Tunisia’s Burgeoning Democracy Stutters amidst Coup Rumors

  • 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.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Political turmoil has engulfed Tunisia. Considered one of the Arab Spring’s success stories, Tunisia appeared, at least on the surface, to have a stable economy and government. It turns out it had neither. President Kais Saied’s dramatic and allegedly extra-constitutional sacking of the country’s prime minister, along with a slew of other measures, including the arrest of some officials, point to a country and a system in crisis. Mr. Saied has promised to undertake a campaign against corruption and the political establishment, followed by new elections. Meanwhile, the region and the world hold their breath, unsure what may be coming next.

Many have tried to get to the heart of the current crisis in Tunisia, a crisis, which as Marwan Asmar notes in a commentary for Albawaba, “started by economic turmoil and descended into political havoc that resulted in the sacking by president Kais Saied of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, freezing Parliament, stripping MPs of their immunity and taking the reins of executive authority while placing himself as the executive ruler of Tunisia…. What is happening in Tunisia is fiction from a political dairy. The specter of a civil war looms over the country, and this would be disastrous for the whole country after years of trying to put it together…. Thus, the situation remains fluid and precarious. Despite the deep political problems President Saied has opened up a Pandora’s box of more potential conflict and stability.”

The immediate regional response to the president’s actions has been one of caution and uncertainty. This may be partly because in 2011 Tunisia, as this Al Ahram editorial points out “set an inspiring model for the so called Arab Spring, sparking popular revolts in several Arab countries against autocratic leaders who had clung to power for decades…. world reactions to the changes in Tunisia did not rush into the classic statements of rejecting what the Brotherhood has reflexively dubbed as a “coup,” and reflected understanding of the complicated situation. The attitude is “Wait and see”, with many expecting President Saied would to keep his promise to restore an elected parliament after drafting a new constitution and restoring stability. Meanwhile, if the Brotherhood in Tunisia lost their minds and decided to resort to violence as they did in Egypt, they would be digging their own grave once and for all – not just in Tunisia, but all over the Arab region.”

The Jerusalem Post’s Lauren Morganbesser argues that the muffled international reaction is telling, especially with regards to how countries in the region perceive the role of the Muslim Brotherhood at home and in the region, adding that “the response from different countries seem to align clearly with their stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood at home. The Islamist Ennahda Party was inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood…. Erdogan’s response highlights his positive relationship with Ennahda, as the party is both ideologically linked and friendly towards his own. However, on the other side of the issue lies countries who are afraid of or have problems with the Muslim Brotherhood domestically. These countries include Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt…. Thus, although the democratic upheaval in Tunisia appears to be an explosion of domestic frustrations, the responses from abroad can help illuminate important trends in the region, and help us understand the shifting alliances, dynamics and priorities of different countries.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made it clear that he sees the developments in Tunisia with concern. The Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah reported earlier this week that “President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a phone call with his Tunisian counterpart Kais Saied late Monday, underlining the importance of democracy and the protection of freedoms amid a power grab viewed as a coup. According to a statement by the Communications Directorate, Erdoğan underlined that Tunisia’s stability and peace are ‘very important for the region’ and that Turkey is closely following the developments in the North African country.”

For many in the region, while taken back by the speed of the recent developments, the outcome was hardly surprising. Writing for Al Arabiya, Nedra Cherif comes to the defense of the Tunisian president while pointing the finger at the country’s political establishment: “Democracy in Tunisia has not been put at threat by President Saied’s latest decisions. It has been subverted for years by a self-interested political elite that has systematically undermined all state institutions, and that has brought an already rampant corruption under the Ben Ali regime to levels never before achieved…. For six years, these elites have prevented the establishment of a constitutional court whose absence they now deplore, and for 10 years they have failed to meet the revolutionary demands of dignity and social justice. Instead, the Tunisian people have seen widening social gaps and deepening inequalities, depriving a whole generation of hopes and future prospects in their own country…. Maybe Tunisia’s democracy is not at threat today, but rather on the way to its revival.”

Larbi Sadiki, a professor at Qatar University, in an op-ed written for Al Jazeera, is also supportive of the actions taken by Mr. Saied, arguing that what we are witnessing is an attempt to complete Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, an essential task given the fact that “In Tunisia, the 2011 revolution did not lead to as radical a rupture from the old regime as initially expected or hoped for. The democratic process had its roots on shaky ground in terms of power relations, hierarchies, capital and corruption. And many of the pre-2011 elites were allowed to keep their power and privileges after the revolution….  it is possible to conclude Saied is now offering Tunisians the “break” with the old system that many of them have been awaiting. Heads will definitely roll across the board: in the army, the Interior Ministry, in political parties and state-owned enterprises. The problem, of course, is that Saied is trying to do it all on his own.”

Tunisia is one of the few countries where Muslim Brotherhood affiliated political parties continued to play an important role in the political landscape both in government and later as an opposition party. It is not surprising then that some, including Arab News’ Faisal Abbas, have suggested that the latest developments in Tunisia “have reinforced what many warned might happen with the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in that country’s governance. Tunisians — like the citizens of several Arab countries before them — have now thoroughly seen through the charade that is the Brotherhood and its slogan, “Islam is the solution,” which is no more than a figment of jaundiced imagination designed to hijack emotions, and in reality resolves nothing on the ground. The Islamist Ennahda party has been in power for two years and, if the country’s collapsing economy and failure to handle the coronavirus pandemic prove anything, it is that modern states need brainy technocrats, not bearded theocrats.”

That argument is further elaborated by Abdulrahman Al-Rashed in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat where he argues that the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure in Tunisia demonstrates the organization’s inability to govern and to act as a loyal opposition: “They lost Tunisia because they were partners in the country’s governance before they were kicked out, prompting them to resort to chaos, assassinations, and deliberate obstructive acts to thwart government action…. The extraordinary measure taken by Tunisia’s president saved the country from what could have been a total collapse. Parliament has become helpless; thus, it has been suspended. The prime minister was fired after his government proved to have failed in its duties. The president also decided to bring prosecutions against those involved in corruption cases, something he demanded to be investigated on multiple occasions but only for his demands to be ignored.”

  • 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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