Will the Arab uprisings end where they started? While it is still too early to present a definitive answer, the prospects for Tunisian democracy do not seem promising. On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechici, as well as the justice and defense ministers, and suspended parliamentary activities for thirty days which was followed by a curfew to prevent people from going to the streets to protest. Even though Saied used the pretext of the government’s growing inability to address the economic hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic, his actions have been widely described as an executive (or constitutional) coup which might potentially deepen the governance crisis the country has been facing.

Despite being the only successful model of democratic transition from the Arab uprisings over the last decade thanks to its surviving democratic institutions, the question now is quo vadis Tunisia? Where are you going? Is the opportunity for democratic consolidation lost for the young Tunisian democracy or are we entering a new era of democratic restoration which will be orchestrated by the President?

Before addressing these questions, it is important to bear in mind a few crucial points. First, political instability is a hallmark of post-revolutionary countries and societies. The absence of an anchor during such political transitions makes political instability and governance failures even more likely. For instance, the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) served such a purpose for the democratic transitions of the post-communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Compare this to the complete lack of any external anchor for the post-revolutionary Arab states. The fact that Tunisia has had four presidents, eight prime ministers and ten governments since 2011 is an indication of its instability since the overthrow of Ben Ali regime. Second, this attempted coup cannot be solely read through the lenses of the Ennahda Party or Islamism. Only two of the eight prime ministers that have served Tunisia since 2011 have belonged to Ennahda. Furthermore, none of the four presidents came from the Ennahda Movement either. Therefore, analyzing Tunisia’s current situation solely through Ennahda is wholly inadequate.[1] This is about the future of the Tunisian democracy and successful democratic transition in the Arab world at large. Therefore, Kais Saied’s move is not simply a move against Ennahda, but against all political parties from different ideological camps. In this respect, it is anti-Arab uprisings.

Putting this aside, the above-mentioned questions force us to go beyond post-transition politics and have a deeper sense of the institutional legacies surrounding current political actors. These legacies inherited from the past constrained political agents while empowering a certain political trajectory marked with regime instability. This brief contends that the capacity of contemporary political actors to carry out democratization reforms was limited by the repression they faced under authoritarian rule. These actors, lacking the necessary organizational resources and administrative experience, found difficulty in fulfilling the growing public need for political stability and economic well-being. Their inability to address the immediate demands for stability exacerbated growing public dissatisfaction with the democratization process and induced a politics of nostalgia centered around the idea of the old stable and predictable authoritarian times. As a result, while Tunisia initially had a successful democratic transition, it failed to consolidate its young democracy.

The Charming Old Regime?

The ten-year period after the transition shows how and why authoritarian legacies matter. Years of repression caused social and political decay and undermined trust in political institutions. It further limited the parties’ ability to extend their popular national base, recruit, and train new generations of political cadres, and hindered them from articulating and building policies that would represent their constituents.[2] This legacy made it difficult for the post-transition political agents to consolidate Tunisian democracy. The post-transition political parties were organizationally weak and had difficulty in forming alliances, which gave rise to a fragmented polarized political environment. The dominant cleavage which shaped the Tunisian socio-political landscape affected the nature of the party system and contributed to the secularist groups’ exaggerated fears of Islamism and determination to contain political Islam. Ennahda’s moderate position in and of itself was not sufficient enough to consolidate Tunisian democracy during the transition process.

The pro-democratic forces faced two important challenges in the revolution’s aftermath.[3] Their first challenge was to oust the Ben Ali regime nonviolently, establish a democratic parliament and reinstitute a truly democratic multi-party politics. Their second and more arduous challenge, however, was to make an inclusive democratic constitution, institutionalize free and fair elections, manage the peaceful transition of power between different governments, allow press freedom. The above political goals would also entail fighting against radicalism, diminishing social polarization, providing public goods and social order, improving economic conditions, and putting an end to the pervasive corruption.

However, democratic institutions cannot be built overnight, nor can living standards be improved instantly. The years of political repression obviously did not prepare the pro-democratic forces well for the aforementioned tasks. The leading opposition groups lacked both the administrative experience the country urgently needed and the time needed for the task. As a result, public support for democracy gradually declined. For instance, the data from Arab Barometer shows that in 2011, 29.7 percent Tunisians strongly agreed that “A democratic system may have problems, yet it is better than other systems”.[4] This positive perception of democracy improved continuously as this number reached 39.6 percent in 2013 and 49.8 percent in 2016. However, support for a democratic system sharply decreased to 20.4 percent by 2019. The barometer also shows that trust in the Tunisian government has been drastically decreasing with 62 percent responding that they “absolutely do not trust” the government in 2019, while this number was at 19 percent in 2011.

