Tunisia's Democracy Unsettled

A Conversation with Eva Bellin

Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel

August 11, 2021

On July 25—Tunisia’s Republic Day—President Kais Saied dismissed the country’s prime minister and government, froze parliament for thirty days, suspended lawmakers’ parliamentary immunity, and announced that he (alongside a yet-to-be-named prime minister) will temporarily exert executive authority “until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state.” A thirty-day curfew was announced the following day.

In the first of a series of Crown Conversations on Tunisia, we spoke with Eva Bellin—the Myra and Robert Kraft Professor of Arab Politics at the Crown Center and the chair of the Department of Politics at Brandeis University—about the challenges of governance in Tunisia and what President Saied’s actions mean for its fledgling democracy. For additional background, we recommend the following Crown Center publications on Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, the drivers of democracy in the country, the role of Islamists during the transition, and women’s rights in Tunisia's constitutional debates.

Can you first provide some context? Tunisia is often called the only democracy to emerge from the 2010-11 Arab Uprisings. Did Tunisia transition to a real democracy after its revolution, and what does that mean?

Tunisia most certainly met the criteria of a “transition to a real democracy” after its 2011 revolution. The standard, long defined as the “simple turnover test,” holds that transition to democracy is achieved when a country has held free and fair competitive elections (made meaningful through the provision of basic civil liberties) that have delivered two successive alternations of power in government. Tunisia met this standard by 2016. By then two different governments had been elected: The first led by the Islamist party Ennahda, and the second by the secular Nidaa Tounes party. Civil liberties remain relatively strong in the country, and elections have been largely free and fair. The problem with Tunisia’s democracy lies not in a failure to establish the core institutional foundations of electoral democracy. Instead, the problem lies in the disconnect between the presence of those institutions and their incapacity to deliver on what ordinary people understand to be the essence of democracy—the delivery of a government that serves the interests of the people. So long as Tunisia remains crippled by what Thomas Carothers calls “feckless pluralism”—that is, a competitive political system that lacks state capacity to address major social challenges (e.g., unemployment, economic stagnation, public health crises)—the Tunisian public will lose confidence in the value of democracy per se. And that is a danger for all democracies, young and old. 

Many analyses in both the Western and Arabic presses are framing Saied’s actions and the public support for it as reflecting a deep secularist-Islamist divide in Tunisia. Some see it as on par with the one in Egypt that contributed to the 2013 coup in which Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government of Mohammed Morsi and assumed power. Is that analogy apt, or is it misleading?

I believe the analogy is misleading. Yes, in some ways the cultural divide between Islamists and secularists is as deep in Tunisia as it is in Egypt. Perhaps even deeper. And, yes, some of the protesters on July 25, which provided Saied with the impetus/pretext to seize power, focused their anger on Ennahda (e.g., attacking their headquarters) and thus seemed to be channeling general social discontent into a “secular versus Islamist” narrative. Presumably, this could lead to confrontation between the two groups akin to events in Egypt. But what distinguishes the two cases is the different political strategies embraced by Islamists in each country. In Tunisia, the leader of Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, has expressly embraced political compromise and de-escalation at critical political junctures when confronting his secular opponents. By contrast, Ghannouchi’s counterparts in Egypt’s Islamic movement proved confrontational and unyielding, setting that country up for a showdown between Islamists and secularists. Ghannouchi learned from the mistakes of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. This has been evident in Ghannouchi’s response to Saied’s recent authoritarian moves. Yes, Ghannouchi, the speaker of Tunisia’s parliament, condemned Saied’s dismissal of the prime minister and his closure of parliament as a political “coup.” At the same time, Ghannouchi has counseled his followers to remain calm and stay off the streets. As one of his lieutenants, Maher Madhioub, said (referring to the killing of over 800 supporters of Morsi occupying a square after the 2013 Egyptian coup), “We do not want to see the Rabaa scenario repeated in Tunisia and people killed and it ending with Islamists being erased.” 

In your work on the Arab Uprisings, you emphasized that the willingness of the military to defect from supporting the regime is shaped by the institutional character of the military and the level of social mobilization. Tunisia’s army, small and removed from politics, was not invested in the survival of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his cohort in December 2010 and January 2011 and, therefore, is understood to have refused to shoot protestors. For the same reasons, is the Tunisian army similarly unwilling now to defend the country’s fledgling democratic regime? Or are the Tunisian security services backing Saied?

The Tunisian military has long been distinguished for being apolitical and respectful of civilian supremacy (thanks to the limited role it played in the independence struggle and its exclusion from politics by both President Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali). The military was also starved of resources under both of those presidents, giving it little institutional investment in the survival of Ben Ali’s regime. And the military in Tunisia has always seen its primary role as protecting order and providing security to its countrymen, not massacring them. All three of these factors pointed the army toward not taking over politically when the uprising began in 2010 and not using its coercive power to save the Ben Ali regime.

