Scholar: Tunisia Democracy Depends on ‘Determination of Its People’

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

‘Backsliding’ could mobilize supporters of opposition and weaken regime, but process could be long and violent, expert says. 

Tunisian President Kais Saied’s arrest of an opposition leader is intended “to consolidate his one-man rule,” a Middle East Policy contributor warns, adding that while there may be hope for a return to democracy in the medium term, the country is likely to see more repression and, potentially, violence. 

In an interview after Rached Ghannouchi was charged with plotting against the state, and the headquarters and offices of his opposition Ennahda Party were closed, Lacin Idil Oztig argued that these moves “can be read as the climax of Tunisia’s democratic backsliding.”  

“Saied’s power grab raises question marks with respect to the country’s prospect of consolidating its democracy,” continued Oztig, an associate professor at Yildiz Technical University in Turkey who analyzed democratic transitions in a Middle East Policy article

Ennahda was the largest party in the country’s parliament before the body was dissolved by Saied in July 2021. Founded on and guided by Islamist ideology, Ennahda has been a key player in Tunisian politics since the Arab Spring in 2011. It won more than 40 percent of the votes in parliament after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down in the face of the uprising. Its focus on consensus-building and cooperation with secularists earned support from the public and other political parties. Despite this popularity, the party’s governance was short-lived.  

“Increasing violence in the country, the party’s inability to address socioeconomic challenges, and increased suspicions of seculars about the party’s agenda” led to Ennahda’s agreeing to cede power in 2014, Oztig said in an email interview with Middle East Policy.  

Since Saied won the presidency in 2019, he “has aimed to legitimize his authority by constantly demonizing Ennahda,” Oztig continued. “Other Ennahda leaders have also been suppressed through arrests and travel bans. I worry that further anti-democratic actions could be taken.” 

Saied has centralized power through actions that have suppressed opposition and limited checks on the presidency. Over the last two years, the regime has dismissed the prime minister, abolished the body created to judge the constitutionality of laws, and imposed a curfew. Last year, the parliament and Supreme Judicial Council were completely dissolved, and the constitution was suspended. A new constitution, passed in July, removed checks on the presidency. 

Tunisia had been seen, following the Arab Spring, “as the most promising Arab country regarding the democratization process,” Oztig observed. “Ennahda’s conciliatory approach, the smooth transition of power, the participation of civil society organizations in the draft of the 2014 Constitution, and the absence military from politics” were signs of a burgeoning democracy.  

“However, this process has been reversed under President Saied,” she said. 

Oztig remains hopeful for an effective opposition to rise, though she warns of a potentially bloody path. “While Saied aims to root out internal dissent and opposition, his anti-democratic actions might lead to the mobilization of Ennahda supporters against his rule,” she said. “The very actions Saied takes to strengthen his one-man rule might eventually weaken his regime by instigating political instability and violence.” 

But the scholar cautions that we should examine Tunisia’s path to democracy in historical context: “We have to bear in mind that the democratization process of European countries lasted hundreds of years. Following the French Revolution, France witnessed many years of regression before it became an advanced democracy.” 

Oztig compares the post-Arab Spring politics of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in the Spring 2023 issue of Middle East Policy. She argues that Tunisia’s success in the transition toward democracy stemmed from its relative homogeneity, consensus-building, and civil-military relations. Egypt, by contrast, was riven by polarization and the relative power of the armed forces, while Libya’s deep-seated tribal conflicts immediately sparked a civil war. 


The timeline for Tunisia’s democratic movement and stalled consolidation:  

  • Tunisia’s leaders in the post-independence period: 

    • Habib Bourguiba was the country’s first president and served from 1957–87. 

      • He limited the role of religion in the state during his administration, leading to a period of religious backlash and the creation of the Ennahda party in 1981.

    • Zine El Abidine Ben Ali carried out a constitutional coup in 1987 and ruled until 2011. 

      • He stepped down in response to massive protests against corruption and repression catalyzed by the public self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. 

      • In the election that followed, Ennahda won more than 40 percent of the votes in the Constituent Assembly and formed a coalition government with two secularist parties. 

    • Beji Caid Essebsi became the country’s first democratically elected president after the 2014 election. 

    • Kais Saied was elected president in 2019. 

  • In 2014, the Constituent Assembly approved a new constitution, “the first such document written in the Arab world without the influence of a dictator or external power.” 

  • Despite the democratic advances, Tunisia’s economic situation declined, with rising unemployment and inflation and decreasing tourism. 

    • Failing economic conditions created a distrust in democratic governance. 

    • A serious recession occurred in 2021, prompting more protests. 

  • In 2021, Saied began to crack down on protesters and political opposition

    • 2021: The parliament is suspended, the prime minister dismissed, and the body created to judge the constitutionality of laws is abolished. 

    • 2022: A curfew is announced, the parliament and Supreme Judicial Council are completely dissolved, and the constitution is suspended. A new constitution was passed in July that removed checks on the presidency by the legislative and judicial branches. 


You can read Lacin Idil Oztig’s article, “Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya After the Arab Spring,” in Middle East Policy, available through Wiley

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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