Report

Tunisia’s on a Knife-Edge Between Reform and Autocracy

Two weeks after suspending parliament, what road map will Tunisian President Kais Saied gin up?

By , a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.
The Tunisian army barricades the parliament.
The Tunisian army barricades the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 26. YASSINE MAHJOUB/AFP via Getty Images

TUNIS, Tunisia—On July 25, Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, made an extraordinary move. After a day of protests throughout the country, some violent, he dismissed the prime minister, lifted politicians’ immunity from criminal prosecution, and suspended the parliament for a month. Now, halfway through that 30-day period, the country is still waiting for word on who the new prime minister might be or what the president’s plan is for extricating the country from its immediate political crises and its longer-term economic malaise. 

In many ways, Saied’s intervention could be seen coming. Despite corruption, a worsening economy, entrenched unemployment, and growing public anger, Tunisia’s parliament continued to put petty feuds above the country’s welfare. A particular source of tension is the rivalry between Saied and Ennahda, the self styled “Muslim Democrats” who predominate in parliament. Not even the pandemic, which sent deaths spiraling out of control, derailed politicians from their squabbles and factional fighting.

For the region and the wider world, Tunisia’s turmoil promises both threat and opportunity. For many watching from the United States, already primed to spot existential threats to democracy after the Jan. 6 insurrection, the fate of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary institutions has been cause for alarm. For the European Union, which is bracing for further waves of immigration, the risks fall closer to home. For Tunisians, and especially large swathes of Tunisian civil society, the threat is immediate, with Saied’s every move the subject of intense scrutiny as the political gains and economic devastation of the last 10 years hang in the balance.

TUNIS, Tunisia—On July 25, Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, made an extraordinary move. After a day of protests throughout the country, some violent, he dismissed the prime minister, lifted politicians’ immunity from criminal prosecution, and suspended the parliament for a month. Now, halfway through that 30-day period, the country is still waiting for word on who the new prime minister might be or what the president’s plan is for extricating the country from its immediate political crises and its longer-term economic malaise. 

In many ways, Saied’s intervention could be seen coming. Despite corruption, a worsening economy, entrenched unemployment, and growing public anger, Tunisia’s parliament continued to put petty feuds above the country’s welfare. A particular source of tension is the rivalry between Saied and Ennahda, the self styled “Muslim Democrats” who predominate in parliament. Not even the pandemic, which sent deaths spiraling out of control, derailed politicians from their squabbles and factional fighting.

For the region and the wider world, Tunisia’s turmoil promises both threat and opportunity. For many watching from the United States, already primed to spot existential threats to democracy after the Jan. 6 insurrection, the fate of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary institutions has been cause for alarm. For the European Union, which is bracing for further waves of immigration, the risks fall closer to home. For Tunisians, and especially large swathes of Tunisian civil society, the threat is immediate, with Saied’s every move the subject of intense scrutiny as the political gains and economic devastation of the last 10 years hang in the balance.

Examples of parliamentary incompetence are legion, stretching from sit-ins and assaults to the long list of criminal charges many deputies used their immunity to shelter from. But it was the botched response to the pandemic, resulting in the chaotic open vaccination days during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, when vaccine-hopefuls were left to stand in the searing heat in long lines that often ended in little but tussles and disappointment, that pushed public patience to the breaking point.

There was nothing contrived about the mass celebrations that greeted Saied’s intervention; across the country, Tunisians poured into the street to celebrate what appeared to be a reprieve from the self-serving political class that for years appeared to operate far removed from the endless rounds of cruelty and humiliations meted out to the public daily.

For now, though, few things are certain beyond the overwhelming public support the president enjoys, boosted by a hugely successful second open vaccination day on Aug. 8, which saw over half a million Tunisians jabbed. A poll conducted just days after the president’s intervention found that 87 percent of the country supported him, with just 3 percent opposed. Walking around the capital, especially its poorer districts, support appears universal.

