Crown Center for Middle East Studies

The Tunisian Public and the Rise of Kais Saied

A Conversation with Hind Ahmed Zaki

Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel

May 27, 2022

Running as a populist, Kais Saied, a retired law professor and political independent, was elected president of Tunisia in October 2019. After suspending parliament and dismissing the prime minister on July 25, 2021, Saied further tightened his hold on power by announcing he would rule by decree, reconfiguring the Supreme Judicial Court, and laying out a roadmap to revise the constitution. It is widely believed that these moves will threaten Tunisia's decade-old democratic transition. In this Crown Conversation, the second in a series on Tunisia, we spoke with Hind Ahmed Zaki—assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, and the Harold Grinspoon Junior Research Fellow at the Crown Center from 2018-2019—about how Tunisians' disenchantment with their post-revolutionary political system led to the election of Saied as president, public support for his power-grab, and how the country's women's rights movement has reacted to his appointment of the Arab world's first female prime minister. 

What do we know about how public support for Saied's actions varies across Tunisia, and how it has changed over time? Some polls show Tunisians increasingly characterize the events of July 25 as a "coup" instead of a "correction," and street protests seem to be increasing in frequency.

To begin with, I think the events of July 25, 2021 are better characterized as a "constitutional coup." When we say "coup," especially in relation to the Middle East and North Africa, we often conjure up the image of military tanks rolling down the streets, taking over government institutions, and removing democratically elected leaders—similar to what occurred in Egypt in 2013 [when President Mohamed Morsi was forced from power]. This is not really what is happening here. Kais Saied was elected president in 2019, and what he has been doing since July 25 is, in effect, attempting to curb the power of the Parliament and negotiate a new constitution with the goal of turning Tunisia into a French-inspired presidential system (i.e., where the president plays a strong role and has powers to bypass parliament or dissolve it, or both). Since 2014, the Tunisian political system has more closely resembled a parliamentary system.

It is true that Saied did enjoy significant popular support for his initial move last year, but I think we can say with a degree of confidence that this support has waned since then. The early enthusiasm for Saied's constitutional coup is understandable: disenchantment with Tunisia's decade-long democratic transition had been growing. Many Tunisians have come to believe that political parties—of all shades of the ideological spectrum—are not only inefficient but also have no real solutions for Tunisia's structural problems, such as the weak economy, widespread inequality, corruption, and police violence. The political system created after the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 failed to adequately address any of these issues, and the very election of Saied—a relative newcomer to politics—is in and of itself a sign of widespread disenchantment with the entire political system of post-revolutionary Tunisia. Saied managed to tap into this disenchantment through a youth-led grassroots presidential campaign in which he promised to engage young Tunisians in politics, many of whom had been turned off by the power-grabbing tactics of political parties. He also promised social justice—in terms of redistribution of wealth—and to fight corruption in the state and in the business class.  

However, as time went by, most of those who were initially supportive of Saied ceased to see him as a visionary savior. Many Tunisians increasingly saw him as an incompetent president who had not managed to improve the everyday lives of Tunisians despite concentrating all powers in his own hands and enjoying the support of a broad segment of the electorate. This is evident in the results of public opinion polls conducted over the last few months and in the increasing number of protests from political parties, civil society organizations, women’s rights groups, and others who view Saied as a threat to Tunisian democracy and civil rights.

Much of your research has focused on the relationship between historical narratives of women's rights and feminist mobilizations in the Arab Spring. A little over two months after he suspended parliament and gave himself extraordinary powers, Saied appointed Najla Bouden as the first female prime minister in Tunisia (and in the wider Arab world), and her government included 10 female ministers out of 24. How do these developments fit in the history of state feminism in Tunisia, and how have women's rights organizations responded to them?

The appointment of Najla Bouden, while a historic first in the region, is hardly surprising. It is definitely a great step forward, but it does follow an established trajectory of state feminism in Tunisia, as a signifier of state national identity and its modernization project that dates back to independence from French rule in 1956. In my current book project, I trace the various levels at which historical, legal, and political legacies of state feminism in Tunisia defined the official limits of women's rights, both in law and in practice. I do this through a detailed and robust theorization of the long-term impacts of the Tunisian post-colonial nationalist project and the type of state feminism that developed out of it. One of the main findings of my research is that the centrality of women's rights in post-colonial Tunisia is a direct product of a set of conditions that emerged during the period between 1956-1959 and that led to the creation of a strong and centralized state that embarked on an ambitious modernizing project under the rule of Habib Bourguiba. Tunisia’s post-colonial political elite sought to consolidate their rule by eradicating tribal and religious power holders and their social and political manifestations. Reforming the status of women became key to achieving the goal of modern state-building and mainstreaming republican values in the newly independent state.