It appears that political parties in the post-transition period performed poorly in terms of building democratic institutions, restoring trust among rival ideological groups, and improving the country’s economic conditions. The democratically elected governments failed to uplift the economic standards of Tunisian population as the GDP per capita was $4,264 in 2011 and declined to $3,319 by 2020.[5] Even though the Tunisian economy experienced positive economic growth, declining inflation, and increase in tourism revenues by 2019, the country suffered significant economic losses due to the economic mayhem created by the coronavirus pandemic which by and large reversed the initial optimism.[6] As a result, public support for democracy declined substantially while trust in government reached historically low levels. Nevertheless, analysts should be cautious in ascribing this growing apathy towards democracy among the survey respondents to a desire for the old regime. These results can be interpreted as public disapproval for the way in which the democratic process unfolded during the post-transition period instead of growing support for another one-man rule in Tunisia. The survey results can also indicate dissatisfaction with the current political parties. The expectations from the democratic transition were high even though these parties were not equipped well for the challenges of democratic consolidation. Given the repressive authoritarian legacy they encountered since independence, from the very start they had limited capacity to execute the necessary reforms in a short amount of time.

Quo Vadis Tunisia?

Unfortunately, the political parties in the parliament failed to present a unified stance against Saied’s executive takeover in the events’ immediate aftermath. As a first reaction, Rached Ghannouchi called Saied’s move a “coup” which will drag country into catastrophe and invited Tunisians to protest.[7] Heart of Tunisia and The Dignity Coalition (Karama) were the other political parties which joined Ennahda in condemning Saied’s decision. The People’s Movement and the Democratic Current (At-Tayyar) supported Saied, while the Free Destourian Party has shown tacit support given the party’s determination to expel “Islamists” from Tunisian politics.[8] More importantly, neither the sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, nor any ministers from his cabinet made public declarations condemning the suspension of parliament at the onset of events.

Democratic restoration in Tunisia seems a faraway hope so long as parliamentary actors keep to diverging positions and fail to make their collective pro-democratic attitudes in the face of the president’s authoritarian actions clear to domestic and international communities. Rather, political parties must view the issue as one of national consensus rather than a partisan issue. Such a consensus would provide political parties with international legitimacy and facilitate the process of democratic restoration.

What are the other possible scenarios for Tunisian politics? Saied may choose to follow the footsteps of Bourguiba and Ben Ali and build a one-man rule. He can do so by constantly prolonging the state of emergency, postponing the return of constitutional rule, holding quasi-democratic elections to get candidates close to him elected in an uneven electoral field, restricting the freedom of association, speech, and protest. By mimicking democratic institutions, Saied can opt for a new form of tutelage within which multi-party politics will be allowed, while real power will rest with the tutelary regime centered around the presidential office, judicial institutions, and the security apparatus.

Although this may seem exaggerated, this scenario is realistic if Saied can secure regional and international support for his authoritarian rule, coopt the security apparatus, and distribute satisfying rents and perks to certain local and political elites. The ways in which regional and global powers react to this executive takeover will impact whether the country will  remain the only Arab democracy or will revert to authoritarian rule. So far powerful democracies, such as Germany and the United States, and international entities, including the EU and the United Nations (UN), have not demonstrated any strong reactions and are adopting a “wait-and-see” attitude.[9] If world democracies fail to condemn Saied’s move, it is likely that regional authoritarian actors will fill the power vacuum and empower Saied’s political position. One possible mechanism would be fueling foreign aid and thereby increasing the president’s capacity to solve economic problems, co-opt the security forces, and hence, increase his popular support. In short, given the deep-rooted authoritarian legacies, the organizational weakness and fragmented nature of pro-democratic forces, the absence of strong disapproval from international pro-democratic forces, and the country’s authoritarian and politically unstable neighborhood, it would not be surprising to see Tunisia revert to one-man rule.

However, in contrast to Bourguiba and Ben Ali, Saied must eliminate political actors who have gained substantial experience in administration and electoral democracy. Even though Tunisian democracy was a short-lived experience, Saied may still find it difficult to dissolve the democratic experience and practices built over the last decade as there is still a broad coalition of elites who collaborate around democratic ideals. Furthermore, even if Saied finds momentary popular support for his executive takeover given that the masses are already fed up with the continuing political and economic uncertainties, temporary approval cannot induce legitimacy. Hence, Saied cannot use popular support to legitimize his illegitimate executive takeover.

At best, the popular support for a Said’s move can only be temporary. As mentioned above, declining support for democracy due to the inability of Tunisia’s coalition governments to address the economic instabilities of the last decade cannot be directly translated into public approval for another dictatorial regime. Despite the weakness of post-revolution democratic institutions, the growing popular national bases of political parties and the parliamentary experience that democratic actors have gained might prove insurmountable for Saied to set up a neo-authoritarian rule in Tunisia. Regardless of the popular resentment directed at the government’s governance track-record, any would be dictator faces real challenges of legitimacy in post-Arab uprisings countries and societies. This might seem an optimistic interpretation given the persistence of several authoritarian regimes in the region despite being violently repressive. However, the Arab uprisings have shown that the future of authoritarian rule is also uncertain and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East are less resilient today than in the past.[10] Despite their brutality, distribution of rents and perks, and censorship, autocrats face legitimacy issues as they fail to obtain popular consent for their rule, exacerbating their survival paranoia.

