Tunisia’s Democracy Under Threat

[These are my notes from the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy program on “Tunisia’s Democracy Under Threat: What is at Stake for the MENA region?” held on October 26, 2021, moderated by Khalil Jahshan (Executive Director of the Arab Center in Washington DC). These notes summarize my impression of selected highlights of the presentations and are not an attempted transcription. I have retained the first person voice in my paraphrase for convenience. I bear responsibility for any errors.]

Jaouhar Ben Mbarek (Prof. of Constitutional Law and one of the main leaders of the anti-coup movement in Tunisia): President Kais Saied’s power grab was enabled by Tunisia’s failure to deal with the economic and social issues that gave rise to the Arab spring.  The progress towards democratic government did not improve the daily lives of the Tunisian people. Saied assumes that the public toleration of his authoritarian exercise of executive power in the absence of a counterbalancing legislature to this point will continue in the future. He refuses to establish the constitutional court on the grounds that it can only be done by constitutional amendment yet the constitution cannot be amended in the absence of a constitutional court. He interprets his position as head of the armed forces as meaning that he is also head of the security forces. He would take away direct election of the legislators at the same time that he institutes direct election of the president. A vocabulary of demonization has arisen unseen since the fascist era in which he describes his political opponents as demons who must be stoned as the demons at Mecca are stoned. Now that his populist narrative that his will is the will of the people has been challenged by the rise of popular movements in opposition to his rule, he has switched to a narrative in which he is the state itself.

Radwan Masmoudi (President of The Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy, Washington DC): When Saied outlined his intentions during his campaign I thought it was a joke because it seemed impossible for him to dissolve parliament, nor could he get the army, which has historically stayed out of Tunisian politics, to support him. However, with promises of logistical and financial support of Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, he has moved forward with his plans.  Phase one, on July 25 was a “temporary” closing of parliament for some unidentified crisis for one month. On August 23, he indefinitely extended the closing of the parliament. On September 22 he suspended the constitution completely, openly ruling by decree, denying any other party a legal right to challenge his decrees.

Nader Hashemi (University of Denver): The axis of Arab autocracies backing the coup are allies of the U.S., and some of them have become allies of Israel under the “Abraham Accords.” The rise of the dictatorship has been hailed by these quarters as a victory over “the Muslim Brotherhood.” Saied no longer needs to depend on direct aid from the U.S. or the E.U.  There will be strings to the aid: no return to democracy and the complete removal of the Ennahda Party from politics. While these countries are implacable enemies of democracy, they are also strong allies of the U.S. which provides a path for U.S. pressure. [Which Joe Biden will never exert, because of his support of Israel-IDA.]

Sarah Leah Wilson (Executive Director, Democracy for the Arab World Now, Washington DC): The U.S. government has deliberately avoided labeling what happened as a coup because they don’t want to be forced to suspend aid. Contrast this to Biden’s response to Sudan in which the Biden administration has quickly announced suspension of $17 million in assistance. Perhaps Biden would defend the distinction by the relative absence of popular resistance to the Tunisian coup. Democracy in Tunisia did not produce desired economic consequences, but Tunisian unions and business associations are beginning to realize that Saied is producing no improvement there either. We advocate that the U.S. should suspended assistance because the bulk of that assistance was instituted as a reward for the now-aborted transition to democracy.

Jaouhar Ben Mbarek: Ten years of democracy building were insufficient to establish a broad culture of democracy. The wide majority of Tunisians are not concerned with institution building; they were looking for an improvement in their daily lives. Instead of a decentralization of economic power, we remained in an economy dominated by a number of aristocratic families. This was accompanied by a polarization between the political Islamists and the secularists that permitted the enemies of democracy to blame Islamists for the failures and convince the public that the fall of democracy was an acceptable price to pay for the destruction of political Islam.

Radwan Masmoudi: We did not yet have  democracy in Tunisia. Building a democracy requires at least twenty years, so we cannot blame democracy for the corruption and inefficiency and bureaucracy that was still in place. A lot of economic reforms are needed, but they also take time.

Nader Hashemi: The existence of democracy anywhere in the Arab world is an existential threat to the authoritarian states in the region. The Emiratis and the Saudis have repeatedly warned Western diplomats that socio-political pluralism will lead to chaos in the region.

Sarah Leah Wilson: If there is a big enough economic bailout, the new prime minister may have a chance to survive, but the installation of a woman prime minister by these means is an insult to all who want to see women in elected positions of power.

Radwan Masmoudi: The intelligence communities of the U.S. and the E.U. have the proof of the foreign intervention into Tunisia. A friend in the Tunisian government has confirmed the influx of Egyptians military officers in Tunis. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain sent representatives to Tunis within days of the coup to express their support.

Nader Hashemi: I can show you a Wikileaks cable arguing that you cannot allow democracy in the Arab world.

Radwan Masmoudi: We have many who are disappointed by the lack of economic growth, but remember that the Coronavirus has contributed to the decline of the economy in the past year and a half. Democracy has to deliver, but it takes time. You wouldn’t ask a one-year-old baby, why have you not written a book or built a house? The Tunisians I know are not going to give up this fight. They love their freedom and their right to criticize the government. Even North Korea has a parliament. There is a democratic way to resolve this dispute.  Instead of propaganda polling, have elections and let people choose.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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