This historical trend continued even after the 2010-2011 uprising and carried over into Tunisia's political transition. In my Middle East Brief, I analyzed how this became possible due to the mobilization efforts of the Tunisian feminist movements and their ability to reframe this history: They used it not only to safeguard past gains but also to achieve new rights, such as electoral parity and a comprehensive law against all forms of violence against women. Saied's appointment of Najla Bouden is a continuation of this legacy and could be seen as a political move to gain more appeal in the eyes of secular Tunisians. The symbolism of a woman leading the government, given the strong legacies of state feminism in Tunisia, is meant to assure Tunisians of the state's commitments to women's political representation and women's rights more broadly. It is also a strong signal of the political continuity of the Tunisian post-colonial secular state project. It is perhaps significant that this appointment occurred at a time when Saied was coming under fire from the women's rights movement for failing to make any advances on a draft law to reform inheritance laws, one that was put forward as part of the Individual Freedoms and Equality Commission (COLIBE, or Commission des libertés individuelles et de l’égalité) established by the late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in 2017. In addition, the women's rights movement—like many other parts of Tunisia's civil and political society—fears more repressive laws that will curb civil and political rights in Tunisia. As a result, while they welcomed Bouden's appointment, they fear that women's rights as civil rights might suffer if democracy is curtailed in Tunisia.

In late March, about half of the members of the suspended Tunisian parliament held an online session in an effort to revoke Saied's emergency measures. In response, Saied temporarily blocked Zoom and Microsoft Teams in Tunisia and dissolved parliament. How united is the political opposition to Saied's moves? And to what extent does the involvement of the Islamist movement Ennahda divide that opposition?

This is a rather tricky question to answer, mostly because the events are unfolding as we speak. It is thus difficult to predict with any degree of certainty whether the parliamentary opposition will be able to unite and strike back against Saied's emergency measures, but they are definitely not united right now. I think the larger issue, however, is not how united the opposition is, but rather the low level of trust that the Tunisian people feel towards all of them. This applies as much to Ennahda as it does to its secular/liberal rivals. Ennahda mostly bore the electoral brunt of this disenchantment with many of their supporters feeling that they focused on making political compromises and proving that they are a "moderate" party, rather than on proposing solutions for the citizens' pressing needs, such as employment, corruption, and unequal access to resources (especially in Tunisia's interior regions that are traditional strongholds for Ennahda). Thus, the real challenge here is actually whether the political elite, including Ennahda, could regain the trust of Tunisian voters.  

That said, I think the opposition is divided at this point, and it would be difficult to get them to agree on a common political agenda. While opposition to the measures taken by Saied is certainly growing, there does not seem to be any indication of a united front against the constitutional coup. The youth, labor, and social movements that are demonstrating against the coup in the streets seem to be equally disappointed with Ennahda as they are with the coup.  Ennahda had been part of virtually every government coalition since the Jasmine Revolution and failed to deliver on most of their electoral promises, especially those related to economic welfare and redistribution of wealth. As a result, I think we can describe what is happening in Tunisia as a deep crisis of political legitimacy, one that is as much about the entire political elite as it is about either Ennahda or Saied's measures on their own.

The Tunisian economy continues to deteriorate: the price of basic goods continues to increase and Fitch Ratings, a U.S. credit rating agency,
recently downgraded Tunisia's sovereign debt to CCC, citing heightened liquidity risk, large budget deficits, and other challenges. Can you step back and say something about how Tunisians expected their lives to change after the 2011 revolution?

Almost twelve years after the Jasmine Revolution, most Tunisians feel that their main demands for "bread, freedom, and dignity" remain unanswered. The uprising, at its heart, was triggered by demands of economic equality and fueled by the repression of the state security apparatus. Today, most Tunisians feel that their quality of life has deteriorated even further than how it was under the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. A taxi driver expressed this general frustration to me in 2017 when he said that under Ben Ali, it was the president, his wife, and their inner circle that controlled most of the Tunisian formal economy and accumulated enormous personal wealth through networks of patronage and corruption. Now, according to him, state wealth is spread among Ennahda, its secular counterparts, and several other parties. Corruption remains rampant, and the vast majority of Tunisians feel that their demands for better access to state resources, jobs, health care, and overall dignity are largely unmet. As I mentioned, this sentiment was the main reason for the initial popular support and enthusiasm for Kais Saied. It is also the main reason behind the waning support for him now. Many of those who voted for him are coming to realize that, despite concentrating all political powers in his hands by suspending the 2014 constitution and the elected parliament, his plans for improving the economic situation by clamping down on networks of patronage and corruption and initiating a bottom-up style of governance have not really materialized.