There are more optimistic tracks. For one thing, if Saied’s discontent really was caused by the government’s inability to address the pandemic-induced economic and political instability, he can appoint a new prime minister and cabinet or call for new elections and form a new government and provide them with necessary incentives to effectively provide public goods, fight corruption, and present constructive financial solutions. Another option would be calling for international support in realizing these goals. Furthermore, the president could lift the suspension and encourage political parties to resume their normal day-to-day operations. On a more related point, Saied also has the option of inviting political parties and the Tunisian General Labor Union to negotiate and compromise around a new political deal that would bring realistic solutions to the crises that the country is currently experiencing.[11] Incentivizing political parties and actors to collaborate would be more likely to mitigate Tunisia’s political polarization and pave the way for a widescale consensus among the previously fragmented actors. These actors might be more willing to prefer cooperation in order to avoid a similar crisis of democracy. Finally, the president may also prefer to revise the constitution by holding a popular vote. This all depends on whether Saied has the will and power to promote attempts for democratic restoration.

A highly possible scenario would be for him to enhance the power of the presidential office vis-à-vis parliament with the purpose of increasing political stability. This new arrangement would place parliament in a secondary position while reducing the role of political parties. Therefore, even if President Saied uses his executive authority to design new institutions, it would still potentially at least partially restore democracy, however these institutions might strengthen anti-democratic tendencies in Tunisian politics over the ensuing years.

What appeared to be a crisis of governance escalated into a crisis of democracy. Political parties surrounded by the authoritarian legacies of the past failed to negotiate and carry out the necessary institutional reforms to consolidate Tunisian democracy. As a result, polarized pluralism combined with economic and political instability became the defining feature of Tunisian politics in the post-transition era. Whether the recent executive coup will culminate in a full-blown authoritarian regime or initiate a democratic restoration process remains to be seen. However, one thing is certain. Tunisian politics is about to be significantly transformed.

References

[1] Taha Özhan, 2021. “Tunus’a Darbe”, https://www.perspektif.online/tunusa-darbe/ accessed on August 3, 2021.

[2] David Waldner & Ellen Lust, 2016. “Parties in Transitional Democracies: Authoritarian Legacies and Post-Authoritarian Challenges in the Middle East and North Africa” in Parties, Movements, and Democracy in the Developing World, Nancy Barmeo and Deborah J. Yashar (Eds.), Cambridge University Press.

[3] Murat Somer, 2017. “Conquering versus Democratizing the State: Political Islamists and Fourth Wave Democratization in Turkey and Tunisia”, Democratization, Vol. 24, No. 6, pp. 1025-1043.

[4] Arab Barometer, https://www.arabbarometer.org/survey-data/data-analysis-tool/, accessed on July 27, 2021.

[5] See the World Bank Data Bank, GDP per Capita (current US$), Tunisia, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=TN&name_desc=false, accessed on August 3, 2021

[6] Sarah Yerkes & Nesrine Mbarek, 2021. “After Ten Years of Progress, How Far Has Tunisia Really Come?”, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/01/14/after-ten-years-of-progress-how-far-has-tunisia-really-come-pub-83609, accessed on August 3, 2021.

[7] “Tunus’ta Meclis Başkanı Gannuşi, Cumhurbaşkanı Said’i darbe yapmakla suçladı: Hükümet halen görevinin başında”, July 26, 2021, Anadolu Ajansı, https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/dunya/tunusta-meclis-baskani-gannusi-cumhurbaskani-saidi-darbe-yapmakla-sucladi-hukumet-halen-gorevinin-basinda/2313945, accessed on July 27, 2021.

[8] Daniel Brumberg, 2021, “Is Tunisia’s President Endangering Democracy?”, Arab Center Washington DC, http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/is-tunisias-president-endangering-democracy/, accessed on August 3, 2021, also see “Factbox: Reactions to Tunisia’s democratic crisis”, July 26, 2021, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/reactions-tunisias-democratic-crisis-2021-07-26/, accessed on July 27, 2021.

[9] Will Todman, 2021, “A Coup in Tunisia?”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://www.csis.org/analysis/coup-tunisia, accessed on August 2, 2021.

[10] Galip Dalay, 2019. “Europe must develop a Middle East policy independent of the US”, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/europe-must-develop-middle-east-policy-independent-us, accessed on July 31.

[11] “Possible Scenarios for Tunisia’s Political Crisis”, July 26, 2021, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/possible-scenarios-tunisias-political-crisis-2021-07-26/, accessed on July 29, 2021.