Hope, excitement and optimism are just a few of the terms that have animated the political discourse in Tunisia after the 2011 revolution. However, with a perpetual economic degradation that was amplified by the pandemic, the legitimate strife for “job, freedom and national dignity” has been overlooked by the succeeding governments who have left the political landscape in the country drenched in frustration, disillusionment and despair making the future of the world’s youngest democracy uncertain.

From a Nascent Democracy to a Nascent Dictatorship?

Since he froze and then dismantled the parliament in 2021, the current President Kais Saied has exhibited a rigid and alarming style of governance that has been at the center of mounting criticism from both national and international actors who have expressed concern about the fate of the democratic process in Tunisia.

Ruling by decree has been the backbone of Saied’s “constitutional authoritarian populism,” in other words, the president has devised constitutional formalities to legitimize his consolidation of power and gradually deconstruct the system of checks and balances under the pretense of ending the political paralysis in the country and giving power back to the people. In this framework, he did not only lay hold of the legislature, but also abrogated judicial independence by dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council. And under the same guise of protecting the interest of the people from the inefficiency and corruption of the old political apparatus, Saied created his own self-serving constitution, designed an electoral system unfavorable for political parties and in February this year, he launched a series of arbitrary arrests of more than 10 influential public figures including politicians, lawyers, an oligarch and a director of a leading radio station whom he branded as “terrorists” and accused of conspiring against the national security of the state.

And in his latest move to further encroach on human rights, he made Sub-Saharan African immigrants his next target and enemy. In an address to the National Security Council on the 21st of February, he claimed that “criminal arrangements had been made to change the demographic makeup of Tunisia,” stating that migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who represent less than 1% of the population are engaging in “violence, criminality, and unacceptable acts,” and thus they “must be stopped immediately.” His words resulted in weeks of violence, raids, arrests, and repatriation of hundreds of migrants against the backdrop of international reprimand and denunciation. The Chairman of the Commission of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, deemed the President’s comments as “shocking” and the organization has postponed a conference that was scheduled in Tunisia in March. The World Bank has also suspended future partnerships with the country and the IMF has paused negotiations for a $1.9bn financing agreement at a time when Tunisia is in dire need of financial relief.

Self-Encirclement and International Costs

His systematic power grab has aggravated his unpopularity and impeded his legitimacy: his self-isolating policies have culminated in a unified opposition that once was deeply fragmented, a shared international condemnation, and an increasingly estranged citizenry with only 11% participation in the legislative elections (the lowest ever recorded compared with 67% in 2014 and 41% in 2018); one might even call it a popular vote of no confidence for the president and his government.

The detached population is, in fact, the by-product of a detached presidency whereby political concerns ignore all the economic needs of achieving food and energy security, containing inflation that remains high at 10% and constraining unemployment that still stands at 16%.

The lack of an economic vision has not only caused a food crisis with empty shelves in supermarkets, but it has also pushed the country into a complex cycle of accumulated foreign debt and reliance on the bailout packages of international financial institutions like the IMF with fears of defaulting straining any further negotiation efforts. In 2021 alone, public debt comprised 80% of the country’s GDP as the government turned to foreign loans to sustain the economy. The president’s hate speech and chain of crackdowns have been described as a populist scheme to divert the attention of people and the media from the deteriorating conditions of the country and create a false threat to appeal to a significant segment of the Tunisian people.

But still, institutionalizing a one-person rule while offering no solid strategies for economic development for ordinary citizens has damaged Saied’s credibility not only on the international stage with investors backtracking, but also on the national level.

Gaining the Trust back

One of the most concerning manifestations of such crisis of confidence within the population is the accelerating exodus en masse of Tunisians towards Europe and other countries in North America and the Gulf in the search for a better future. Faced with meager employment potential and an inflated cost of living crisis caused by austerity measures and subsidy cuts on basic food items like sugar and rice, tens of thousands of students, professionals, and the destitute have opted to flee the country in both legal and undocumented ways, and the trend shows no signs of abating any time soon.

In this context, what is needed here is to strike a balance between both pushing to preserve the democratization process in Tunisia while also encouraging the development of concrete initiatives to help mend the economy. As already discussed, the biggest obstacle to democracy in Tunisia is not the president’s authoritarian tendencies, but in fact, it is the overwhelming estrangement of the normal Tunisian citizen from the state and their aversion to the political elite and the idea of formal politics altogether.

Democracy with a disinterested and demobilized populace is bound to fail, because with the absence of social movements, there is no power or authority that will be able to effectively call into question the president’s actions, hold him accountable for his mismanagement of the country’s affairs, and put pressure on the government to adopt tangible reforms. The only way to gain back the trust of the people is to outline a feasible economic plan and actually deliver on the aspirations that have always been at the heart of the revolution. Unfortunately, the president’s fixation on politics and his irresponsiveness to our economic exigencies have alienated international donors that can grant vital assistance to the country, and in doing so, the current situation has evolved into a one of hopelessness and despair.

It is of paramount necessity to reshape the domestic discourse from one that fosters toxic politics and mutual incrimination to one that is driven by the genuine need to uphold human rights, conserve human security and re-integrate human dignity into the national agenda so that development targets the betterment of human beings.