For those of us who witnessed firsthand Tunisia’s progress toward democracy during the decade from 2011 to 2021, the setbacks during the past year have been hard to watch.
I was the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia from 2012 to 2015, and I had a front-row seat for the country’s democratic transition. There were good days and bad days along Tunisia’s path to democracy, but over time the results were impressive. In the past year, however, the country reversed course and nearly all of the gains of the previous decade were lost. In a referendum on July 25, with notably low turnout, Tunisia adopted a new constitution with little debate or public input, cementing virtually all power in the hands of one man, President Qaïs Saied. Why did Tunisia change direction so abruptly, and what lies ahead for the birthplace of the Arab Spring?
Looking Back: It’s the Economy
Tunisia’s transition to democracy began on December 17, 2010, when fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi took his own life after humiliation and mistreatment by local officials in Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi’s death sparked protests across the country, leading to the flight of then president Zine al-Abedin bin Ali on January 14, 2011. This popular revolution was rooted in widespread resentment against the oppressive Ben Ali regime and discontent with economic hardship, especially in the interior of the country and poorer neighborhoods of Tunis. Over the following three years, Tunisia’s transition experienced much turmoil, but by 2014 it produced a democratic constitution based on a broad political consensus and elected a president and parliament in free and fair elections. However, even as the country addressed its political problems, it avoided dealing seriously with the difficult economic and social situation, sowing the seeds of future popular discontent.
Tunisia’s economic problems are structural in nature and rooted in policies implemented over many decades. These include overregulation of the domestic economy, barriers to competition and domestic investment, and inefficient state involvement in key industrial sectors. As a result, the country has been habitually unable to produce enough well-paying jobs for its growing population. In the period after the revolution, successive governments avoided implementing politically difficult structural economic reforms and relied heavily on foreign borrowing, including loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Western donors. These foreign loans came with conditions demanding economic reform, but the conditions were not rigorously enforced by Western lenders who were eager at that time to support Tunisia’s fledgling democracy. As a result, Tunisia’s debt burden grew while job creation and economic growth continued to languish.
Over time, popular discontent increased, rooted again in economic hardship, but this time directed at the democratically-elected governments and the political parties behind them, especially the Islamist party Ennahda that held the largest number or seats in parliament for much of the decade after the revolution. In 2019, this discontent fueled the candidacy of Saied, an outsider with no previous political experience, who was elected president in a landslide victory.
The weak economy was not the only reason that many Tunisians turned away from democracy. Tunisians had little direct experience with democracy before 2011; the country had only two leaders before the revolution and elections in those days were generally rigged in favor of the ruling party. Also, the new institutional framework established after the revolution was weak. The parliament, for example, was elected based on a law that facilitated the proliferation of small parties. The 2019 election resulted in 20 parties entering parliament, thirteen of which received less than 3 percent of the vote. The fractured Assembly that emerged was unable to accomplish much and made itself an easy target against which Saied directed the public’s anger. Another key institution, the Constitutional Court, never came into being due to years-long disagreements over its membership. The court might have blocked Saied’s extra-constitutional steps in 2021 had it existed, but it did not.
Looking Ahead: It’s Still the Economy
In the aftermath of the referendum in July that approved the new constitution, Saied seems intent on consolidating his new hyper-presidential system, despite the low turnout in the vote and the serious concerns expressed about the process by many Tunisian observers and foreign governments. Next up for Saied will be the promulgation of a new election law that will reportedly do away with party lists. The result is likely to be an even more fractured parliament with less power than its predecessor. With Saied already firmly in control of the government, the judiciary, and the security forces, and with civil society under great pressure, there will be few if any checks left on the president’s powers.
Yet the main problem facing Saied going forward is the same problem that has bedeviled Tunisia for years: the economy. The perennial condition of slow growth and weak job creation is now exacerbated by the international disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. If Saied cannot get the economy growing and create jobs, he will soon face the same popular discontent that his predecessors did. With the country already deeply in debt and having difficulty paying for essential imports, Tunisia again needs the support of the IMF and Western governments.
However, Saied is caught between foreign lenders still demanding structural reforms—and now less inclined to support a country that is headed toward one-man rule—and key domestic constituencies, such as the Tunisian General Labor Union, which is still adamantly opposed to any economic reforms. For this difficult task, Saied is supremely ill-suited, given his complete lack of an economic background and his unwillingness to compromise.
The difficult task that Saied faces is complicated by the new constitutional system he has brought into being. With all power now concentrated in his hands, there are no longer any established channels for the people to express their displeasure. The new parliament, when it comes into being, will be weak and fractured. Political parties, a key institution through which political energy is channeled in democracies, will be deemphasized or in some cases possibly outlawed. That will leave only the street as a venue for popular dissatisfaction to manifest itself, a dangerous prospect for the years ahead.
Tunisia seems to be back to square one, having come full circle only to find itself facing the same problems it had over a decade ago. In the current situation, it is hard to be optimistic about the future, at least in the near term. But we can hope that over time the pendulum will swing back toward democracy, which still offers Tunisians the best chance for the freedom and dignity they demand and deserve.