Kais Saied Can Either Save or Destroy Tunisia’s Democracy

Editor’s Note: This article was first published by Arab Center Washington D.C. on July 27, 2021. It is reprinted with permission from the author and organization.

By Daniel Brumberg

The political earthquake that rocked Tunisia July 25th—65 years after the country’s independence from France—seems all too familiar. Declaring that he was determined to restore “social peace” and “save the state,” President Kais Saied fired Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended the parliament for thirty days, and announced that he would appoint a new prime minister. This was not a coup, he insisted, but rather a set of “temporary measures” fully in keeping with the “exceptional” provisions laid out in Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution.

Saied might very well be sincere when he insists that Tunisia’s escalating health and financial crisis required these dramatic steps. In the past few weeks, the country’s health system has nearly collapsed under the weight of an escalating COVID-19 crisis that has killed almost 19,000 Tunisians in a country of nearly 12 million, only 7 percent of whom are fully vaccinated. The government is nearly broke, but will surely spark protests if it imposes the austerity measures that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands. Whatever Saied’s intentions, Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Movement, the largest political party, will view his actions as a prelude to excluding it from the political arena. Led by a defiant Speaker of Parliament Rachid Ghannouchi, the party’s followers are now taking to the streets, as are Ennahda’s emboldened rivals.

Indeed, the most serious danger to Tunisia today is the prospect of an escalating civil conflict that could invite chaos and fragmentation, and/or the imposition of an autocracy dressed up as a strong presidential system. Saied’s supporters believe that he has rescued Tunisia. But they may soon find that he has unleashed a hurricane that he cannot control. Tunisia’s fate will ultimately rest on the balance of forces in the streets and on an intense struggle among his advisors—including military and security elites—to push the president to either emulate other Arab strongmen or to put the country back on the path of democracy. There is no middle ground between these two scenarios.

Moreover, the collapse of democracy could create opportunities for jihadists to advance their cause throughout the region. Faced by this danger, both Tunisia’s close and distant neighbors, together with Europe and the United States, should offer a comprehensive economic relief package in return for concrete steps that will help Saied honor his promise to protect rather than destroy the country’s democracy.

Deja Vu All Over Again?

Coups d’état often begin with a promise by military or civilian leaders to clean up the “mess” left by what they see as bumbling or corrupt politicians. Paved with good or bad intentions, the toppling of elected governments sometimes unleashes a rush of mass political mobilization and bitter internal struggles that then invite further repression. To their consternation (or happiness), coup enthusiasts often get caught up in the very net of repression that they helped to cast over their political rivals.

This is what happened in the months following General Abdel-Fatah el-Sisi’s July 3, 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s elected President Mohammed Morsi. Sisi undertook his move weeks after hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to denounce a government that was led by the Muslim Brotherhood. While highlighting widespread fear of Islamist domination, the protests were in fact coordinated by military leaders and civilian activists from the “Tamarod”  Movement. To be sure, the protests were an essential part of the Egyptian military’s plan to seize power.

The question now is whether the same dynamics are at play in Tunisia today. Some of the parallels are striking. It is probably no coincidence that in the hours preceding Saied’s announcement, protesters in Tunis and other cities took to the streets to denounce Ennahda, and even attacked its headquarters in the capital. These protests were led by the “July 25 Movement,” a mysterious body that seemed to magically appear on the very day of the protests. The organization demanded giving the president the power to dissolve the parliament, removing parliamentary immunity, and creating a commission to revise the 2014 Constitution. While falling short of these ambitious demands, Saied’s July 25 statement seemed to fit closely with protesters aspirations.

Moreover, Saied seemed to have prepared the scene weeks before he made his move. Indeed, he had been clashing with Prime Minister Mechichi and his government since January, when the president refused to swear in eleven cabinet members some of whom he accused of corruption. Deprived of a full slate of ministers, the government struggled to address the escalating economic crisis, and even to manage a second, Delta variant-charged torrent of COVID-19 infections that gripped Tunisia starting in early Spring. The government’s ham-fisted efforts to tackle the pandemic produced scenes of utter anguish in hospitals across the country. When the government proclaimed two special vaccine “open days” during the Eid al-Ahda (Muslim Festival of Sacrifice), crowds complained about long queues and chaos in front of the clinics it had opened. Premier Mechichi then fired the minister of health in a seemingly frantic bid to signal that he was still in charge of domestic policy.

Saied responded by declaring that the military would lead the vaccination effort. Given his previous and very controversial assertions that the constitution gives him authority over both the military and the internal security forces, his move deepened the already existing fears that he was handing over too much power to the security apparatus. His warning on July 25 that “whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets” seemed to telegraph his steely resolve to turn to the security services as he moved to suspend the parliament and impose his own prime minister. The police’s storming of Al Jazeera’s Tunis bureau—not to mention reports1 that seem to suggest the imminent arrest of some political leaders and businessmen—could foster worries that Tunisia might now join the club of Arab autocrats who have consolidated power since the 2011 Arab Spring.

