Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, was one of the few states to have apparently successfully emerged from the Arab Spring protests. The long-standing authoritarian regime was overthrown and a new constitution was adopted. Today, Tunisia is the only democratic country in the Middle East and North Africa, outside of Israel. Although Tunisia occupies the smallest territory in North Africa, this has made its domestic policy of particular regional and international interest. However, President Saied’s recent takeover suggests a return to dictatorial rule.
Authoritarianism in Tunisia and the Arab Spring
After more than seven decades of French imperial control, Tunisia gained full independence in 1956 under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, lawyer and nationalist. Westernizer, President Bourguiba has consolidated his reputation as a progressive by promoting women’s rights and educational reform. However, Tunisia remained an authoritarian one-party state.
In 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Prime Minister, overthrew Bourguiba by declaring him mentally unfit to govern. that of Ben Ali dictatorship lasted 23 years until his impeachment in 2011 following the Arab Spring protests. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison for embezzlement of public funds and embezzlement, and then, by separate decision, to life imprisonment for the murder of protesters during the Arab Spring.
Despite persistent human rights violations and corruption, the authoritarian regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali were supported by Western powers, such as the United States and France, due to their pro-Western policies. Ben Ali won his elections with a large majority, as there were no organized opposition powers in place. The regime was also quick to silence any criticism of the government under the pretext to restrict all forms of “Islamic extremism”.
There was apparently gradual economic growth under the Ben Ali dictatorship, averaging five percent annual growth in GDP. International observers have generally viewed Tunisia as being politically and economically stable, but these optimistic assessments failed to take into account the economic policies that benefited the regime’s cronies in the country. at public expense, which continues to suffer from unemployment and regional economic disparities. Only after World Bank Reports revealed the size of the companies and the net profits of the private sector dominated by only members of Ben Ali’s family. Therefore, he took the world by surprise when a series of protests erupted in Tunisia in 2010, effectively forcing the president to flee the country.
After the protests of the Arab Spring, Tunisia quickly moved to democracy. A new constitution was adopted, and legislative and presidential elections were held. At that time, Tunisians and international observers were optimistic that the establishment of a democratic political system would bring about economic and political stability. However, these hopes did not materialize. The corruption which was a daily reality of Tunisians under the dictatorship of Ben Ali has not disappeared and Tunisia continues to suffer from economic problems.
Financial laws and regulations – those that were previously established to hamper the growth of businesses that could compete with trading networks owned by Ben Ali’s in-laws – remain deeply entrenched in the system. Red tape continues to stifle business growth and persists customs regarding activities such as electronic payments delay the process of obtaining business licenses.
Tunisians’ initial hopes for political reform have also failed to materialize. While the establishment of institutions such as the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) sought to bring justice for cases of human rights violations committed by former regimes, all trials were postponed, and the Tunisian court did not follow up any legal proceedings aimed at holding the defendants accountable for their crimes. The parliament, dominated by the cronies of the old regimes, has continued to protect the repressive laws that control the people and the corrupt practices that perpetuate the wealth accumulated since the Ben Ali era. In fact, parliament passed a law in 2017 grant amnesty to officials accused of corruption, a move that has sparked widespread public outrage.
President Saied’s takeover
Today, the lack of political progress, linked to a economic crisis driven by austerity measures, continues to haunt the nation. The COVID-19 health crisis has made matters worse. While Tunisia relies heavily on the tourism industry – the tourism sector generally representing nearly 14% of the GDP – it has fallen sharply in recent years, approaching a negative value of the GDP. Travel restrictions have resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs associated with the tourism industry and services, as well as a wave of migrant workers heading to Europe.
In an attempt to resolve this situation, President Kais Saied suspended parliament on July 25 with the help of the military and fired the Prime Minister of the country Hichem Mechichi. President Saied also suspended parliamentary immunity for lawmakers and said he rule by decree.
While critics have described his recent takeover as an attempted coup, Saied and his supporters have deemed his actions necessary to end corruption and government paralysis “after years of political quarrels and economic stagnation. Saied’s intervention was in part a response to the series of anti-government protests demanding the dissolution of parliament. The constant of politicians political theater and their failure to address persistent problems such as unemployment and hunger have led to a growing demand for desperate political reforms.
In fact, Saied retains a majority of support of the Tunisian population. A former law professor, he emerged as a populist leader who would bring about revolutionary institutional changes. Shortly after taking power in July, thousands of Tunisians rallied in the capital to show his support for Saied’s decision to suspend parliament.
While Saied’s actions were met with celebrations from his followers, thousands of Tunisians also gathered near the suspended parliament to protest against this takeover. They demanded that parliament be restored and returned to normal democratic rule in accordance with the constitution. Protesters also demanded freedom of expression, criticizing the state for imposing travel restrictions and using the police force to regulate the number of people participating in the protests.
In October, Saied appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane as the new prime minister. His lack of political affiliation has led many to suspect that her appointment was only a ploy to distract the attention of the international community by appointing Tunisia’s first woman prime minister. A number of politicians have been stopped for verbal attacks on Saied and “conspiracy against state security”, while others faced travel bans.
It is not yet known whether President Saied will retain his title of populist hero or evolve into an authoritarian leader who will lead to a further democratic setback in Tunisia. Growing censorship and the growing use of brutal force by the police show clear signs of a dictatorial regime, but Saied’s continued support by the majority of Tunisians suggests that his policies are, so far, in line with the will of the people.
The selected image: “Tunis” through Amy keus is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Edited by Jonah Kidd