Why is democracy failing in Tunisia?

Tunisian President Kais Saied (Reuters)

Tunisia was the rare bright spot of the Arab Spring: the only country to emerge with a functioning and somewhat durable democracy. Then, this past Sunday, President Kais Saied invoked Article 80 of the country’s constitution to declare a national emergency. He announced through state and social media that he had removed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended Parliament for thirty days, and nullified the legal immunity of parliamentary members, appointing himself the Prosecutor General. The Tunisian military physically prevented members of parliament and government employees from entering the parliamentary building, as Mechichi declared his intention to hold a cabinet meeting despite his apparent dismissal. All the while, supporters of Saied took to the streets to celebrate.

President Saied is undermining liberal democracy in Tunisia, and he might be doing it with a popular mandate.

What’s kept democracy from flourishing?

The so-called Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010, when a Tunisian merchant named Mohammed Bouazizi sparked sweeping demonstrations by setting himself on fire to protest the Ben Ali regime. The Arab Spring captured the world’s attention as people across the Middle East and North Africa took to the streets and social media to call for human rights and democracy. Tunisia overthrew its autocratic government and held free parliamentary elections in 2011 for the first time ever. The United States and the European Union sent Tunisia billions of dollars to help it build democratic institutions and an open economy.

Over the course of the following decade, as countries like Egypt reverted to autocracy, Tunisia appeared to be the exception. Then this year, as crises mounted and the economic situation took a turn for the worse, the young democracy faced its greatest challenges yet. In 2019, youth unemployment reached nearly 35%. Thanks to Covid-19, the economy shrank by 8% in 2020. In addition, Tunisia has struggled to contain the virus, with deaths and infection rates overwhelming its public health system and the vaccine rollout plagued by chaos.

As Tunisia limped along without clear solutions to their significant problems, the parliament lost popularity. The president, on the other hand, has thus far been able to avoid blame for Tunisia’s woes. Saied was elected in 2019 on a platform that styled him as “the scourge of a corrupt, incompetent elite,” and has enjoyed a reputation of incorruptibility as a political outsider. While Tunisia’s government faltered, Saied has maintained his standing. Now, what the opposition is describing as a coup was met with jubilation in the streets of Tunis. 

This week’s Tunisian crisis reveals an uncomfortable truth about democracy: it will only last so long as it’s delivering a better life to the average citizen. For a new democracy to survive, it has to do more than resist invasion and collect taxes. Democracy must be effective––in protecting its citizens’ health, promoting positive economic policies, and resisting terrorism. When it fails to meet citizens’ expectations, it’s liable to fail completely. 

Tunisian democracy is not dead yet, and there’s still hope that President Saied could restore parliament, walk back his emergency powers, and bolster Tunisia’s young democratic institutions. Unfortunately, it seems a significant portion of the public may be all too willing to accept his rise as an autocrat. Without a popular movement to protect democracy, its fate could be sealed, and the last hope of the Arab Spring could be lost.

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Narration: Writing & Policy Associate James Lewis