Constraints Facing the President and His Followers

Still, if there is reason for concern, Saied and his supporters face enormous constraints that will make it hard for Tunisia to emulate Egypt. To begin with, the Tunisian military has no history of acting as an autonomous political institution capable of managing the economy or a divided political landscape. The police and internal security forces command far greater numbers than the military and also have the means and mission to protect the home front. But these constitute an unwieldy adjunct to a leader seeking to reinvent the country’s political environment. Any such leader must ultimately rely on existing or potential political allies, and on a political system that, however battered, represents the only arena through which the president can advance his authority. This will not be easy for a mercurial, second-tier professor of constitutional law who became an elected populist insurgent steeped in the ethos of anti-politics. Loathe to create his own party and, like many of his followers, deeply suspicious of the political class, Saied cannot magically build bridges to a world he has long scorned.

Saied’s other option is to play the game of divide and rule by exploiting sharp social and identity cleavages. His antipathy toward Ennahda would seem to offer a perfect opening to play this card. But doing so would also carry the risk of encouraging Ennahda’s rivals, especially Abir Moussi’s Free Destourian Party, to escalate their conflict with the Islamist movement, thus opening up the door to an uncontrollable civil conflict. Moreover, however fractured, many of Tunisia’s elected leaders have already demonstrated that regardless of ideological differences, they are rejecting Saied’s bid to shut down the parliament. Leaders from parties that have been hostile to Ennahda, such as the Democratic Current,2 have denounced Saied by arguing—with considerable cause—that he has misrepresented the constitution in his effort to justify his assault on the parliament.

This effort to invoke the constitution should not be taken lightly. Tunisia’s political elite is heavily tilted toward practitioners or scholars of criminal, business, and, most of all, constitutional law. An ethos of constitutionalism has survived for many decades, even during Zine El-Abidine ben Ali’s dictatorship. However full of contradictions and ambiguities, the 2014 Constitution cannot be easily invoked to suit the grand ambitions of President Saied. Indeed, some prominent politicians and NGOs agree with Ghannouchi’s defiant assertion—made outside the parliament after he and other MPs were prevented from entering the building by the police—that Saied failed to adhere to the requirements of Article 80 by not consulting with the parliament, and by seeking to suspend the chamber’s activities in direct contravention of that article. Thus, there is a limit beyond which the constitution can be stretched without provoking a backlash across the ideological divide.

Turning to the economic front, it is hard to imagine how Saied’s actions will resolve the current stand-off with the IMF, which is insisting on a set of tough economic reforms in return for a rescue package without which the government will be hard pressed to keep state-owned businesses and public services from total collapse. Knowing that an over-burdened populace (not to mention the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union [UGTT]) will take to the streets to block these reforms, Saied will probably try to leverage popular anger to compensate for or detract from his own lack of any clear political vision. But populist antics cannot substitute for a serious and practical dialogue about how to face an economic and health crisis that has brought Tunisia to its knees.

Rescuing Tunisia

To have this dialogue means demonstrating the kind of temperament and political vision that Saied has not mustered thus far. To be sure, the question becomes: can Saied command the personal elan and political will to meet the challenges before him?

The most important and imposing incentive for the president to change is the very real prospect that Tunisia will fall into an abyss of violent internal conflict and endless social chaos. Lacking a political center of gravity, it could become both a failed state and a failed democracy. And if such a dangerous prospect is not enough, perhaps some of Saied’s closest advisors might convince him that rather than be the initiator of Tunisia’s fall, he might be its savior.

Additionally, key regional states, as well as the European Union and the United States, could play a diplomatically nuanced role in the bid to rescue Tunisia. The key incentive to do so is not only the danger to the country’s democracy, but also the very real prospect that radical Islamist forces will take advantage of the turmoil to reassert their influence in that country—as well as in neighboring Libya and Algeria. Moreover, the still very fragile progress that Libya has made preparing for elections next December will surely be squandered if Libyan leaders see in Tunisia’s story a lesson of the utter futility of democratic change. Strange as it may seem, Tunisia is a lynchpin for regional security and thus cannot be allowed to fail.

Any rescue plan will be complicated by the ambitions of Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, whose clashing strategic interests in Tunisia have been closely linked to the power struggle in Libya. Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have already delivered, or promised to deliver, more COVID vaccines and other medical aid. Beyond such assistance, the United States and its Gulf allies must work with international lenders and the IMF to craft an economic program that will protect the most vulnerable groups in Tunisia and ensure that public sector hospitals have the human and technical resources to save lives.

Knowing that they will bear the brunt of illegal immigration flows if Tunisia falls apart, European leaders have good reason to support this multi-dimensional strategy—providing that Saied commits to a politics of national engagement and dialogue. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made this very point in a July 26 telephone call with the Tunisian president. This will surely not be the last time the Biden Administration will have to urge Saied, as Blinken put it, to “adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia.”

Daniel Brumberg is the director of the Democracy and Governance program at Georgetown University, a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, and a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Arab Center Washington D.C.