Will Tunisians rise up against Kais Saied?

Uprising in Tunisia against President Kais Saied?
Uprising in Tunisia against President Kais Saied?

Voter turnout for parliamentary elections in Tunisia at the end of January 2023 was so low it broke world records. Tunisians are dispirited and a wannabe authoritarian leads the country. What now for the endangered democracy? By Cathrin Schaer and Tarak Guizani

By Cathrin Schaer & Tarak Guizani

On 29 January, Tunisia took another step away from democracy and toward authoritarianism. The small Maghreb country has often been held up as the only true success story to emerge from the turmoil of post-2011 regional revolutions – after the period known as the Arab Spring, when the country's dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was removed from power by popular protests – with the potential to become a genuine democracy.

But on that Sunday two weeks ago, only 11.3% of the country's nearly 8 million eligible voters turned out for parliamentary elections. This was likely the world's lowest turnout for a parliamentary election, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Some locals have described it as a "ghost election".

Boycotts and brickbats 

One of the country's most popular political parties, Ennahda (Renaissance), previously the biggest in Tunisia's parliament, boycotted the elections, as did other opposition parties and civil society groups. They did so in part because parliament's powers had already been diminished as a result of changes undertaken by Tunisia's current president, Kais Saied. 

"We consider this political process, as instituted by Saied, to be illegitimate because of the low turnout," said Imed Khemiri, a spokesperson for Ennahda. "This has compounded an already complex situation. The majority of Tunisians have clearly rejected this path."

Tunisian President Kais Saied (image: Reuters)
يرى خبراء أن الإقبال الضعيف عن المشاركة في الانتخابات البرلمانية 2022 / 2023 يمثل استفتاء على شعبية الرئيس قيس سعيد في تونس: يحتكر سعيد السلطات في تونس منذ عام 2021، فيما يصفه البعض بأنه "انقلاب دستوري" زاحف. ومنذ ذلك الحين، يحكم سعيد (64 عاما) تونس بمرسوم رئاسي من طرف واحد. ولذلك نُظر إلى هذه الانتخابات البرلمانية على أنها اختبار مهم آخر لشرعية سعيد. ويبدو أن الإقبال المتدني للغاية، بالإضافة إلى التجاوزات التي أبلغ عنها مراقبو الانتخابات، قد دقت مسمارا آخر في نعش الديمقراطية الوليدة في تونس.

Saied took power in 2021 in what has often been described as a creeping "constitutional coup". Since then, the 64-year-old has been ruling Tunisia by unilateral presidential decree. 

The latest election was seen as yet another important test for Saied's legitimacy and the dismal turnout, as well as irregularities reported by election observers, seem to have hammered yet another nail into the coffin of Tunisia's fledgling democracy.

What happens next?

"What we can say with near total certainty is that Tunisia's short-term prognosis is very grim – economically, politically and socially," said Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi and an expert on Tunisia. Saied looks likely to remain in power, at least in the short term, and Tunisia's economy, which has been in trouble for some time, will continue to struggle, she said.

Ines Jaibi, a Tunisian lawyer and pro-democracy activist, is slightly more optimistic. She believes recent events, like the election, are bringing Tunisian opposition groups closer together. For instance, Jaibi pointed to an emerging initiative that attempts to forge closer ties between Tunisia's very influential General Labour Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Human Rights League, the country's bar association and several political parties.

"The democratic opposition [to Saied] still has many differences of opinion," she confirmed. "But, in light of the deteriorating economic situation, there are new dynamics too. We have one goal now, and that is to get rid of Saied's unilateral rule. The opposition is not dead," she argued. "In fact, it's getting stronger."

Saied popular at first

Saied was first elected president in 2019. In that election, voter turnout was 55%. In the summer of 2021, however, he suspended Tunisia's parliament, arguing that infighting among parliamentarians, political gridlock, corruption and economic crisis, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, required a total re-set. Since then, he has also taken control of the country's judiciary, electoral and anti-corruption authorities, and has increasingly jailed or persecuted his opponents.

When the former constitutional lawyer first initiated this course of action, many voters cheered him on. They thought Saied could resolve some of the country's most pressing problems. Even some of the political opposition and Tunisia's all-important General Labour Union seemed reluctant to criticise him openly. 

However, Tunisia's president has not managed to fulfil his promises. As a result, he has become less popular. Extremely low voter turnout for the first round of parliamentary elections last December, for municipal elections last March and for an important constitutional referendum in early 2022 underscored this fact.

Voting booth in Tunisia (image: AFP)
نسبة مشاركة متدنية للغاية في الانتخابات التونسية 2022 / 2023 - والجميع يتساءل عن كيفية الخروج من الأزمة: قاطع حزب  حركة النهضة الإسلامية، أحد أكثر الأحزاب السياسية شعبية في البلاد، الانتخابات. هذا الحزب هو الأكبر تمثيلا في البرلمان التونسي الذي علّق الرئيس قيس سعيد  أعماله. كما قاطعتها أحزاب المعارضة الأخرى ومجموعات المجتمع المدني. لقد قاطعت هذه الجهات الانتخابات لعدة أسباب، منها تقليص صلاحيات البرلمان، نتيجة للتغييرات التي أجراها الرئيس الحالي قيس سعيد. المتحدث باسم حركة النهضة قال: "نحن نعتبر هذه العملية السياسية، بهذا الشكل الذي أطلقها سعيد فيه، غير شرعية، بسبب ضعف المشاركة". وأضاف الخميري: "هذا الأمر فاقم الوضع المعقد أصلا. لذلك من الواضح أن أغلب التونسيين رفضوا هذا المسار".

