May 30, 2023

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“Rather than being overthrown by the opposition, Qaiz Saeed’s regime is more likely to implode”

Established as a post-Arab Spring model of democratization, Tunisia is the subject of “great concern” from Washington today, says Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East. In question, the authoritarian turn taken by Kaïs Saïed after his institutional coup in 2021 saw the Tunisian president, elected two years earlier, freeze the functions of parliament and monopolize executive power. In recent months, opponents of the country’s leader, including journalists and lawyers, have been arrested. Despite opposition in particular from Ennahda, an Islamist party close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the country’s main union force, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), nothing appears to stop the president for now. from implementing its corporate restructuring plan. The constitution he adopts through a referendum in 2022 poses the risk of “endless dictatorship”, warned Judge Zadok Beloyd, who was responsible for writing a preliminary draft of the text. . This hyper-sovereignization without checks and balances is reminiscent of Tunisia before the Jasmine revolution of January 2011, when Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ruled supreme after ousting his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, in 1987.

Twelve years ago, the Tunisian people rebelled against dictatorship, poverty and unemployment, toppling regimes without plunging into armed conflict in countries like Syria, Libya or Yemen. Despite the political instability and insecurity that has prevailed there since the Arab Spring, Tunis has been set as a model of democratization in the region. If today the economic situation of Tunisia makes the head of European diplomacy, Joseph Borrell fears the “collapse” of the country, the popular mobilization is not there. During the last legislative elections held between December and February, only about 11% of the electorate turned out to vote, affecting the legitimacy of the new parliament. Mohamed Dia Hammami, associate researcher at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, answers questions from L’Orient-Le Jour about the evolution and challenges of Tunisia’s democratic crisis.

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What are the key dynamics that can explain the authoritarian turn taken in recent years since the Arab Spring in Tunisia?

This is mainly a legacy of the authoritarian era that permeated the country’s evolution. Politically, instead of dismantling some of the institutions used as a means of oppression or improving citizen control over them, Tunisia went in the opposite direction. Admittedly, other democratic institutions such as the parliament were strengthened and a new constitution was adopted, but this process stalled after the 2014 elections (marking the end of Ennahda’s prominence on the political scene). Since then, there has not really been a major political shift in line with the idea of ​​democratization. For example, the Constitutional Court (capable of impeaching the president) was never created.

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Security issues also weigh on Tunisia’s political evolution. If the 2012 attacks on the US embassy put Tunisia on Washington’s security agenda, the most important period from a domestic perspective began between 2013 and 2016, with the assassination of two opposition leaders, Chokri Beloit and Mohamed Brahimi. . In 2015, Islamist attacks on the coast of Sousse, where most of the victims were European, raised concerns abroad and at home, framing Tunisia as a security issue rather than a development project. At the time, mass surveillance and repressive policies were thought to be the solution to the danger. Historically, Tunisia has been one of the few countries in the world to benefit from international aid to improve its security apparatus, be it the military or internal security forces. This set the stage for the authoritarian returns we’ve seen in recent years. Especially since the current presidential election in 2019, the political process has become more complicated.

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What legitimacy can Kaïs Saïed claim among the population since his election in 2019?

Kaïs Saïed succeeded in gaining a reputation as a constitutional expert. In 2019, educated young Tunisians campaigned and voted for him, seeing him as a candidate who could force change. More globalized and integrated into international culture than previous generations, Gen Z adheres more to liberal progressive principles than older generations. This also explains why he stepped away after the 2021 coup. Today, the youth see him as someone who is taking the country backwards. Only about 1% of new voters presented themselves in the last 2022-2023 assembly elections. A very surprising number considering the changes that have taken place in the last one year.

For some foreign actors, Tunisia was set as a paradigm of post-Arab Spring “democratization”. Can Tunisians trust them today?

Today, the idea of ​​a commitment to democracy is not widespread in Brussels or in Washington. If the Qais Syed were interested in protecting their interests, they would not act even in the face of oppression. That is why security cooperation continues to this day: they believe that they can still work with the president if he guarantees a certain level of stability, not only at the security level, but also at the institutional level. So Tunisians should not trust them to save Tunisian democracy. Of course, some citizens abroad try to put pressure on the governments of the countries they live in, especially the United States and the European Union, to stop funding surveillance mechanisms to control people.

But Tunisians must adjust their expectations of Western powers, and above all understand that change will only happen if national actors develop a more strategic vision by working together to restore democracy. Simply put, opposition parties should reduce internal tensions and improve their cooperation. The UGTT and part of the left, including the part represented by Ennahda, are unwilling to cooperate with other opposition parties, mainly because of historical animosity towards it and not on rational grounds. They must overcome this emotional gap that separates them to fight against Qais Syed.

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Under these conditions, how can we imagine the future of the Qais Saeed regime?

For now, the most serious threat to the regime comes not from domestic or foreign actors — from the Senate and the ruling coalition. Both Ben Ali and Bourguiba were highly experienced leaders who had sufficient knowledge of state institutions to use them to achieve their goals. Kaïs Saïed was not like them: he was a stranger to politics. Its main weakness is its inability to cooperate and coordinate with other actors who do not have the same interests within the state apparatus. So Syed’s regime is more likely to explode than to be overthrown by the opposition parties. It may be tomorrow, in two or three years or beyond, but Saeed is not here to last.

Established as a post-Arab Spring model of democratization, Tunisia is the subject of “great concern” from Washington today, says Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East. Questionably, the authoritarian turn taken by Gais Said after his institutional coup in 2021, when the Tunisian president was elected two years earlier…