In Tunisia, the dice is still rolling
Last week, President Kais Saied’s campaign to reverse Tunisia’s transition culminated in the passing of a constitutional referendum empowering his office to alter the North African country’s future trajectory. The controversial move has committed the country — once a bright spot for democracy that actually “works” in the Arab world — to a full descent into autocracy, at least according to some analysts and observers.
At present, however, it is a little premature to resort to alarmism concerning Tunisia’s fate in the wake of Saied’s takeover and awkward maneuvering to single-handedly steer the country away from a host of problems, such as skyrocketing youth joblessness, economic hardship and political stagnation.
For most Tunisians, there was simply too large a gap between what are now fantastical aspirations for a fully functioning democracy and responsive, competent governance. The government’s longevity and legitimacy were also partly derived from delivering unprecedented socioeconomic dividends, aside from ticking all the right boxes regarding transitional justice, accountability and fighting corruption. But even without the rise of an aspiring authoritarian such as Saied, something or someone else eventually would have emerged to overthrow an exasperating status quo — an unintended consequence of trying to implement a system of checks and balances in order to equalize power among the judiciary, the legislature and the executive.
The new constitution now centralizes power in what experts are calling a “hyper-presidency,” weakening the legislative branch and subordinating the judiciary to a mere administrative function of the executive branch, thus making the upholding of the law subject to the whims of a former law professor turned would-be strongman.
No matter how strong a leader is, he or she cannot single-handedly inject new life into an economy hamstrung by debt and unemployment.
Overall, the document reads like a strange mix of contradictions, rather than a coherent blueprint for a much-needed course correction to allow the political system to tackle the country’s well-publicized challenges. Saied has neither proffered a set of cogent solutions nor explained how his newly enshrined takeover will deliver on the country’s indebtedness, inflation, deteriorating public services and, more importantly, securing an estimated $4 billion International Monetary Fund loan without resorting to punishing austerity measures.
Most of the clarity in the June 2022 constitution is preserved only for enumerating the president’s powers with regards to the legislature, particularly where Saied granted himself a decisive role in picking not only the prime minister but also individual ministers. The president has set up a system whereby he can easily claim responsibility for critical successes, while pinning failures on soon-to-be-ousted Cabinet members or heads of government. Thus, the actual task of governing, or at least managing Tunisia’s intensifying woes, will fall on a select few individuals who will be torn between their allegiance to Saied and stepping up to meet the urgent crises in their portfolios.
Numerous other concerning scenarios are worth considering, but for now, aside from open-ended speculation on Tunisia’s future, the only credible assessment of what lies ahead must come from Tunisians themselves. However, if recent polling or surveys are anything to go by, overall attitudes toward the passing of the referendum are vague, since most are yet to come to terms with the gravity and extent of Saied’s maneuverings.
For many, what hopes there were in the beginning have been undermined by political gridlock, economic stagnation and successive ineffectual governments, prompting the public’s serious consideration of radical solutions offered by populist fixers, such as Saied before his ascendancy. As a result, moves to dissolve government, suspend parliament and put the judiciary on notice were met with instant approval, with almost four out of five Tunisians registering their support for the president taking a hatchet to the old order.
Despite months of raucous outcries by activists, civil society organizations and many others concerned about democratic backsliding and the potential loss of cherished civil liberties, the public remained mostly supportive of Saied’s one-man campaign — or were too apathetic to register dissent. Even now, some still believe the country is immune to history and the myriad intrepid schemes that have dashed democratic experiments elsewhere.
Thus, if one were to ask where the dice falls on the important question of Tunisia’s future, the simple answer is: It is complicated.
Most Tunisians still prefer a “strong,” decisive leader alongside an effective government, regardless of whatever form it takes, underscoring that the need for credible solutions to the country’s political and socioeconomic ills is central to their tacit acceptance of this new order. Unfortunately, no matter how strong a leader is, he or she cannot single-handedly inject new life into an economy hamstrung by debt, unemployment, depreciating wages and various external pressures. If Tunisians made a bet on Saied with such hopes, they have only themselves to blame should their hardships prevail — and they will.
Alternatively, the lack of a viable opposition figure, coalition or plan that can convincingly cater to the public’s demands, as well as counter Saied’s early maneuvering, has left many Tunisians with little choice but to surrender to apathy or resort to a self-defeating ploy by boycotting the referendum. Currently, the opposition remains highly factionalized, a situation that could worsen as some members seek to carve out their own spheres in the Saied era, while others remain reluctant to fully embrace a democracy that, in their view, led to disproportionate gains among Islamist parties.
After all, the 2014 constitution envisioned a mostly secular, liberal Tunisian society that sounded palatable on paper, but morphed into something else entirely in practice, when even at their weakest, the Islamist bloc still retained a parliamentary majority. So it is unsurprising to see the secularist/liberal opposition forgoing condemnations of Saied’s takeover and calls for mass mobilization in favor of muted statements that serve only to burnish their relevance and fail to acknowledge the dark clouds gathering over the country.
Will a fully functioning democracy in Tunisia become a dream deferred or obliterated? The dice is still rolling.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington, and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell