Since the Arab Spring, Tunisia has been a model of democracy in the Arab world. However, recent legislative and governmental changes via a coup have put democracy in Tunisia under threat. Today, Tunisians are increasingly fearful that the country could revert to its pre-revolutionary days of authoritarianism. Tunisians must push back against these changes and fight to preserve government accountability, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.
Over the past few months, Tunisians took to the streets to protest against the government’s inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, unrelenting government corruption, and a rapidly declining economy. Many protesters called for the government to step down. On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied responded to the protests by firing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspending parliament, eliminating immunity for parliamentarians, and adopting judicial authority of the country. In late August, Saied announced an indefinite extension of his special measures, initially supposed to last 30 days. He has also deployed the military to enforce emergency measures, arrest political leaders, and enforce travel bans against these leaders. Through these legislative changes, Saied has effectively taken control of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of power.
According to the President, Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution justified his actions. Article 80 enables the president to implement special measures in cases of “imminent danger.” However, experts have noted that for such measures to be legitimate, Tunisian parliament would have had to be in session, and Saied would have had to consult with the head of the government and the speaker of parliament. Given that Saied dissolved the Tunisian government and parliament, none of these requirements were satisfied.
As the situation in Tunisia continues to worsen, experts worry that Saied will use this state of chaos to consolidate his power further and reestablish an authoritarian government in Tunisia. According to John Hursh, the Director of nonprofit organization Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Saied is “cementing his executive overreach and further dismantling Tunisia’s democracy” through his actions.
The threat of authoritarianism cuts deep among the Tunisian population. On December 17, 2010, 26-year old vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after Tunisian authorities confiscated his fruit cart. Bouazizi’s actions sparked the Tunisian Revolution, which saw thousands of Tunisians protest against the government’s economic policy failures, corruption, and authoritarian practices. The revolution successfully ousted Tunisia’s long-standing ruler Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in an era of democracy in the North African country. The Tunisian movement also inspired numerous similar uprisings across the MENA region, now known as the Arab Spring. In 2014, Tunisia introduced a new constitution. It also established numerous new institutions to protect fundamental freedoms. However, many nations that were home to Arab Spring protests have begun to backtrack and give way to authoritarian regimes over the past few years. Tunisia stood out as a shining but fragile example of Arab democracy.
If Tunisia were to become an authoritarian nation again, the consequences would be profound. Experts predict that Saied will try to consolidate power in one of two ways. In the first scenario, Saeid will establish a new republic with a constitution centered on a presidential system. Compared to a parliamentary system, the presidential system will make it easier for him to cement his power and become the country’s decision-maker. In the second scenario, Saeid would reconvene parliament and potentially establish a caretaker government to organize elections. However, he would seek to revise electoral laws to make it difficult for smaller parties to win seats. This would create a more monolithic parliament that would be amenable to pushing forward Saied’s agenda. Regardless of the outcome, however, government accountability, respect for and protection of human rights, and the rule of law are unlikely to be commonplace under a Saied regime.
Although Saied has tried to garner legitimacy for his actions by claiming he was fulfilling the people’s desire for the government to step down, it is unlikely that an authoritarian government would adequately address the issues that Tunisians began protesting earlier this year. Today, Tunisia has one of the worst COVID-19 mortality rates per capita in the Middle East and Africa region. Tunisia’s economy was already suffering before the pandemic, and Tunisians have struggled to weather the additional economic damage caused by the spread of the virus. The unemployment rate is around 17%. Government debt is at approximately 85% of the country’s GDP. Thus far, Saied has demonstrated a keen desire to solidify his power rather than address the people’s needs.
Over the past few months, President Saied has eroded the tenets and institutions of democracy in Tunisia. The risk that Tunisia may once again become an authoritarian regime is higher than it has ever been in the last decade. Tunisians must push back against President Saied’s latest actions and fight to preserve government accountability, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.