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Kais Saied Is Not a Dictator

Tunisia’s controversial president is seeking to preserve the legacy of the Arab Spring by stamping out corruption and promoting decentralized democracy.

By , a Jordanian entrepreneur and a writer with weekly columns in the Arabic press.
Kais Saied speaks with people during his presidential campaign tour in Tunis on September 10, 2019.
Kais Saied speaks with people during his presidential campaign tour in Tunis on September 10, 2019. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

More than a decade after the spark of its pro-democracy revolution ignited the first flame of the Arab Spring uprisings that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia is once again dominating the Arab political scene after President Kais Saied invoked emergency powers to dismiss the prime minister and parliament amid an economic and public health crisis.

Since Saied’s dramatic move on July 25, there has been great debate over whether it was a coup by a power-hungry president or an example of resolute leadership by a former constitutional scholar. Saied appears to be responding to the will of a people eager to protect their country and democracy from an anti-reform parliament headed by political Islamists who envision an Islamic state as the vehicle that will reimplement sharia, or Islamic law, and thus restore global leadership and moral sovereignty to Muslims.

Tunisia’s current unrest has its roots in years of economic hardship, declining public services, a dispute over the constitution, youth unemployment, and a political paralysis that led to the highest daily death rate from COVID-19 in the Middle East and Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

More than a decade after the spark of its pro-democracy revolution ignited the first flame of the Arab Spring uprisings that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia is once again dominating the Arab political scene after President Kais Saied invoked emergency powers to dismiss the prime minister and parliament amid an economic and public health crisis.

Since Saied’s dramatic move on July 25, there has been great debate over whether it was a coup by a power-hungry president or an example of resolute leadership by a former constitutional scholar. Saied appears to be responding to the will of a people eager to protect their country and democracy from an anti-reform parliament headed by political Islamists who envision an Islamic state as the vehicle that will reimplement sharia, or Islamic law, and thus restore global leadership and moral sovereignty to Muslims.


Tunisia’s current unrest has its roots in years of economic hardship, declining public services, a dispute over the constitution, youth unemployment, and a political paralysis that led to the highest daily death rate from COVID-19 in the Middle East and Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

After thousands of protesters defied pandemic restrictions to rally in cities nationwide on July 25 for the resignation of the prime minister and the dissolution of the parliament, Saied, citing his constitutional authority, fulfilled their demands by firing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, stripping lawmakers of their immunity, and suspending parliament for 30 days—effectively ousting Rached Ghannouchi, who heads both the parliament and Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahdha party.

The influential Tunisian General Labor Union—the country’s largest trade union and co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia” as a member of the civil society group known as the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—defended Saied’s decisions as entirely constitutional. But it also called for “constitutional guarantees” to protect democracy in Tunisia and demanded that the “exceptional measures” taken by the president remain limited in time and narrow in scale so government institutions can quickly reopen.

One reason for the July 25 demonstrations was to protest Ennahdha’s use of its majority to control the government and thwart Saied’s declared goals that helped him win the presidency with 73 percent of the vote.

So far, the president has not presented a road map for his plan during the 30-day freeze of the parliament. Since assuming judicial and executive powers, he has fired at least 25 senior officials in addition to forcing out or outright firing the prime minister, the ministers of defense and justice, and the head of public television.

On Aug. 2, he fired the ministers of the economy and communications technology and appointed their replacements. The next day, he fired without explanation Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States and the governor of the coastal Sfax province.

The new interior minister has placed members of parliament, former ministers, judges, and public figures under arrest for alleged corruption—including under old warrants that were executed after the president lifted parliamentary immunity. Among them are parliamentarians Yassin Ayari and Maher Zid; senior judicial officials Taieb Rached and Bechir Akremi; and former ministers Anouar Maarouf and Riadh Mouakher.

Saied’s critics argue that Ennahdha’s members have respected basic democratic principles and won elections in a democratic framework based on their ideological preferences. I do not dispute this. As a religious Muslim and a supporter of democracy, I am not against Islamists taking their duly elected place in any government.

