Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, is now an autocracy. Indeed, since his July 25 power grab, President Kais Saied has all but declared himself a dictator. Saied followed a well-trodden path to absolute power: he sacked the government, suspended parliament, jailed his opponents, cut opposing political parties’ and groups’ access to state television, weaponised state security forces against disgruntled masses, attacked the independent judiciary, and started ruling by decree.
On January 14, for example, an anti-Saied protester, Rhida Bouziane, died and many other Tunisians were arrested or jailed during a brutal crackdown by the pro-Saied police forces on peaceful anti-government protests. On December 23, former president and Saied critic Moncef Marzouki was sentenced in absentia to four years in prison for “assaulting” the security of the state.
A week later on December 31, Noureddine Bhiri, a senior leader of the dissolved parliament’s largest party Ennahdha, was arrested by plainclothes officers on suspicion of “terrorism”. The former justice minister has been refusing food and medicine since his arrest and is believed to be in critical condition. Days after Bhiri’s arrest, in a clip broadcast on the presidency’s official Facebook page, Saied condemned senior officials in the judiciary and accused them of being linked to what he described as “criminal gangs”. While he did not name Bhiri, the president also emphasised that “whoever commits a crime will be tried like other citizens.”
UN Human Rights Office Spokesperson Liz Throssell has since publicly condemned Bhiri’s imprisonment, pointing out that the incident echoes “practices not seen since the era of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali” and that it raises “serious questions regarding abduction, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary detention”. Furthermore, like most dictators, Saied does not seem to have a clear and inclusive plan to bring Tunisia’s crumbling economy back on track. So far, his only course of action seems to be silencing critical voices, begging the international community for help, and hoping for the best.
After initially delaying talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the urgently needed bailout package, and accusing both the IMF and the World Bank of “hypocrisy” for backing corrupt political and economic lobbies, for example, Saied recently flipped his discourse and now seems to be arguing that only an emergency lifeline from the IMF can resolve Tunisia’s devastating crisis. He is refusing to respond to those who are criticising him for failing to fulfil the promise he made back in July to salvage the country’s failing economy. Rather than engaging in constructive debate, he is peddling fake news about the “corrupt judiciary sector” and political opponents who “ruined the country”, launching frenzied attacks against anyone who dares to point to his failures, and repeating false promises. He repeatedly accuses his opponents of being “cancer cells” and “traitors” who betrayed the ideals of the 2011 revolution and “sold the country”.
While repeatedly borrowing from established dictators’ playbooks, however, Tunisia’s new dictator is lacking many qualities that allow autocrats to be successful and hold on to power for long periods. His public appearances, for example, are often clumsy. He does not communicate with the public regularly through local media and when he does, he often appears angry and frustrated. On the rare occasions that he invites political and public leaders to his office, he fails to turn these gatherings into PR opportunities – he does not share the agenda or contents of these meetings with the public. Actually, the public learns more about Saied’s plans for Tunisia through announcements by the French presidency than his own statements and speeches.
Furthermore, merely months after his power grab he no longer has loyal allies and supporters who are willing and able to guide him and help him hold on to power. His chief of staff and closest adviser Nadia Akacha, for example, recently announced her resignation due to “fundamental differences of opinion” over the country’s “best interests”. The president is also losing his base: the once widely shared hope that Saied could be the one to put Tunisia back on the path to democracy and stability is slowly dissipating. Tunisians have grown frustrated with the president’s silence, excuses and delay tactics. For all of his slogans about “the will and power of people” and sovereignty, he has shown little respect to the right of Tunisians to be informed about where their country is heading. This has led almost all political parties that initially supported his July 25 power grab to publicly criticise his measures, and start warning that the country may be sliding back into autocracy.
President Saied seems to be aware of his declining popularity, so he has been taking some steps to reintroduce himself to Tunisia and the world as a progressive and reformist. Most prominently, to achieve this goal, he appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane, a little-known university engineer who worked with the World Bank, as the country’s first female prime minister, nearly two months after his power grab.
The appointment of Tunisia’s and the Arab world’s first female prime minister should have been a historical moment, but under Saied’s direction and guidance it turned into another farce. Prime Minister Bouden not only showed no political autonomy or decisiveness since her appointment, she did not even give a single public speech or make an announcement. Local news channels did not invite her for an interview either, likely in fear of a backlash from Saied. For all intents and purposes, Tunisia’s first female prime minister is a puppet Saied uses to try and legitimise his regime and create the illusion that under his rule Tunisia is a feminist, progressive democracy.
While Saied undoubtedly was the one who took Tunisia off the democratic path, he alone is not responsible for the country’s authoritarian slide. The US, France and the European Union, who all like to advertise their support for democracy in the Middle East at every opportunity, also contributed significantly to the current situation in Tunisia. After Saied’s power grab on July 25, despite countless warnings from democrats in Tunisia and beyond, they did not take a firm stance against the president or pressure him to facilitate an immediate return to democracy.
As days passed and Saied made his autocratic intentions even clearer, these countries continued bankrolling his oppressive regime and ensured his survival. They donated COVID-19 vaccines to Tunisia and allowed Saied to present this to the public as a political victory, and thus helped him gain further support and legitimacy.
They repeatedly secured urgent help needed by Saied’s regime to finance the budget and debt repayments and funded high-profile multimillion-dollar projects without any concrete political demands attached. By overtly and covertly supporting Saied’s regime, Western powers helped establish a power imbalance between the different political forces in Tunisia, prevented an immediate, organic and fair political transition after the July 25 power grab, and made Saied’s survival as a strongman possible.
But it is not too late to save Tunisia’s young democracy. Western governments can still change course, attach political demands to their financial and logistical aid packages, and pressure Tunisia’s new autocrat to swiftly hold elections and allow the formation of a new parliament. Saied does not have the political capital and expertise to put Tunisia back on a clear path to democracy and tackle its economic woes. Continuing to appease President Kais Saied and his authoritarian agenda will only bring more suffering and crisis to the country.