Tunisia: A Reminder that Democracy is More than Elections

By A Contributor

Al-Chaab Yourīd: This was the campaign slogan of Kais Saied, the dour and unassuming constitutional law professor who would become President of Tunisia. “The People Want” – it’s a stunningly simple commitment that seems to be based on a democratic idea – the people want, and I will provide for those wants. Throughout the campaign that would end in his election as president, Saied was regularly asked by reporters, “What do the people want?” to which he would brusquely respond: “The people know what they want.” In hindsight, this series of quotes would prove to be more insightful into Saied’s poorly-defined and self-serving populist style of governance than we could’ve known at the time.

Fast forward three years and President Saied has unilaterally dissolved the country’s parliament, in direct violation of the constitution that he himself helped to draft. He refuses to permit early elections, essentially guaranteeing that he will hold sole political power for a total of at least 18 months in a country facing a grave economic crisis that he is in no position to resolve (Middle East Eye, 2022a). He has even gone so far as to dissolve Tunisia’s judicial watchdog, in the process threatening judicial independence by bringing the courts under his direct executive control (Africa News, 2022). While there is no doubt that the Tunisian people “want,” their wants are diverse and often contradictory –and Kais Saied is going to extreme lengths to ensure that he is the sole arbiter of the will of his countrymen. 

Over the past nine months, Saied has indefinitely suspended and subsequently dissolved parliament, sacked duly-elected Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and his government, and–at an event this week commemorating the anniversary of the death of Tunisia’s first authoritarian president Habib Bourguiba–announced that he would overhaul the body in charge of administering elections (Middle East Eye, 2022b). By personally hand-selecting the authority’s nine board members, he calls into question the independence and fairness of future elections. Tunisia’s Constitution gives none of these powers to the president. 

As if further evidence is necessary to proves the authoritarian nature of President Saied’s plans for Tunisia, after controversial Speaker of the Assembly and Chairman of the Islamist Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, held an online parliamentary session to roll back Saied’s exceptional measures. Saied directed the anti-terrorism unit of the security services to investigate and charge 121 out of 216 of Tunisia’s democratically-elected deputies with “forming a criminal association to endanger the state and cause chaos on Tunisian territory,” a charge that could carry the death penalty (Euractiv, 2022). 

While President Saied’s actions are undoubtedly troubling, Maghreb-watchers should be careful to note the Tunisian public’s response. In polls taken in the immediate aftermath of his late-summer power grab, the previously moderately popular president saw his approval ratings skyrocket. In a poll taken in June 2021 by Tunis-based pollster Emrhod Consulting, just 38% of Tunisians said that they approved of the job that President Saied was doing, while 44% said that, if presidential elections were held the next day, they would vote for him (Emrhod, June 2021). However, in a poll taken in August (after the events of July 25), 82% of Tunisians surveyed said that they would vote for President Saied in a hypothetical next election (Emrhod, August 2021). This aligns rather closely with the 87% of Tunisians surveyed between July 26-28 who said that they supported or strongly supported Saied’s July 25 actions (Emrhod, July 2021). As of March 2022, a relatively more modest 65% of Tunisians reported their approval of the president (Emrhod, March 2022). 

While outside experts have raised concerns with the accuracy of these polling numbers, one thing became clear in the weeks and months following President Saied’s initial power grab: many Tunisians, for one reason or another, despise their parliament and democratically elected leaders. 

In the background of all of this, anti-democratic and authoritarian factions of the Tunisian political scene have been watching and eagerly awaiting the next elections, currently scheduled to be held in December of this year. One such sceptic is Abir Moussi, the leader of the Free Destourian Party (FDP) – a fiercely secular political party that has been described variously as “Bourguibist,” “Ben Ali-ist,”, anti-democratic, and neo-authoritarian (The Arab Weekly, 2019). While these descriptors (or perhaps, more accurately, accusations) don’t necessarily encapsulate the party’s beliefs, Moussi and the FDP not only condone but “openly laud” aspects of the Ben Ali regime that was overthrown in the Tunisian revolution (Wolf, 2020). While Moussi and the FDP have opposed President Saied’s recent moves to consolidate power, their authoritarian star has risen with his. 

Even prior to the events of July 25 – beginning in 2020 and continuing to this day – the FDP has regularly received the support of between 30-40% of likely voters in a prospective “next” parliamentary election (La Presse de Tunisie, 2022). Such a result would place the party approximately 20 points ahead of its next closest competitor. As President Saied is an independent with no pre-existing parliamentary allies, the FDP has emerged as the party for those who are fed-up with Tunisia’s regularly deadlocked and impotent parliament and who long for the days of “stability” under Ben Ali. 

Given this polling data in which the FDP regularly leads the competition, combined with the huge showing of support for President Saied’s consolidation of power, a very clear pattern emerges of Tunisians’ disillusionment with democratic structures constructed in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. The events of the past year should serve as evidence that popular discontent with the democratic status quo has fostered the growth of an authoritarian political movement that could restore one-man rule to Tunisia via the ballot box – if President Saied doesn’t do it first. 

So while the economic and political crisis continues to worsen in Tunisia, one must remain cognizant that although Kais Saied may be ruling on his own, there is a significant portion of the Tunisian populace that is prepared to back him, as well as slates of other politicians who have made their authoritarian inclinations known. 

Africa News (2022) ‘Tunisie: un nouveau Conseil de la Magistrature prête serment’. https://fr.africanews.com/2022/03/07/tunisie-un-nouveau-conseil-de-la-magistrature-prete-serment/

Emrhod Consulting (June 2021) ‘الباروميتر السياسي: جوان 2021‘. Emrhod Consulting Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/Emrhod-Consulting-178242572212927/photos/pcb.4035912299779249/4035909659779513

Emrhod Consulting (July 2021) ‘Survey about the latest decisions taken by the President of the Republic’. Emrhod Consulting Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/Emrhod-Consulting-178242572212927/photos/pcb.4125763030794175/4125761127461032

Emrhod Consulting (August 2021) ’الباروميتر السياسي: أوت 2021‘. Emrhod Consulting Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/Emrhod-Consulting-178242572212927/photos/pcb.4215898928447251/4215896648447479

Emrhod Consulting (March 2022) ’الباروميتر السياسي: مارس 2021‘. Emrhod Consulting Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/Emrhod-Consulting-178242572212927/photos/pcb.4905802439456893/4905800439457093

Euractiv (2022) ‘EU to maintain Tunisia funding despite slide towards autocracy’ https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/eu-to-maintain-tunisia-funding-despite-slide-towards-autocracy/

La Presse de Tunisie (2022) ‘Sondage d’opinion: Saïed et Moussi indétrônables’. https://lapresse.tn/124698/sondage-dopinion-saied-et-moussi-indetronables/

Middle East Eye (2022a) ‘Tunisia: President rules out early elections after dissolving parliament’. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/tunisia-president-rules-out-early-elections-dissolving-parliament

Middle East Eye (2022b) ‘Tunisia: President Saied to change structure of elections authority ahead of national vote’. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/tunisia-president-change-elections-authority-ahead-vote

The Arab Weekly (2019) ‘Abir Moussi emerges in Tunisia’s opinion polls as she breaks with political order’. https://thearabweekly.com/abir-moussi-emerges-tunisias-opinion-polls-she-breaks-political-order

Wolf, A. (2020) “Snapshot – The Counterrevolution Gains Momentum in Tunisia: The Rise of Abir Moussi’. Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). https://pomed.org/snapshot-the-counterrevolution-gains-momentum-in-tunisia-the-rise-of-abir-moussi/