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The Case Against Incrementalism
A year ago, Tunisia’s fledgling democracy—the last to survive after a series of popular uprisings swept the Arab world in 2011—faced a severe test after an extraordinary self-coup by President Kais Saied on July 25, 2021. Within a matter of hours, Saied fired Tunisia’s prime minister, suspended its democratically elected parliament for 30 days, and assumed all executive power. Saied justified his actions by citing Article 80 of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, which allows a president who determines that the country is facing “imminent danger” to take “any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances.”
But what was initially described as a temporary emergency measure has now been extended indefinitely. On July 25, 2022, Tunisians approved a constitutional referendum that effectively codifies Saied’s power grab into Tunisian law. The so-called Tunisia model of democratic transition is now at death’s door. Tunisian opposition and civil society leaders are making heroic efforts to revive it, but they will need need urgent and sustained support from the international community if they are to succeed.
In the months since his initial power grab last July, Saied has systematically destroyed Tunisia’s remaining democratic institutions, either by suspending them outright or replacing their members with loyalists. On September 22, 2021, in a startlingly explicit signal of the president’s long-term intentions, he issued Decree 117, transferring the powers of the parliament to the presidency and allowing presidential rule by decree in all matters. At the same time, in a particularly odd move for a former constitutional law professor, Saied suspended most of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, decreeing that the government’s role was to serve the president.
In his efforts to silence his opponents, Saied has subjected hundreds of journalists, activists, and opposition politicians to arbitrary arrests, travel bans, and blistering rhetorical attacks. In December 2021, Saied’s government accused Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s first democratically elected president and one of Saied’s most vocal critics, of undermining state security, sentencing him to four years in prison in absentia.
Saied has destroyed Tunisia’s democratic institutions, suspending them outright or filling their ranks with loyalists.
In February 2022, Saied dissolved Tunisia’s Supreme Judicial Council, replaced its members with loyalists, and empowered himself to fire judges—a power he exercised on June 1 to sack some 57 judges, whom he accused of obstructing terrorism cases, engaging in petty corruption, and committing such “moral crimes” as adultery and attending “alcohol-fueled parties.”
Saied’s coup de grâce was rewriting the constitution, bringing to fruition his long-term vision of a robust presidential system with a neutered legislature. Saied’s hand-selected committee drafted a new constitution in two weeks. In a bizarre turn of events, the head of the constitution-drafting commission, Sadok Belaid, publicly condemned the version Saied released to the public, arguing that it did not reflect the committee’s vision and could lead Tunisia down a path toward autocracy. While the referendum passed with an estimated 95 percent of the vote, the fact that a mere 30 percent of eligible Tunisian voters participated suggests that many of Saied’s supporters have lost faith in him.
Saied’s July 2021 power grab succeeded because he was able to capitalize on three interrelated crises. First, the COVID-19 pandemic reached a peak in Tunisia last summer, exposing the weaknesses of the country’s fragile health-care system and the failures of its government to deliver desperately needed assistance. Second, the Tunisian economy, like most in the world, was devastated by the pandemic, which in its case exacerbated already sky-high unemployment, decimated a once booming tourism industry, and thrust many Tunisians into poverty. Third, the highly fractured political system had become paralyzed, with polarization quickly rising. Politicians violently attacked each other in the halls of parliament, and Saied and Hichem Mechichi, his handpicked prime minister, routinely insulted each other on national television. Saied had grown unhappy with Mechichi’s decision to work with the Islamist party Ennahda and had argued with Mechichi over control of the Interior Ministry.
In this context, it is easy to see why so many Tunisians were willing to give Saied the benefit of the doubt. Desperate and frustrated with an incompetent government, Tunisians placed their hope in a president who, following the path of many other populist leaders worldwide, seemed prepared to take the reins and shake up a stagnant, corrupt system. But as Saied’s intentions became apparent and the economic situation worsened, Saied’s popular support began to disappear.
Frustrated Tunisians placed their hope in a president who seemed prepared to shake up a stagnant, corrupt system.
Saied justified his actions on the grounds that he was doing what the people want. Yet throughout the past year, Saied has failed to consult the people. His online consultation process, ostensibly meant to collect public input on the draft constitution, was marred with security concerns and technical difficulties; less than seven percent of eligible voters ended up participating in it. And there is no evidence that the results of that process fed into the draft that Tunisians voted on in late July. Saied and his ministers have rarely addressed the public or allowed the independent media to question them. And his increasingly authoritarian actions have inspired many protests as Tunisians became fed up with Saied’s inability to deliver either economic improvement or political stability.
Saied’s plummeting support is evident in the paltry voter turnout for the referendum on a new constitution—arguably the most consequential vote since the 2011 uprisings. Part of the reason for the low turnout is that most political opposition and civil society groups chose to boycott the vote rather than participate in what they saw as an illegitimate process. But another factor was that Saied can no longer rally his supporters. While there has been a steady stream of pro-Saied protests alongside anti-Saied movements, the pro-Saied protests have never amassed a significant following.
Tunisia’s democratic transition achieved relative success in its first decade. However, the past year’s events highlight such transitions’ fragility. As I argued in Foreign Affairs just after Saied’s election, in 2019, Tunisia’s democracy benefited from political leaders who put their country above personal advancement, with multiple rounds of leaders choosing a path of consensus over competition.
That consensus allowed Tunisia to weather complex challenges, but it also stunted the growth of political competition, eventually opening the door for the polarization that paved Saied’s path to autocracy. But Saied’s political program, which completely consolidates power and destroys the consensus model, is not the answer. Instead, Tunisia should marry consensus with consultation and participatory democracy, while allowing room for the opposition. Such a program could build the trust in government that has been sorely lacking in Tunisia since well before Saied’s election.
It is not clear where Saied intends to take Tunisia next. What is clear is that the democratic model created in 2014 will not be revived. Public trust in parliament had reached an all-time low before Saied’s coup, and the Tunisian public is not clamoring for a return of polarization and mudslinging.
Another open question is whether the international community will go back to business as usual once Saied’s new constitution enters into force. In the wake of Saied’s authoritarian power grab, the Biden administration has proposed cutting U.S. assistance to Tunisia in half—explicitly signaling its displeasure with Saied’s actions. Although Western responses to the referendum were scarcely warm, unless Saied takes further steps to reverse Tunisia’s hard-fought freedoms, the democratic world is unlikely to take action to unwind Saied’s year of backsliding.
Over the past decade, Tunisia was repeatedly heralded as the beacon of democracy in the Arab world. Yet it was never offered the same degree of financial and diplomatic support that other young democracies have enjoyed. Instead, Tunisia’s growing economic crisis and deteriorating political situation were drowned out by the myriad conflicts around the Middle East and North Africa. While a Tunisian Marshall Plan may not have saved the country’s transition, greater financial support could have helped Tunisians weather the painful side effects of the economic reforms needed to create long-term sustainable growth. Today, Tunisian civil society actors and political opposition figures need both rhetorical and financial support from the international community for their efforts to drag Tunisia back to the democratic path.
Saied has taken many pages from the dictator’s playbook to roll back a decade’s democratic progress in one year. But while he may have solidified his hold on Tunisian politics, he should remember the very first lesson of the Tunisia model: that the Tunisian people, when united, have the power to demand change and take down a tyrant.
The President’s Power Grab Risks an Authoritarian Regression