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Strangling Tunisia’s democracy

Kais Saied is a populist zealot who promises El Dorado even as he leads his country into a quagmire

August 25, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 10:31 am IST

A billboard with Tunisian president Kais Saied’s image in Kairouan, Tunisia.

A billboard with Tunisian president Kais Saied’s image in Kairouan, Tunisia. | Photo Credit: AFP

On August 16, the results of the referendum on the amendments to the national constitution proposed by Tunisian president Kais Saied were formally endorsed by the election commission, effectively terminating the country’s brief encounter with a democratic order. Tunisia, the shining success story of the Arab Spring, now stares at autocracy and chaos.

It has taken a year to reach this nadir. Last year, on July 25, Mr. Saied had abruptly suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister, deprived the assembly members of their immunity, and declared he would now rule by presidential decree. Members of parliament attempting to enter the assembly were blocked by the armed forces.

Presidential coup

A well-known constitutional expert with no party or political affiliations, Mr. Saied came to power in 2019 in a landslide victory over several established politicians. Quickly thereafter, he began to express disdain for his country’s political class, refused to interact with political parties and civil society groups, and chaffed at the constitutional “locks” that prevented him from taking action to effect the economic reforms that were urgently demanded by the people. On July 25, 2021, he finally affected a “coup” against the very constitution that had empowered him.

The presidential coup initially enjoyed considerable popular support – it was estimated that Mr. Saied was backed by over 80% of his people, with support hovering between 70% and 80% over the next few months. This was largely because, while the country had given itself a democratic constitution in 2015, the assembly was deeply divided by diverse political groups, which made it impossible to pass the legislation to bring about the reforms the country needed. The assembly, instead, was seen as a corrupt and dysfunctional institution. The amnesty granted by parliament in 2017 to those from the former regime who were accused of corruption and criminal conduct thoroughly discredited the assembly and the democratic process itself.

In December 2021, Mr. Saied announced a “road map” for political change — online “consultations” on constitutional reform, a committee to propose amendments to the constitution, and finally a nationwide referendum on the proposed changes in July 2022. In April this year, the president dissolved the parliament, and initiated inquiries for “conspiracy” among prominent political leaders, including Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist Ennahda party.

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But Mr. Saied had got his priorities wrong. While he dabbled in constitutional changes, Tunisia slid deeper into an economic malaise: inflation reached 8%, while unemployment was 16%, reaching 40% among the youth. As the currency depreciated by 60% and purchasing power fell by 40%, Tunisia’s credit rating was downgraded to ‘CCC’. Following the war in Ukraine, as wheat supplies from Russia and Ukraine got disrupted and prices shot up, Mr. Saied decreed that those spreading “fake news” about food shortages would be arrested.

Mr. Saied initiated a dialogue with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to obtain $4 billion for economic support, but the IMF insisted on a sharp reduction in subsidies on goods and services, a freeze on public sector wages, and privatisation of public sector companies. These conditions alienated the country’s powerful trade union, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT, in its French acronym) from the president.

Popular disenchantment

The UGTT had played a major role in the Arab Spring uprisings that had ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. It had then facilitated national reconciliation among feuding politicians that led to the nationally accepted constitution of 2015, an achievement that led to the UGTT joining three other Tunisian groups in winning the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Last year, the UGTT had initially backed Mr. Saied’s initiatives to strengthen the presidency, but, amidst the deteriorating economic conditions and the president’s misguided focus on constitutional changes, it became a sharp critic of the president. On June 16, it called a general strike to protest the economic situation and the conditions being proposed by the IMF for its loan. With its one million members in a country of 12 million, the UGTT is a formidable opponent, particularly with its ability to influence popular opinion against the president’s political and economic plans.

The constitutional amendments to obtain a “new republic” were prepared by an advisory committee appointed by the president. These amendments had just one purpose — to strengthen the president by removing all constraints on the exercise of untrammelled power by him. A commentator noted that the amendments provided for “an unbridled presidential system, with an omnipotent president, a powerless parliament, and a toothless judiciary”.

However, there is now a pervasive apathy among Tunisians about the president’s policies, which is reflected in the absence of active support for his initiatives in the shape of popular demonstrations or actual votes in his favour — the referendum attracted a turnout of just over 27%. With a 96% ‘yes’ vote, the election commission declared the amendments as having been approved.

Outlook for Tunisia

For several months, American senators, congressmen, diplomats and academics have been lamenting the demise of Tunisia’s democracy and calling on President Joe Biden to pressurise Mr. Saied to prevent the political backslide. But no magic formula has emerged to correct the situation, despite Mr. Biden’s avowed commitment to promote democracy globally.

The instrument of cutting off military or economic aid has been viewed as a non-starter: the Tunisian armed forces are major U.S. allies and central to the fight against extremist forces, while reduced economic assistance would make the Tunisians’ living conditions more miserable. Mr. Saied has the option to turn to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for political and economic support — both of them are believed to have backed Mr. Saied’s constitutional coup in order to subvert the Islamist Ennahda as a political player in the country.

As the euphoria of a decade ago turns to ashes, the Tunisian experience has exposed the daunting challenges in achieving political and economic change after an authoritarian order has been overthrown. Crony capitalism, in which economic power remains with a few business families, has remained in place and works closely with politicians who integrate themselves with the ‘deep state’ and prioritise personal interest over national well-being.

External players are of no help — the U.S. has neither interest in nor the capacity to promote democracy, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE work assiduously to upend the democratic order that provides a place for political Islam, however accommodative it might be. And as the nation sinks into an economic abyss, the IMF remains committed to policy approaches that indicate little sensitivity towards the privations the people are going through.

Mr. Saied is only the latest example of a populist zealot who promises El Dorado even as he leads his country into a quagmire.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat

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