Yet part of the reason behind the July 25 demonstrations was to protest that Ennahdha had used its majority to control the government and thwart Saied’s declared goals that helped him win the presidency with 73 percent of the overall vote and 90 percent of the youth vote in 2019—namely his pledge to fight endemic corruption, allow voters to recall politicians accused of financial or moral corruption, and, most importantly, dismantle the country’s parliamentary system in favor of a decentralized democratic model that Saied described as a “democracy of individuals” who elect small local councils based on the character of their representatives (rather than party or ideology), who, in turn, choose regional representatives, who then choose national ones.

In terms of the organizational and administrative structure, Ennahdha is not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. But its beliefs, ideology, and larger framework follow the Brotherhood’s model. The party’s roots were so entwined with the Brotherhood that Ghannouchi had to bow to pressure after a slew of countries declared the Brotherhood a political terrorist organization: Syria (1980), Russia (2003), Egypt (2013), and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (2014). He used the party’s May 2016 conference to announce its sudden break with political Islam and transition to Muslim democracy. Henceforth, he declared, Ennahdha would be a civil democratic party based on a separation between political practice and religious preaching.

Nevertheless, many Tunisians fear that the Muslim Brotherhood has its hooks in Ennahdha and want a stronger disavowal from the party’s members against the Brotherhood. This is the reason Abir Moussi, the president of Tunisia’s Free Destourian Party, submitted a draft resolution last year to officially classify the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and to “consider any person or entity that has connections to this organization in Tunisia as being guilty of a terrorism-related crime.”

Having previously highlighted the ideological and historical links of Ennahdha to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist affiliations, she declared, “Today, we want a clear political position. Political parties and politicians who want to openly dissociate themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood organization must prove so and vote in favor of this draft motion.”

Moussi’s actions are wise because Ennahdha’s separation of Islam from politics—and, specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood—in 2016 is a political tactic that it can quickly reverse.

That’s because previously, in the 1960s and 1970s and before the 2011 Tunisian revolution, Ennahdha had an indivisible relationship with the Brotherhood. It was only after growing global condemnation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization that Ghannouchi decided it would be smart politics to publicly separate his party from the Brotherhood. His declared retreat is part of modern political Islam. The process of separation was merely separating religion from politics—but the ideology is constant.

The United States has wisely and repeatedly refused to label the events in Tunisia a coup. Instead, the White House on July 26 emphasized the need for Tunisia’s society to defend the values of the state and “move forward in line with democratic principles.” That same day, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Saied to encourage him “to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights,” a State Department spokesperson said.

Many Tunisians fear that the Muslim Brotherhood has its hooks in Ennahdha and want a stronger disavowal from the party’s members against the Brotherhood.

The next day, Britain followed the United States’ lead with a terse statement that called on “all parties to uphold Tunisia’s reputation as a tolerant and open society and to protect the democratic gains of the 2011 revolution.” Nevertheless, the Guardian still slapped a melodramatic headline on its July 26 editorial page, referring to a “spring that turns to winter.”

Britain and other Western countries must build their relations with Arab countries through bridges of knowledge rather than condemnation. In a complex region like the Middle East, building democracies that survive the test of time and rebuke malevolent forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its partners will be fruitless unless the people of the region understand democratic philosophy and how to safeguard their right to choose a government that truly represents them.

Saied and civil society organizations should start by helping to introduce the young people of Tunisia to the teachings of great political philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Baron de Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Bertrand Russell, and, yes, Niccolò Machiavelli.

Western governments must fuse their messages of empowerment and enlightenment with the formation of an economic partnership, friendship, and sustained peace that will allow the Arab people to become an effective partner in the fight against terrorism rather than supporting political Islam.

Nicknamed “RoboCop” for his stiff manner and dour demeanor, Saied—a staunch political independent elected by a landslide in what was only the second ever direct presidential vote in Tunisia—will likely go down in history as the defender of the last democratic country to remain from the once glorious moment in history known as the Arab Spring.

Hasan Ismaik is a Jordanian entrepreneur and a writer with weekly columns in the Arabic press. Twitter: @HasanIsmaik

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