Tunisia’s Authoritarian Turn

[On July 19, 2022, the Cato Institute held a panel discussion on Tunisia’s Authoritarian Turn, moderated by Mustafa Akyol, Senior Fellow at Cato’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. These notes are a summary of the highlights of the discussion and are not intended to be a transcript of the event.

Radwan A. Masmoudi (Founder and President, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy)

That Tunisia is ripe for democracy (including human rights, transparency, etc.) is evidenced by its ranking for the past several years by Freedom House as the only Arab country to be ranked as totally (not partially) free. Its constitution, drafted after two years of consultation, past by 93% in the elected Constituent Assembly, including far left, center left, center right and far right. Islamists and secularists worked together not only parliament but in other sectors of government.  There were mistakes, including the law for electing the parliament that favored small parties over large parties. That served well in the drafting of the constitution and certainly in the lack of attention to economic reform, which left it helpless before the pandemic crisis.  On top of this was foreign intervention by Egypt, UAE, and others who feared the success of democracy in Tunisia would cause it to spread to their own lands. Egyptian intelligence has been running the show in Tunisia for the past few years.

Monica Marks (Prof. of Middle East Politics, New York University Abu Dhabi).
It came as a shock to most people when President Kais Saied took all three branches of government into his own hands. Tunisians felt that various combinations of political parties had never delivered and Tunisians were ready to return to the traditional model of a strong father figure at the head of government. He presented himself as a clean-handed political professor who would deliver politically or be overthrown by Tunisia’s strong civil society, but the civil and political society has been unable to stop him as he has consolidated authoritarian rule.  He has taken over various political institutions including the High Judicial Council which is the closest thing Tunisia had to a safeguard of judicial independence; he took over the elections council and placed his own people inside it; he uses military courts to prosecute his opposition; he has convicted Tunisia’s first elected president (now in exile in France) of treason in absentia and sentenced him to years of  imprisonment without due process. Now he has single-handedly authored a new constitution, summarily rejecting the advice of his own hand-picked advisors. His style of rule is sultanistic. His supporters claim he has no ideology, but he is closest to Qaddafi, promising to rule directly in response to the masses with no intermediary political or civil society. In practice his style is close to that of the deposed dictator Bourgiba.

Mustafa Akyol.  You are describing a process that has, in a milder form, taken place in Turkey over a much longer period of time.

Doug Bandow (Senior Fellow, Cato Institute).

The Tunisian people face a serious problem. The reforms in Tunisia were a response to events set in motion by a street vendor who set himself on fire. The democracy did not solve the underlying problem, but where in the world have these problems been resolved? Saied was elected because he properly criticized the failures of the previous governments, but he has used his election to dismantle democracy itself. All who deal with him say he is unresponsive and incapable of listening to anyone, even his hand-picked yes men.  He has produced an authoritarian constitution, designed to empower a singe person, himself, although once he leaves the scene any successor shall be able to use the system as he pleases. He has produced no answers for the problems he uses to justify his power grab, suggesting that he will himself face unrest.  Will he run to the Saudis and Emiratis, or the Egyptians? He is creating a system under which the people have no alternative to violence against him. Will the U.S. recognize its own limitations? No one wants to hurt the Tunisian people, but should it be providing aid to a government that is destroying democracy? The hard part will be to get the Biden administration’s attention when so much is going on, but this is an issue that should not be ignored. It has an impact far beyond Tunisia’s borders.

Akyol. Does the way forward include economic liberalization?

Masmoudi. We need a free market economy. The state has a role in guaranteeing education, health, etc., but what we have had in Tunisia has been a mishmash of the worst features of capitalism and socialism with corruption, monopolies, and people paid to do no work at all. The IMF is now emphasizing the need for economic reforms that have been known for over ten years, but I don’t think those reforms are possible without democracy, good governance, transparency, and accountability, things that are not possible in a dictatorship. Rashed Ghannouchi, the leader of the main opposition and the head of the former parliament is now under interrogation and faces a possibility of arrest.

Akyol. Thank you for mentioning Rashed Ghannouchi, for whom I have great respect not only as a political leader but as an Islamic thinker committed to not just electoral politics, but to civil liberties. In my book I quote him saying the response to disrespectful speech towards is Islam should be “better speech” rather than bans.

Masmoudi. He has written over twenty books on Islam and democracy, women’s rights, and women’s rights which have been translated into over twenty languages.

Akyol. What of the concern that in a Muslim democracy Islamists will win the elections and create illiberal regimes. There is some evidence this is happening in Turkey, but not in Tunisia. Is the argument that we need strongmen to prevent Islamists coming to power part of the discussion in Tunisia as it is in Egypt, Monica?

Marks. That is my main area of focus in Tunisia, and scholars are well aware of the fact that authoritarians have played on the fear of Islamist takeover to prevent any room for democracy. In the 1990’s Amin used that argument in Tunisia, but that argument is not evidence based. Not only did Ennahda not impose an agenda on the country, but when defeated in an election conceded the defeat. Dictatorships cannot win the battle of ideas against extremists, but a democratic system can. What would have worked in Tunisia would have been to partner with some of the people from the old regime to fight corruption and decrease the Byzantine red tape in the economy without cutting the social safety net entirely. Those reforms were not made and even much of Ennahda’s own base left the party over that failure. One of the most unrecognized reasons why we are at this tragic despotic juncture is the explosion of the Nidaa Tunis party that stood up to Ennahda and could have made Tunisia into a vital two-party system. President Beji Caid Essebsi had the political capital to undertake a lot these reforms but did nothing except give amnesty to corrupt people from former regimes. The obsession with the question of compatibility of Islam and democracy after the experience of Tunisia sucked up a lot of political bandwidth is really a tragic case of amnesia. It also overlooks Article 5 in Saied’s proposed constitution that says Tunisia is part of the Islamic ummah, something Ennahda did not entertain in their wildest dreams.

Akyol. Jonathan Allen asks, if Tunisia democratizes again what is to prevent another Saied from taking over?

Marks. Creating the institutions of checks and balances in democracy is essential. Had a Constitutions Court been created it could have been a check on Saied’s takeover, but Tunisia’s elected government’s one after another put it off.

Akyol. An anonymous Tunisian citizen asks what will the Biden administration reaction be to a recognition of Israel by Saied.

Bandow. I don’t think the President Biden would see that as of benefit to anyone but Israel after playing that card in Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t need more problems within his own party.

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






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