Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

How the West Misunderstood Tunisia

If Westerners are shocked at political developments in Tunisia, it’s because they described it as a straightforward success for too long.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
People celebrate in the streets of Tunis after Tunisian President Kais Saied announced the suspension of parliament and the dismissal of the prime minister on July 25, 2021, after a day of nationwide protests.
People celebrate in the streets of Tunis after Tunisian President Kais Saied announced the suspension of parliament and the dismissal of the prime minister on July 25, 2021, after a day of nationwide protests. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the country’s prime minister and suspended parliament for 30 days. Security forces were then deployed around the parliament building in Tunis, blocking legislators from passing through. The next day, the president forced out the acting justice minister, sacked the defense minister, and ordered the offices of Al Jazeera closed. He also banned gatherings of three people or more.

Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of the now shuttered parliament and longtime leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party, called Saied’s action a “coup.” The president disagreed, citing Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which gives the head of state the power to do precisely what he did in the event of “imminent danger threatening the integrity of the country and the country’s security and independence.” There is a significant difference of opinion, however, as to whether Tunisia’s current dire economic problems, parliamentary drift, and a debilitating wave of COVID-19 actually amount to such imminent danger. This would seem to be a problem that the Constitutional Court could adjudicate—but alas, there is no court because either no one can agree on which judges to appoint or the president has blocked their appointment.

Coup or no coup, this was not supposed to happen in Tunisia. Tunisia is (or was) the “lone success story” of the Arab Spring. But these kinds of clichés, used by international media over and over for a decade, were themselves always a problem. They framed Tunisian politics in a way that closed off other possibilities—like backsliding—and envisaged linear developments from protests to elections to a constitution. When breathless editorials described a peaceful transfer of power to a “genuine democracy,” they stripped out the complexity of Tunisian politics specifically and transitions to democracy more generally.

On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the country’s prime minister and suspended parliament for 30 days. Security forces were then deployed around the parliament building in Tunis, blocking legislators from passing through. The next day, the president forced out the acting justice minister, sacked the defense minister, and ordered the offices of Al Jazeera closed. He also banned gatherings of three people or more.

Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of the now shuttered parliament and longtime leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party, called Saied’s action a “coup.” The president disagreed, citing Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which gives the head of state the power to do precisely what he did in the event of “imminent danger threatening the integrity of the country and the country’s security and independence.” There is a significant difference of opinion, however, as to whether Tunisia’s current dire economic problems, parliamentary drift, and a debilitating wave of COVID-19 actually amount to such imminent danger. This would seem to be a problem that the Constitutional Court could adjudicate—but alas, there is no court because either no one can agree on which judges to appoint or the president has blocked their appointment.

Coup or no coup, this was not supposed to happen in Tunisia. Tunisia is (or was) the “lone success story” of the Arab Spring. But these kinds of clichés, used by international media over and over for a decade, were themselves always a problem. They framed Tunisian politics in a way that closed off other possibilities—like backsliding—and envisaged linear developments from protests to elections to a constitution. When breathless editorials described a peaceful transfer of power to a “genuine democracy,” they stripped out the complexity of Tunisian politics specifically and transitions to democracy more generally.

It is unclear that Saied’s power grab constitutes the end of the country’s democratization. Tunisians have been on the brink before, including during an extended political stalemate in 2013. Then, in 2015, newly elected President Beji Caid Essebsi preferred a government that would have excluded Ennahdha and its allies. Unfortunately for Essebsi and the secularists of his Nidaa Tounes party, the parliamentary math did not work in his favor, forcing a broader coalition. Goodwill eventually developed between the president and Ghannouchi, but what seemed more important than personality in forcing a compromise was the very fact that neither Essebsi nor Ghannouchi had the kind of popular support necessary to impose his will on the other—an apparent benefit of a divided society.

It was laudable and notable that Tunisia did not descend into violence in 2013, that a workable coalition government was established in 2015, and that there was a peaceful transfer of power after Essebsi died in 2019––though none of these achievements necessarily meant that Tunisia was going to continue to progress. Serious analysts knew this because they understood the country’s economic challenges, the lingering questions around identity, the yen for the old order among elites, and the inability of parliament to make good on the promise of the January 2011 revolution.

Yet curiously, some of these same experts and observers continued to describe Tunisia straightforwardly as a success—creating an unwritten and unacknowledged expectation that the country’s progress would invariably continue. This was especially odd, given the ongoing erosion in the past decade of democratic institutions in countries considered consolidated democracies––including the United States.

In the few days since Saied gave himself executive authority, there have been protests both in support and opposition to his actions. The former are more interesting. Dispatches from Tunisia indicate that those hailing the president have had enough of poor governance and a lack of economic opportunity. Layer into these problems the fact that a recent wave of COVID-19 has devastated the country’s health care system, and a lot more people seem willing to bet on an authoritarian who promises to make their lives better with more unencumbered power at his disposal.

The readiness to part with hard-won gains after a decade of democratization seems to be part and parcel of Tunisia’s particular political culture. No, I’m not referring to the canard that Arab and Muslim societies are unpracticed at democracy; rather, I mean to draw attention to the cultural legacy of the big Arab state that promised (but rarely, if ever, delivered) security, education, and opportunity. The analysts, journalists, and civil society activists with whom Westerners tend to interact in Tunisia want to forge a more just and democratic society. But what about Tunisians more broadly? Many—or at least the ones in the streets in the last few days—seem to have a more ambivalent relationship with democracy. They seem to want a more effective state that can deliver jobs and a social safety net regardless of the character of the political system. It is possible that after a decade in which Tunisians enjoyed greater personal freedoms, the lack of prosperity has made a potentially significant number of them more willing to give some version of authoritarianism another try.

Of course, it remains entirely unclear what will happen in Tunisia and what foreign powers can do about it. Given how much attention the press and experts have lavished on Tunisia since the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, combined with U.S. President Joe Biden’s commitment to a values-based foreign policy, there will be at least some pressure for the United States to respond. Yet here is the conundrum: In Washington, Tunisia tends to be viewed through the prism of its presumed success. Thus, experts and activists have advocated for providing more assistance to Tunisia precisely because it is alleged to have made the transition to democracy. The United States has also developed a security relationship with Tunisia based on fighting extremism. Should the United States now withhold or cut this aid? That would seem appropriate in terms of values but perhaps risky when it comes to security, given Tunisia’s penchant for producing extremists and instability in the neighboring Sahel region. This is not an easy circle to square.

In what would be one of the more unexpected developments in U.S. Middle East policy, Tunisia may end up being a cautionary tale in building a policy around a regime type because political systems can change—quickly.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.