Written by Jesse Moore
Tunisians protest against President Kais Saied’s referendum on a new constitution in Tunis. [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]
The self-immolation of 26 year-old fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in front of a government office set off the wave of pro-democracy protests called the Arab Spring that washed over North Africa and the Middle East. The protests initially showed promise by disrupting entrenched authoritarian regimes, eliciting high praise from Western leaders. Time, however, has shown the true legacy of the Arab Spring: unchanged or worsening standards of living, the deterioration of democratic progress, and bloody civil wars. For a period of time, it seemed that Tunisia was the only country that had changed for the better, ridding itself of president Ben Ali, an autocratic strongman who had ruled for 23 years. Tunisia’s latest president, Kais Saied, unraveled nearly all the country’s progress when he suspended the parliament and assumed all executive power in July of 2021.
What went wrong in Tunisia? The events surrounding Saied’s self-coup were the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s foundering economy, and political volatility (which led to fistfights in parliament), but underlying weaknesses in Tunisia set the stage for democratic collapse. The country has long struggled with some of the same problems that face other Arab nations, including Islamic terrorists and an electorate that is highly polarized around the role of Islam in politics. Tunisia also suffers from an ever-worsening economy – around a fifth of the country lives in poverty, inflation is reaching its highest levels in three decades, and youth unemployment sends young Tunisians searching abroad for opportunities. The most destructive factor, however, may be the ubiquitous disappointment in the country’s parliament, with many Tunisians feeling that it has been ineffective in achieving real gains after the ousting of Ben Ali. This disenchantment led to the electoral victory of Saied.
President Saied, a former law professor and political outsider, won in a landslide in October of 2019, taking nearly 73 percent of the vote. His populist anti-establishment campaign focused on the disillusionment of the country’s youth with the ruling politicians, giving him 90 percent of the 18-to-25-year-old vote. He also had served on the committee that developed Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, a role that may have served him well when he justified his coup by referring to a clause within the document allowing the president to “take any measures necessitated” in a period of crisis. Recently, the regime has made at least 10 spurious arrests, targeting prominent opposition leaders and critics.
Tunisia is a country trapped in its past, from the French colonial regime which ended in 1956, to the Arab Spring. Only a real visionary, one with significant popular support and political chops, can free the country and its people from its history, and president Saied, who called his opponents a “cancer” that he would get rid of with “chemotherapy”, is unlikely to be that person.
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