That's what gives activists like Jaibi some confidence. "He promised serious reforms but we haven't seen anything," she said. "People have had it with these promises and that's why they boycotted the last two elections. They don't believe this regime is going to find an answer to their problems, especially their economic problems."

She hopes that means ordinary Tunisians will lend more support to Saied's opposition in the future, especially if opposition parties can agree to nominate just one person to run against Saied in the next presidential election, slated for 2024. "Doing that would be an important step," Jaibi stressed.

Economic fault lines growing

Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian political researcher and analyst based at New York's Syracuse University, has come to similar conclusions.

"Right now, the main feature of the political scene [in Tunisia] is a high level of fragmentation," he said, noting increased infighting among Saied's supporters. "That's the main outcome of these elections. This is going to make any kind of stabilisation – whether that is democratic or autocratic – close to impossible."

Whatever happens next, Hammami and other analysts agree Tunisia's faltering economy will play a major role.

Ever since the 2011 protests removed Tunisia's former autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power, the country has lurched from political uncertainty to economic crisis, and back again.

The World Bank reports that in the decade since Ben Ali's removal, Tunisia's economic growth and investment have declined. The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on important sectors like tourism, the impact of the war in Ukraine on global trade, inflation and higher foreign debt have all made things worse. Most recently, Tunisians have had to deal with shortages of basic goods like milk and butter, and have seen prices for staples like cooking oil double.

"[Tunisia] is in an uncomfortable situation, with genuine democracy suspended here since July 2021," said Murad al-Bakhti, 35, owner of a digital marketing company. "In addition, the president and his government have not provided any clear vision for overcoming this economic crisis."

A new Tunisian uprising?

The country's government is currently seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. A preliminary agreement on this was announced in October, though it has not yet been finalised. But even if the bailout does happen, conditions around it may well include curbs on state spending, and austerity measures like cutting subsidies for the country's poorest.

Empty supermarket shelves in Tunisia (image: picture-alliance)
أرفف المتاجر في تونس صارت تخلو من بعض السلع الأساسية كالحليب والزبدة: يرى محللون أن "السمة الرئيسية للمشهد السياسي (في تونس) حاليا هي وجود مستوى عالٍ من التشرذم" مشيرين إلى خلافات متزايدة بين أنصار سعيد. "هذه هي النتيجة الرئيسية لهذه الانتخابات. الأمر الذي سيجعل أي نوع من الاستقرار - سواء كان ذلك ديمقراطيا أو استبداديا - أقرب إلى المستحيل" ويتفق المحللون على أن الاقتصاد التونسي المتعثر سيلعب دورا رئيسيا. ومنذ أن أطاحت احتجاجات 2011 بالرئيس السابق زين العابدين بن علي تحولت تونس من حالة عدم اليقين السياسي إلى الدخول في أزمة اقتصادية، ثم العودة مرة أخرى إلى حالة عدم اليقين السياسي. ووفق البنك الدولي فقد شهد العقد الذي أعقب الإطاحة له تراجع النمو الاقتصادي والاستثمار. كما أن تأثير جائحة كورونا على قطاعات مهمة مثل السياحة وأثر الغزو الروسي لأوكرانيا على التجارة العالمية و التضخم وارتفاع الديون الخارجية كلها عوامل جعلت الأمور أسوأ وأسوأ. ومؤخرا اضطر التونسيون لمعايشة نقص في السلع الأساسية مثل الحليب والزبدة، وشهدوا تضاعف أسعار المواد الأساسية مثل زيت الطهي.

"Despite abundant evidence, Saied appears oblivious to the warning signs of a looming social explosion – an explosion that will undoubtedly topple his dictatorship," as Tunisian academic Haythem Guesmi wrote in an op-ed for news outlet Al Jazeera after this weekend's elections, adding, "Another Tunisian uprising is in the making."

"The economy is Saied's number one vulnerability," NYU professor Marks agreed. She believes Saied is an "ineffective dictator" who stands out because he hasn't tried very hard to shore up local support for his regime, or to resolve problems – such as economic ones – that could eventually topple him.

Currently, Tunisia's presidents are elected to five-year terms, meaning Saied would be up for re-election in 2024 in a vote that could potentially mark a turning point. On the other hand, Marks added, the Tunisian opposition is not yet united enough to push Saied out of power. "We have not reached critical mass yet in terms of an opposition that can work together coherently," she explained. "We may yet see that, but it's not here yet."

"And," she added, "at the same time, ordinary Tunisians are just exhausted. They're only just hanging on, more preoccupied with paying the rent or finding some milk to buy. They don't see any inspiring political alternatives [to Saied] and right now, to them, the country feels rudderless, grim and exhausting."

Cathrin Schaer & Tarak Guizani

© Deutsche Welle 2023