But now comes the decision: In 15 days, Saied can either return to the country’s fractious parliament, or fuel domestic and international accusations of autocracy by extending the current suspension.

The reality is, no one knows what he’ll do. Saied’s invocation of his constitutionally-granted emergency powers rested upon the country being in “imminent danger.” That danger either came from the risks posed by the global pandemic or the street. But Ennahda has explicitly called for dialogue over conflict, negating any threat from the street. Moreover, the very success of the vaccinations also lessens the danger posed by the pandemic, chipping away at the foundations of the president’s emergency powers. And that’s a problem because the bulk of Tunisia’s civil society, especially the Nobel-prize winning National Dialogue Quartet comprising two unions, the human rights league, and the bar association, has conditioned its support upon Saied remaining within the constitutionally mandated limits.

Tunisian civil society may have misgivings over parliament and its most successful party, Ennahda—particularly those who feel threatened by the Islamist party’s rapid rise to the top—but few Tunisians are likely to roll over for any aspiring autocrat.

“Certainly, within civil society there’s an understanding of the risks of the moment,” said Ouiem Chettaoui, a Tunisian activist and researcher. “There’s no blind faith in Kais Saied, or absolute expectation of what he may or may not be able to deliver.” Until the president offers more guarantees of his future direction, protest remains a possibility.

“We need to see something,” Chettaoui said. “We need to know what he’s doing and receive some assurance that he’s not preparing to backslide into autocracy.”

Even before Saied’s landslide 2019 election win, many people had a good idea what the constitutional law professor’s endgame should look like. From his days as an academic on, he has repeatedly sketched out his vision: a system that is a form of direct democracy, free from party affiliations, with candidates appointed on merit alone. How that can be achieved with the time and tools at hand remains open to question.

“It’s fairly bleak and uncertain right now,” said Hamza Meddeb, a Tunisian researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “The president has control of both the legislative and judicial branches of government. That’s a huge amount of power.” 

“Critically, there’s no roadmap out of this. Everyone needs to know where we’re heading, but he hasn’t published anything.”

Speculation is rife whether Saied will consult civil society first, or present his future vision as a fait accompli.

“Just speaking as a citizen, we should know where the president is headed,” Meddeb said. “He could be planning early elections, or a referendum, or another national dialogue like the one that brought the country through the crisis of 2013, or even a return to the 2014 constitution and the parliamentary anarchy that preceded the current crises,” he added.

Whatever Saied does, time is tight. Consulting with the National Dialogue Quartet would almost certainly delay matters, though it would win support. Creating his own plan and gambling upon the quartet’s backing might be quicker, but could risk alienating those groups he needs most. Whatever he does, the country craves stability, as do external donors. Whether Tunisia leans more toward the absolutist rule of Egypt and the Gulf or toward liberal Western democracies remains the subject of intense debate. 

An added difficulty is the country’s dire financial situation, with Tunisia’s principal donors, predominantly Western institutions, unlikely to continue bankrolling the country without some indication of where it’s heading. And Tunisia also has to manage its decades-old balancing act between competing regional powers.

“Tunisia is in the middle of all of these regional power struggles, as well as those within the U.S. and EU,” Meddeb said. “He urgently needs cash to settle the country’s debts. The U.S. is pushing strongly for a return to the 2014 constitution, while the EU sees this whole debate through the prism of migration.”

“Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, all of whom have an interest in Tunisia’s future, also see developments here in terms of their own self interests. This, if anything, tells us why the president isn’t rushing to appoint a new prime minister. The stakes are way too high for him to rush.”

For now, facile headlines to the contrary, Tunisia inhabits an uneasy limbo. Civil society, activists, and politicians look warily at the presidential palace, wondering what comes next or if, in just two weeks, the country’s politicians will be allowed to continue fiddling, while Carthage burns. 

Simon Speakman Cordall is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.

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