The economic situation in Tunisia is currently dire. Tunisians from all walks of life constantly comment on how the economy has deteriorated in recent years and how their quality of life seems to be hitting an all-time low. The economic crisis is further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. One important aspect of this growing crisis is the unequal division of resources between Tunisia's rich coastal areas and the much poorer interior. If we look back to the Jasmine Uprising of 2010-2011, it is important to remember that street protests were triggered by the December 17, 2010 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the impoverished interior town of Sidi Bouzid. Those massive protests were fueled by long-term grievances against a police state that ruled Tunisia with an iron fist and targeted political opposition of any type. While it is true that the curbing of the right to political assembly and other political grievances were among the key reasons behind the 2010-2011 protests, the growing socioeconomic inequalities between the northeastern coast, which accounted then for 58 percent of the Tunisian economy's value-added, and the western and southern parts of the country, which accounted for only 18 percent of it, contributed, perhaps most decisively, to further escalating the political unrest.  

Tunisia is often described as the sole democratic success story of the Arab Spring. In January 2022, Saied outlined a roadmap for the country for the rest of the year: form a committee to rewrite the constitution; hold a referendum on July 25 to approve it; and hold parliamentary elections on December 17. What does social science tell us about whether this is a realistic roadmap to reset Tunisia's transition to democracy or a likely route to a consolidated dictatorship (or something else)?

If we can draw one lesson from the almost twelve years since the Jasmine Revolution, it is that real political change goes much deeper than ballots and procedural democracy. Before Saied's move to suspend the Parliament, Tunisia was often described as the positive outcome case of the Arab Spring because it successfully held elections that led to a peaceful transfer of power more than once, passing what scholars call "Huntington's two-turnover-test" for democracy. Tunisia became a model of a successful political settlement in 2013 when Tunisian civil society and the UGTT (Union of Tunisian Workers) helped to broker a transition under which Ennahda and its secular rivals ruled together. The result after almost eight years of this historic political compromise remains mixed, with many Tunisians lamenting the weakening of state institutions and the political impasse created by political rivalries.

I think the answer to this question is very much still in the making. While there are many reasons to believe that procedural democracy might be in danger in Tunisia, there are also reasons to believe that Saied's constitutional coup might rally those who are alienated by the current state of Tunisian politics behind the idea of preserving political and civil freedoms, and the powers of the elected representatives of the people. There are signs of this already happening with many civil society organizations, labor movements, and political activists speaking against the measures taken by Saied. While repressive measures have been taken against some of those speaking against the constitutional coup, there are no signs of this resistance abating any time soon.

The roadmap proposed by Saied is considered unrealistic by many Tunisians, and it remains to be seen whether it will be a route to a consolidated dictatorship. In my opinion, it might be neither the beginning of a new Arab dictatorship nor the road to reset Tunisia's procedural democracy. Rather, it might be the beginning of a new period of political contestation that could lead to a new and different political landscape. The failure since 2013 of successive elected governments to achieve any of the demands of the uprising created a political vacuum that needs to be filled, and it is doubtful that Saied will be able to fill it, especially with his waning popular support. Thus, Saied's roadmap for resetting the political system—even if it is likely to fail—could open new avenues for actors and novel configurations, and it might rally a broad coalition among those calling for democracy and social justice in Tunisia. This coalition is already taking shape with thousands demonstrating daily, calling for Saied to step down and for early elections to be held. The ultimate outcome hinges on two key factors. The first is whether the coercive state apparatus, including the military, chooses to side with Saied if the street turns against him completely. The second is how Tunisians from all shades of the political spectrum react to Saied's roadmap (or its failure) and if they can use it as a launchpad and political opportunity to build a new, more functional, and viable democratic experiment in Tunisia.

For more Crown Center publications on the evolution of Tunisian politics in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution, see: "Ennahda: Before and After the Coup in Tunisia," "Tunisia's Democracy Unsettled," "Lessons from the Jasmine and Nile Revolutions: Possibilities of Political Transformation in the Middle East?" "Drivers of Democracy: Lessons from Tunisia," "Islam and Democracy in Practice: Tunisia’s Ennahdha Nine Months In," and "Why Did Women's Rights Expand in Post-Revolutionary Tunisia?"  

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the author exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.