It is unlikely that even the most pessimistic assessments of Tunisia’s democratization could have accurately predicted what has befallen the North African country, or how much worse things might get in its increasingly bleak future.
Once deemed the only relative “success” of the Arab Spring, years of political paralysis, economic stagnation and citizen apathy are the malignant legacy of cherished democratic aspirations indefinitely deferred.
The raucous public furor that once toppled autocrats can now only muster feverish transcriptions of the country’s daily descent into madness, owing to President Kais Saied’s growing “folie de grandeur” and the opposition’s incredible knack for making a lot of noise about doing nothing.
Lengthy think pieces, dripping with scholarly inquisition and excitedly outlining how the Arab world’s first true democracy was going to function, are no more. Nowadays, the only remaining fixation is with picking at Tunisia’s suppurating wounds and trying to diagnose its demise in hopes of finding some as yet unknown “fix” — a futile exercise that simply results in impotent denouncements until the next escalation. Rinse and repeat.
The uncomfortable “truth,” however, is that Tunisia’s maladies are simply another variation on the Arab public’s obsession with entrusting their ideals to what, at first, seems to be the least-worst option. Recent arrests and crackdowns have all but buried the dreams Tunisians had after 2014; an almost natural consequence of delegating everything to a little known populist “outsider” in the hope he would single-handedly remake a very broken system, the wonky foundations upon which a future resilient democracy was to be built.
But democracy is not just about lengthy procedural affairs, elections, universal suffrage and open clashes between political formations in service to the betterment of a nation. Democracy is institutions, laws, norms, policies, education, engagement and participation, as well as the mobilization of a polity to choose its governors and the means by which the governed can hold them accountable — plus more besides. A lot more.
It is tireless, often thankless, repetitive work, complicated further by, in Tunisia’s case, the public repeatedly deferring to those more interested in clinging to power rather than exercising it.
Democracy is an undertaking that is as frustrating and exhausting as it is necessary, not only to safeguard it in its most basic form but also to enshrine a commitment by all, opposition and incumbents alike, to respect the will of voters, ensure seamless transfers of power, uphold the rule of law and promote civil liberties, as well as defending the inalienable rights to have those freedoms.
It is clearly not a “fire and forget” ordeal that leaves someone, or something, else to deal with the messy bits, nor is the voting booth a miraculous vending machine that dispenses a fantastical wonderland, all for the price of a ballot paper.
Tunisians are hopefully learning all of this, or they risk repeating the same mistakes that just nurture the next generation of aspiring despots and demagogues. After all, whenever history repeats itself, the price always goes up.
In the past two years, Saied has not only shut down the parliament, itself paralyzed by petty squabbles. He has also seized most powers, self-empowered by a constitution that was hastily written behind closed doors and ratified in a shoddy referendum that barely mustered a 30 percent turnout.
In a reflection of the suffocating lassitude permeating the public, most Tunisians opted to vote with their feet both in the referendum and the parliamentary elections late last year. To Saied’s “L’Etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”) brand of unilateralism, however, failure to say “No” is the same as saying “Yes.” Meanwhile, actual dissent will get the dissenter hauled before a tribunal.
Carthage Palace now rules Tunisia by decree in a strange hyper-presidency that is quickly consolidating itself, unperturbed by record-low turnouts, threats of disruptive protests by once-tacit backers and the constant finger-wagging from abroad.
Meanwhile, the public continues to suffer, as months-long shortages caused by a crisis in public finances intensify, forcing authorities to tighten the noose on ordinary Tunisians to avoid bankruptcy and secure a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Seemingly unfazed by any of this, the regime has gone on to unleash a campaign of arbitrary arrests, while military tribunals target civilians for the “crime” of publicly criticizing the president. Even lawyers, considered the last remaining defense in an era of the diminishing rule of law and growing illiberalism, are quickly earning the ire of an unhinged regime.
As if mocking the notion of separation of powers was not enough, the courts have become tools for repression rather than engaged inquiries to ascertain the causes of dissent and course-correct, while that legitimate dissent is increasingly policed by measures originally designed to combat terrorism.
There is no recourse for the falsely accused and arbitrarily arrested, under the presumption of guilt, since the judiciary is no longer independent. Eventually, the media will be forced to self-censor to avoid unfriendly visits from surprisingly compliant security forces.
Even migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa have become casualties of Saied’s escalation, as he resorts to bizarre conspiracies depicting them as part of a criminal enterprise that is trying to alter Tunisia’s demographic composition, in an attempt to divert attention from his alarming crackdown on dissent.
Resorting to the outlandish in an attempt to scapegoat failures or redirect the public’s ire is a familiar tactic employed by despots to defuse perceived threats while simultaneously tightening their grip on power. It will not stop at targeting desperate migrants fleeing conflict, persecution and economic hardship, nor public figures who dare oppose the regime. It will only get worse because the one thing that despots never run out of is “enemies.”
Tunisia’s woes must shatter the myth of the self-aggrandizing, “benevolent” dictator that clings to populism and has all the answers to society’s ills. It can only be hoped that Tunisians will revive their once-cherished hopes for democracy and better governance because, for all its warts, most Arabs still maintain that it is the better mechanism for sharing and exercising power in plural societies.
Failure to do so, however, means that even after Saied is gone a new autocrat will emerge who is well-versed in resorting to illiberalism, and even outright criminality, to usurp power, monopolize the privilege it affords and sate the resulting megalomania by demanding the utmost obedience.