Today, the same set of three factors points the military toward supporting Saied’s authoritarian power grab. An apolitical culture and respect for civilian supremacy nudges the military toward assenting to Saied’s initiative. Institutional interests lead it to a certain political complacence because the military has enjoyed ever-increasing prestige and budgetary allotments over the last ten years due to the need to fight terrorism and manage border control. And the military’s commitment to order leads it to lean toward supporting the status quo, since Saied’s moves have not elicited massive protest. To the contrary, Saied’s moves have elicited massive support: Public opinion polls show over 85% of Tunisians support Saied’s initiative. So there is no call for the military to use its powers to repress or massacre their fellow Tunisian citizens—something that might actually give the military pause. For the foreseeable future, I see every reason for the military to stand behind Saied.

It seems notable that the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) appears to be backing Saied, while the four largest political parties in parliament have called his moves unconstitutional. Your influential 2002 book on Tunisia, Stalled Democracy, examines how state-led industrialization created groups of capitalists and wage laborers who opposed greater political liberalization that they feared would threaten their preferential access to discretionary favors by the state. Do those groups remain contingent democrats, and does that help explain support for Saied’s actions?

I don’t see evidence that the preferences of either capital or labor were decisively influential in prompting Saied’s actions. Saied was moved by the country’s triple threat—economic morass, a public health disaster, high levels of corruption—and the government’s inability to tackle these problems effectively. Will the private sector endorse Saied’s authoritarian turn? My sense is the business community is most concerned about order and stability and not inclined to fight for the political paralysis that has come to be associated with democratic rule. At the same time, those businesspeople who benefit from cronyism (which is not a small percentage of the business community) may be concerned about Saied’s promise to wage war against corruption. So I would anticipate ambivalence and political disengagement to be the primary response of the private sector to Saied’s actions.

As for the UGTT, the base of the trade union movement has long been disgusted by the Tunisian government’s inability to address the country’s critical social problems. But the UGTT as an institution is a privileged player on the political scene. As one of the few organizations in civil society with a mass base and a proven capacity for mass mobilization, the UGTT exercises significant political influence. Hence, it has been able to extract increases in worker’s wages from the government in recent years despite the country’s debt crisis. And Saied has expressed his willingness to keep collaborating with the UGTT despite pressure from the International Monetary Fund to impose reforms that will spell significant austerity. The fact that Saied is a political outsider, without a party base of his own, will make him especially eager for an organized foothold in society as he pursues his political ambitions. If he goes the “national front” route, then he will no doubt court the support of the UGTT. For this reason, I think it is unlikely that the UGTT as a national institution will mobilize its base in opposition to Saied. The union has good reason to take a wait-and-see approach and participate in national-level negotiations over the country’s direction under Saied’s leadership. This complicity with Saied’s authoritarian move might seem surprising given the central role that the UGTT played in campaigning for—and literally saving—democracy in Tunisia from 2011 to 2014. But that was an exceptional moment, when class interest coincided with the goal of regime change, and this permitted the democratically-minded elite in the UGTT to come to the fore. That moment has passed. The UGTT’s primary mission is to advance workers’ interests and to use its leverage as a privileged political player to advance that interest. If that means a passing detour from by-the-book democracy, the leadership will no doubt reason “then so be it.”

Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have jockeyed for influence in Tunisia over the past decade. How much does the international environment in the region matter for what is transpiring in Tunisia?

International factors have certainly played a role in shaping Tunisia’s authoritarian turn, but the most important international factors in this regard are structural. That is, it is the economic recession in Europe (Tunisia’s most important trade partner) and the devastation of international tourism (due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the threat of terrorism in Tunisia) that have battered the Tunisian economy and made the country receptive to an authoritarian “savior.” At the same time, there is no question that regional “allies,” such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have no interest in denouncing Saied’s authoritarian turn given the fact that both are authoritarian themselves. In addition, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are strongly opposed to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, and the fact that Saied is posing himself as an alternative to governance by Ennahda is likely to lead both regional powers to be even more supportive of his grab for power. 

Saied acted on Tunisia’s Republic Day, as thousands of Tunisians protested widespread corruption, the dismal state of the economy, and the worsening coronavirus outbreak. Is this a failure of post-2011 Tunisian politics, or was this a perfect storm of contributing factors? And is the democratic moment in Tunisia over?

Tunisia’s economy has been failing for the past ten years, and that is a challenge for any democracy, young or old. In the face of feckless pluralism and significant state failure, the authoritarian temptation is very great. Think of the Philippines and the appeal of Rodrigo Duterte. Think of Chile in the 1970s and the appeal of Augusto Pinochet. The problem is that the challenges that Tunisia faces—the need to uproot corruption, right the economy, and build state capacity to handle the public health crisis—are not problems that can be resolved in 30 days (or even the 60 days that Saied now says he will sustain exceptional rule). So the rationale for his initiative, and the basis for his popular support, will justify an extension of the authoritarian experiment in Tunisia. The concentration of power in a strong executive in the name of national development has a long history in Tunisia.

At the same time, I am not utterly pessimistic about democracy’s fate in Tunisia. The country has a strong and well-educated middle-class. It has a vibrant civil society. It has the experience of self-made democracy. As has been evident in other parts of the world (e.g. Latin America in the 1980s), these are factors that have facilitated a return to democracy after authoritarian episodes. Of course, the state of democracy in many Latin American countries today is less robust than one might like. But this is the nature of political life: It is ever changing, even in the United States. Tunisia may be on the threshold of an authoritarian interlude. But its democratic possibilities are far from over.

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.