Why has the Tunisian Political Transition Deviated from its Initial Course?

Tunisia's democratic transition, which had raised great hopes in the Arab world, has failed to keep its promise. Since July 25, 2021, the country's new strongman, Kais Saïed, has dismantled the entire institutional edifice set up under the 2014 constitution.

Tunisia's democratic transition, which had raised great hopes in the Arab world, has failed to keep its promise. Since July 25, 2021, the country's new strongman, Kais Saïed, has dismantled the entire institutional edifice set up under the 2014 constitution with disconcerting speed and ease: independent bodies, parliament, local authorities, have all been done away with. More peculiarly, Saïed has also managed to break with a method of exercising power that used to involve intermediary bodies and civil society in political dialogue and in the implementation of laws and public policies.

 Marginalized democratic forces

What is most striking is that this disruption has been imposed without meeting any serious resistance. The demonstrations called for by the various political oppositions have failed to bring significant crowds out into the streets. The denunciations by civil society have remained unheard, and were nothing more than ineffective statements. How can this lethargy be explained, when many observers believed that Tunisian society had enough "democratic safeguards" against a relapse into authoritarianism?

At this point, the idea is beginning to be conceived that the "July 25 process" was made possible by the absence of any strong reaction by the "democrats" to Saïed's evening announcements that day. Timidity, hesitation, or critical support for the recourse to Article 80 allowed Saïed to grab absolute power. The reason for this huge political miscalculation is the "obsessive hostility" of part of the political and intellectual elite towards the Islamist Ennahdha party.

Indeed such a political attitude betrays a denial of actual facts by all those who share it. These analyses are based on a tendency that does exist in certain political and intellectual circles, but they give it a disproportionate impact on current events.

Now, let us indulge for a moment in political fiction: on the evening of July 25, 2021, after Saied's speech enforcing Article 80 and announcing the suspension of parliament, suppose that all opposition parties, as well as the unions and civil associations, had united into a common front, called for the restoration of the institutions, and expressed their firm opposition to the president's decisions. Would this fact alone have radically changed the balance of power? Would we have seen tens of thousands of Tunisians run into the streets to defend the 2014 constitution? Or would we still have seen the popular celebrations that took place on that evening?

It was already too late to slow down the course of events on July 25, and there was probably no other option available. Conditions were already propitious for the "success" of this new political scheme, favorized by many instances of misjudgment and structural phenomenon’s that had plagued Tunisian political life.

The original fault of the political elite: the failure to take Saïed seriously

If we are to point out the errors of judgment of the Tunisian political elite, we must go back to the second round of the 2019 presidential elections. Whether this was done through political opportunism or genuine opposition to Nabil Karoui, the overwhelming support for Saïed conferred on him a legitimacy which has enabled him to proceed with his entire political project today. Saïed had openly declared on several occasions that he wanted to change the existing political system and to carry out his own utopian scheme.

Moreover, he had the ambition to carry out his project without having his own group of members within the National Assembly. At the time, it was confidently assumed that the project was doomed to fail because of that incongruity. But there precisely lay the danger: Saïed's approach showed that he refused to play the game of the 2014 constitution and that he did not consider the latter as a legitimate reference.

The tragic mistake, shared as much by political decision-makers, as by civil society and foreign observers, was to have believed that 2014 marked the end of history. Indeed, a large part of the elites mentally clung to the illusion that the 2014 constitution was inescapable, and that there was no alternative to be conceived outside that framework. That is the reason why many did not take Kais Saïed's 2019 speech seriously and welcomed his election, even though he openly pledged to turn the tables and effect a radical break with the existing order.

The main political leaders tried to ride the populist wave, without anticipating that it would overpower them. They should have taken the new political strongman seriously and treated him with due consideration as an adversary, instead of believing that they could win him over to their own political side. In fact, as soon as the results of the first round of the presidential elections were known, they should have expressed their disapproval, and abstention should have been the watchword for the second round. This would have made their subsequent criticism of Saïed more credible and audible. Instead, the various warnings (especially when they came from Ennahdha) were only interpreted by citizens as hypocritical backtracking.

Demobilization and depoliticization

In addition to the errors of judgment of the political elite, the evolution of the current situation may be explained by referring to several in-depth trends:

-Extremely weak political parties, poorly anchored in the social fabric and discredited by their failures when they were in power. Tunisian parties today look more like associations of executives than popular organized bodies with solid militant bases likely to go out into the field and mobilize citizens.

-A civil society demobilized and weakened by several successive defeats (the failure to implement the COLIBE recommendations or the inability to influence Saïed and all his post-July-25 decisions). Only the UGTT seems to represent a counter-power; but though powerful, it is for the moment quite alone.

-A very strong depoliticization process of the whole Tunisian society that was gradually underway from the year 2014. We pay here in particular the price of the consensus reached between the Nidaa Tounes party and Ennahdha. The outrage caused by this consensus policy among many politically committed people (whether in the secular or Islamist camp), who felt that they were only pawns in the service of the ambitions of two "sheikhs" (Rached Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi), has been greatly underestimated. Relative political stability was achieved at the cost of the citizens' desertion of public affairs and their indifference to politics. Thus the resulting political vacuum now encourages absolutist trends and allows the government to go it alone.

Today, besides the urgent need to defend rights and liberties, it is important that democratic and progressive organizations (political parties, associations, unions) should learn a lesson from their failure and question themselves. Moreover, it is necessary to pursue several objectives: true internal democracy, a generational renewal, together with the abandonment of the between-themselves militancy. Finally a serious and pragmatic reflection must focus on the challenges to be met by Tunisia in the current international context (the crisis of the neo-liberal globalization, the worsening climate issues, the disruptive technological developments which will impact the working world), in a spirit free from the ethnocentric and stereotyped attitudes of the past years.

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