Can Tunisia Steer Clear of the Arab Winter?

 /  Nov. 10, 2019, 6:54 p.m.


On October 13, Kais Saied won 72 percent of the vote in Tunisia’s runoff presidential elections. Saied, a conservative retired law professor, called his success a “new revolution.” The elections were nothing short of chaotic; on July 25, former president Beji Caid Essebsi passed away, top contender Nabil Karoui was freed from jail just four days before the election, and many political outsiders rose in popularity. With its second-ever presidential election now behind it, the country that kicked off the Arab Spring seems to be the only success story of that wave of pro-democracy uprisings. However, the great economic and social challenges Tunisia still faces reveal the fragility of its democracy. Whether or not Saied’s leadership can restore faith in the democratic process will determine the success of the country’s new democratic system.

For years, the Tunisian public has been frustrated with ongoing economic decline, corruption, and terrorism. Because of this, there is an increasing risk that the people will begin to lose faith in democracy if progress on these issues is not made. As president, Saied will not have much say over domestic issues, since social and economic policies are mainly the responsibility of the prime minister and parliament. But his election signals that for many voters, a commitment to civil society and local governance is the best way of approaching the country’s problems and fulfilling the ideals of the Tunisian Revolution. If Saied presides over strong economic growth and improved living standards, this could revitalize the public’s belief in democracy. If not, greater instability and democratic backsliding are likely in store.

Many of the revolutionary movements of the Arab Spring resulted in civil war, chaos, or greater authoritarianism, an outcome that has been called the “Arab Winter.” Civil wars are still tearing apart Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Autocrats in Egypt and Bahrain have undermined civil liberties and strengthened their own power. Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why recent events have led to pessimism regarding the lasting power of democracy and political liberty in the Arab world, including in Tunisia. Despite its enduring outcome relative to the other countries that also witnessed Arab Spring movements, the great challenges Tunisia still faces warn us that its young democracy should not be taken for granted. 

The Rise of the Outsiders

The frontrunners in Tunisia’s election revealed a deep desire among Tunisians to reform the political system. Voters narrowed down a field of twenty-four candidates to just two, Saied and Karoui, in the first round of the election in September. Both Saied and Karoui ran on anti-establishment platforms. The two out-competed many well-known politicians, some of whom were associated with former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali or with the revolution that overthrew him. 

Karoui, a media mogul with a populist agenda directed at aiding the poor, spent almost two months in jail for money laundering and tax fraud and was released only four days before the election. The timing of the imprisonment of a popular presidential candidate signalled to many an attempt by the political establishment to keep an outsider out of power. The arrest therefore only seemed to strengthen his chances in the election by allowing Karoui to portray himself as a political martyr and victim of government corruption. The willingness of voters to support a populist candidate who had been arrested showed great distrust for the current government.

Saied also campaigned against the establishment, pledging to reform a political system which has left many Tunisians feeling alienated. His stiff, uncharismatic presentation earned him the nickname “RoboCop,” yet it worked to his advantage by making him appear incorruptible. He is a staunch social conservative, who has no political party but drew support from the Islamist Ennahda party as well as secular, left-wing groups. His support was driven by youth voters clamoring for change, and he won 90 percent of the eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old vote. 

One of Saied’s greatest appeals lay in his call for systematic changes to Tunisia’s democratic system, the most noteworthy of which is the elimination of parliamentary elections. Critics of the plan worried that his underlying motivation is to diminish the public’s say within the government and expand his own. But Saied said that he plans to replace them with an increased emphasis on local government and institutions in order to increase civic participation—which has been hailed as a “radically democratic” proposal. He has said he envisions the public electing local councillors based on their character rather than their ideology. These councils would choose regional representatives, who would then pick national ones. This plan to empower local communities gave hope to many voters who felt betrayed by a political establishment that was unable to tackle the economic and social issues important to everyday people.

Tunisia’s Populist Revolt

The results of the presidential election can be understood as a protest against the status quo. But what exactly did Tunisian voters believe they were protesting? An unemployment rate of 15 percent, declining purchasing power, and a government deep in debt have all contributed to a political mood in which candidates who portray themselves as outsiders can thrive. 

Some of this discontent has fueled civil unrest and religious radicalization. More than 30,000 young Tunisians attempted to reach Iraq and Syria to fight for al-Nusra and the Islamic State. The assassinations of prominent leftist leaders in 2013, widely believed to be carried out by Islamic extremists, gave rise to a political crisis that raised serious concerns about the stability of Tunisia’s democracy and deepened divisions between secular and Islamist groups. Furthermore, hundreds were arrested in early 2018 during protests against financial reforms and tax increases. Many protestors believed that the government was attacking unions and could not deliver the revolution’s promises of “work, freedom, and dignity” because it was beholden to “brokers and foreign capital; all following the directions of the IMF.”

If the new system of government fails to deliver results in the way of increasing living standards for everyday people, Tunisia faces the looming possibility that the public’s faith in democracy and political liberty will fade. There is no guarantee that installing better political and governmental institutions will create a more civil, prosperous society in the short-term. If the public’s patience runs out, democracy could end up exposing Tunisia’s internal sickness, causing great instability and making the development of strong institutions and the economy even more difficult. 

A “RoboCop” Revolution

Saied’s victory demonstrates that Tunisians have not given up on the ideals they fought for in their 2010-2011 revolution, despite their frustration with the political class over the ongoing economic troubles and corruption plaguing the country. In the critical early years after a revolutionary transition to democracy, when the legitimacy of competitive politics is still up for debate, it is important that the new system prove its ability to handle the complaints of its people. Saied’s rhetoric shows commitment to addressing his country’s problems by fighting corruption and strengthening civil society and local governance. His pledge to “construct a new Tunisia, based on the constitution and rule of law” could push Tunisia closer to fulfilling the ideals common to all of the Arab Spring uprisings.

If successful, Saied’s reforms and leadership can grant more power to the people and realize their hopes of living in a truly participatory democracy. However, if he and the new parliament are unable to reverse Tunisia’s economic decline and address its social problems, further alienation from politics and civil unrest will ensue. The question remains if people’s faith in political liberty and democracy will last long enough to build and maintain enduring democratic institutions, a process that is neither swift nor seamless.

Surya Gowda is a Contributing Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic and has not been changed. The photographer was scossargilbert. The original image can be found here.

Surya Gowda


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