughest challenge was to turn those promises into politics. The difficulties surfaced soon: the Parliament elected in October 2019 was more unstable and fragmented than that of 2014, when compromises were reached between completely opposing parties in order to create a coalition. Secondly, since Saied's entry into the Carthage palace, tensions between the Presidency of the Republic, the government and the majority were immediately felt, creating further sources of contrasts between the President and the political parties, confirming Saied's strong anti-partyism.

The background to all this was the increasingly acute socio-economic crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions put in place starting from May 2020. The President has therefore begun to transform his words into actions: on July 25th, 2021, invoking article 80 of the Constitution, he exercised all his powers by declaring a state of emergency in the country. Following this, he proceeded with the removal of the Government and the suspension of the Parliament, first by firing the Prime Minister and then by blocking the work of the Parliament. In October, he appointed a new government under his control, while in December he announced his plan to reform the Constitution, which includes a series of amendments in various steps, which, once implemented, will be submitted to a popular referendum on the 25th of July, 2022. Next December, instead, the next parliamentary elections will take place. Last February, he dissolved the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, inasmuch the Tunisian justice was corrupted and therefore it needed to be healed.

Is this the failure of democracy?

While the newspaper Al Araby al Jadeed spoke of the beginning of a "progressive destruction of Tunisian democracy", most of the population welcomed these decisions with excitement. This does not mean that Tunisians no longer want a democracy in their country; on the contrary, the people need real and visible changes, there is a need to give a new meaning to the term democracy, going beyond simple elections. Saied must not forget this because, although he justifies his actions in democratic terms, the success he has had so far may not last long.

According to the scholar Parks, in fact, there are those who already fear a déjà-vu, recalling an interview with Bourguiba, during which, to a question about the post-monarchical system, he replied: “Which system? I am the system!”. Saied knows exactly what he risks, because he learned a fundamental lesson more than ten years ago, when the economic desperation of the population put an end to a dictatorship that lasted more than twenty years.

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