Tunisia’s Arab Spring remains in peril

President Saïed’s extension of emergency measures has aggravated fears of autocracy – but hope is not yet dead.

This week, instead of providing Tunisians with greater clarity about where he is taking the country, President Kaïs Saïed indefinitely extended the 30-day emergency powers he seized on 25 July.

His actions a month ago were prompted by violent protests. In response, Saïed suspended Parliament, revoked legislators’ immunity from prosecution, took control of the prosecutor’s office and fired prime minister Hichem Mechichi as well as the defence, justice and civil service ministers.

The president’s political opponents were already calling this a ‘constitutional coup.’ His moves this week worsened the uncertainty and fears that Tunisia’s fragile 2011 Arab Spring is regressing, like all the others in the region, back to autocracy. Tunisia’s is the only transition still surviving.

The situation is certainly perilous. Yet there still seems to be hope, though it will require all Tunisians – with the international community’s support – to come together to rescue the country’s fledgling democracy.

If Saïed allows the uncertainty to drag on, he could inspire another popular political uprising

Silvia Colombo, a North Africa and Middle East specialist at the Italian Institute of International Affairs, says Saïed’s actions have enjoyed quite wide support among Tunisians who feel they haven’t reaped the fruits of democracy.

The economy is in terrible shape, worsened by COVID-19. Unemployment is high and rising, and poverty and deprivation are growing. Tunisia relies heavily on tourism, which has been badly knocked by the pandemic. And many felt Mechichi’s government bungled the economy, especially on COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout.

Many of those who backed the president’s strong measures were opponents, like he is, of Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party in the governing parliamentary coalition that still arouses ideological suspicion.

Colombo notes that Tunisia created a vibrant democracy where power is shared among the presidency, Parliament and civil society. The price for this pluralism though is seemingly endless battles among political parties, the Speaker of Parliament – Ennahda’s powerful leader Rached Ghannouchi – the prime minister and the president himself.

Extending emergency measures without a roadmap for Tunisians has created ‘a very dangerous moment’

And so for Saïed there were just ‘too many voices, too much pluralism.’ He enacted the emergency measures to assert his authority in an attempt to coordinate the disparate centres of political power.

Saïed wanted to shield Tunisia – a small country of just 11 million people – from what Colombo says was the growing ‘encroachment’ of regional states. These intrusions, both ideological and material, meant that Tunisia was starting to be ‘used as a battlefield for their own struggles.’ Indeed the country appears to have become a proxy battlefield of regional contests, especially between the conservative United Arab Emirates and the more radical Qatar.

Yet Colombo says that although many Tunisians agreed with Saïed’s motivations, the emergency measures he took on 25 July were counter-productive. She said they had set the country ‘on this sliding slope of gradually but relentlessly abandoning the democratic course and putting Tunisia more and more into the hands of those same external pressures.’ By extending those measures on 25 August without showing Tunisians where he is taking the country, Saïed had created ‘a very dangerous moment.’

The Arab Spring is not yet dead, she nonetheless feels. ‘Consolidating democracy takes much more time and is a much more painful journey … in which there are U-turns and moments in which the process seems in danger. So what’s going on now is part of this big process.’

Saïed hasn’t cracked down with mass arrests of political opponents since 25 July as some feared

Yet Colombo fears that if Saïed allows the uncertainty to drag on much longer, he could inspire another popular political uprising, which could be very damaging for the country’s young democracy. Tunisians are capable of handling the crisis, she says, and should mediate an inclusive national dialogue on the way forward. She adds that external players have been too quiet and should put pressure – through engagement, not sanctions – on Tunisians to pursue dialogue.

What would Saïed’s roadmap to the future look like if he cared to share it? Would it show a path to autocracy? Matt Herbert, Research Manager at the North Africa and Sahel Observatory of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crimes, thinks not. He says the 25 July measures were, as the president said, in article 80 of the constitution. Herbert acknowledges some ambiguities, suggesting that the suspension of Parliament might have exceeded constitutional bounds.

He credits Saïed with taking action to address many of the problems Mechichi’s government was bungling. For example, COVID-19 cases have continued to fall substantially, and the number of people vaccinated has increased exponentially since 25 July, Herbert says. Lifting legislators’ immunity has been ‘tremendously popular’ because it has allowed some to be prosecuted for corruption.

Like Colombo, Herbert notes that Saïed hasn’t embarked on a political crackdown with mass arrests of political opponents since 25 July, as some feared. Tunisia is not a police state and the political debate – including about the new measures – remains vigorous.

Although Saïed has not signposted his future plans, Herbert doesn’t think he intends to go down the road of autocracy. He has faith that, as a constitutional law academic by profession, the president will remain on the constitutional path.

There is speculation, Herbert notes, that Saïed intends to try to amend the constitution to strengthen the presidency relative to Parliament. He says this will not necessarily create a dichotomy of autocracy versus democracy, noting that the United States has a very powerful presidency. ‘I think what we’re seeing now is stresses on Tunisian democracy … but at the same time there’s no reason to write the obituary of the Arab Spring.’

It’s a time both of substantial hope and substantial risk. Herbert seems to come down on the side of hope. He believes Tunisia has proven over the past decade that it is a consensual society that should find a collective way to navigate out of the current crisis.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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